With decades growing his knowledge of self-building, Mark Brinkley shares some of the surprises, challenges and joys involved.
Interview with Mark Brinkley
Mark Brinkley has been immersed in the world of self builds and renovations since the early 1980s, working firstly as part of a group who were building and renovating properties in and around Cambridge, before completing his first self build in the 90s. In the years since then he has been writing up this knowledge in articles and the phenomenally popular Housebuilder's Bible.
For the last 18 months, and 25 years after his first, he has been concentrating on his second self build.
Have a go and see what happens!
This was the philosophy Mark and his companions started out using. Rather than coming to the construction industry from a traditional route of apprenticeships, they each turned their hands to the various trades with a ‘give it a go' approach, learning on the job and taking courses. The one trade they each attempted but decided they should leave to the experts was plastering!
Mark considers themselves to have been “gifted amateurs,” rather than as good a builders as they probably thought they were at the time!
Being the client was a bigger job than anticipated
Having accumulated building plots thinking that he and his partner would become property developers, the housing market downturn in 1991/92 left him in a position where, in order to gain more space for his family, he had to build on one of those plots for himself. Mark found all the decision making incredibly taxing, with the realisation of what a big job being the client is. While there were textbooks on how to build a house, what he couldn't find was guidance on what you should put into a house and what makes a good house. The subsequent success of his book, Housebuilder's Bible, led him to concentrate entirely on his writing.
“I’ve spent years going around interviewing people, visiting businesses and looking at houses, but actually doing the process, I’d forgotten what a lot of hard work it is and how taxing it is. Even with this whole lifetime’s worth of knowledge about what you can and can’t put in a house.”
It was important to challenge themselves with their second self build
Together with his architect, Mark has wanted to challenge themselves with this build and experiment with new techniques and materials, like the metal roofing and external cladding. Luckily the team of tradespeople working with him have been up to the task, and engaged and enthusiastic in their undertaking of it.
The street view was a key element of the design
The design for this build went through three or four iterations and liaising with the planners, conservation officer, and keeping neighbours on side, before coming to a final design they were happy with. What was important to Mark was the street view and trying to create a wow factor, with the amenity of the building being considered later.
The old warehouse that was originally on the site was an oblong box with a pitched roof. Mark's build covers the same footprint, just with a little extra height. It also probably would have had a pitched roof, but neighbour's complaints that they wouldn't be able to see the chimneys on the other side of the house meant they had to work through a complicated process of giving it a flattened profile.
Theirs is a tight site with no space around it, so all materials have had to be kept either in the house or garden. If work needs doing on one room, it means moving everything out to another room or somewhere else. This has caused challenges when it comes to trying to find things!
“One of the old sayings is that it’s the biggest shopping trip of your life. It’s also the biggest cleaning session of your life!”
Despite huge amounts of pre-planning, Mark and Mandy have remained open to change and been flexible about the decision making as they go along. One example of this has been with the living room ceiling. Originally drawn as a plastered ceiling, they decided they would prefer something more interesting and have been experimenting with lime-washed Douglas Fir. With the leftover planks they have been making slatted shelves for the airing cupboard.
At the time of the interview Mark and Mandy had only moved in a few days earlier, so it will take a while before they get to grips with and know how effective their solar panels will be at providing sufficient electricity and hot water for the house. Using PVs seemed sensible, rather than packing in more insulation and having even smaller rooms.
Being an urban build has presented extra challenges, with consideration about traffic management, getting skips and cranes in and out and deliveries blocking roads.
Keep a very careful eye on spending
On this project Mark is acting as the builder, as a service company with accounts at various builders' merchants. Some of the big subcontracts, like the roofing, he has put out to tender, but others are a case of searching for suppliers, building a relationship with them and negotiating on price.
Often the price will be based on a day rate, which Mark has always found to work well and feels has not been taken advantage of.
“If you do it on a price, you could end up arguing about the extras, this changed and that changed. I want the freedom to come in and make changes.”
To a certain extent, Mark is a believer in the saying that if you're on time, you're on budget. He is currently a little over-time and a little over-budget. He estimates his overspend is likely to be around 5%, which will come from within their contingency sum.
Mark recommends starting out with a generous budget and keeping on top of spending. His meticulous spreadsheet of costs currently extends to nearly 600 rows of data!
More options available has made decision making more complicated
Mark doesn't believe that the actual process of building has changed much since Victorian times, with people getting involved and solving problems. What has surprised him though is the amount of red tape that has been introduced in the last 25 years, with the planning process being much more time consuming and every job being riddled with planning conditions.
Mark finds that the range of options available to him now is phenomenally larger and more complicated than it was back in the 90s. Even with the seemingly simple task of selecting light switches there are dozens of different styles to choose from.
“You actually get fatigued by these ridiculous decisions you’ve got to make, when actually all you want is a functioning house.”
Building this house has, Mark says, taught him how little he knows:
“I do know a lot about it, but without having been doing it continually for twenty years, you get a very different perspective commenting on it, writing it and interviewing people. There’s nothing quite like doing it to realise you’re at the cutting edge. And also, finding out where the bounds of your knowledge are.”
Mark does find that the process of self build takes over your life, what with employing people on a daily rate and wanting to make sure the money is spent properly, to having many a sleepless night!
Thankfully he has been keeping plenty of notes throughout this project and at some point will look to pass on this knowledge with a new edition of the Housebuilder's Bible.
Find out more
Visit Mark Brinkley's blog
Follow Mark Brinkley on Twitter
Download a transcript of the interview with Mark Brinkley.
The Hub update
Our video case study at Buckinghamshire Passivhaus is coming towards the end, but this month we have a new episode about plastering the interior and how the brick slips will be attached.
We also have a new course on developing house designs.
And our guest on this month's progress call is Adam Dadeby from Luft MVHR.
If you're not yet a member then find out how to become one at houseplanninghelp.com/join.