Donal O’Leary tells us about his self-build in Ireland and shares advice for a successful project.
Interview with Donal O'Leary
We catch up with Donal O’Leary, the first House Planning Help Hub member to complete a self-build project! The decision to self-build came about by accident, as Donal and his wife were originally looking for a run-down property to renovate or rebuild. The properties they viewed didn’t quite meet their needs or budget, and suddenly the right site came along.
An unorthodox approach helped them secure their plot
Donal explains, “We didn’t really need the full site as it was. It was actually too big and therefore it was outside of our price range.” After making enquiries and seeking legal advice, they came to an agreement with a neighbouring landowner to join forces and put in a high enough offer to outbid another interested party. The site would then be split into two, for their own developments.
It took a year of planning before construction started
After acquiring and sorting out the site, the second year was the planning phase, split into obtaining formal planning permission and working with architects and quantity surveyors.
In Ireland, you have a pre-planning meeting with the local authority. This is an opportunity to run through plans and get approval to apply for formal planning permission (or find out what needs to be done differently). Donal explains you don’t have to have final drawings, but you do need to provide plans showing where the house will sit, access, and services like sewage and water.
Cost dictated the final design of the house
The site was large enough to accommodate a big house. But for Donal and family, the priority was a comfortable, clean and healthy home that would take advantage of the light and aspect, as well as modern insulation and air-tightness standards. Cost ultimately decided the final design, and the overall size was dictated by that design and how the spaces were arranged.
The budget was based on some funds left over from the sale of their previous property, plus the mortgage amount they would be able to secure. Donal adds, “The rainy-day fund and the piggy bank were all broken at this stage. So, we worked out roughly what we could afford…and worked back from that primarily.”
The planning phase included very detailed specifications
Their architect and quantity surveyor filled in most of the tender document template, detailing the build specifications. Donal and his wife provided additional information (such as doorknobs, stove handles, bathroom finishes) to complete the document.
It took five or six iterations of 20-30 page documents to figure out exactly what was needed. Donal says in hindsight it was definitely worth it, but at the time it was difficult. “You’re at the stage where you can’t even visualise what the house looks like, and you’re expected to say, ‘well, I want a Belfast sink with a tap that goes a certain way’.”
Time-wise, their biggest challenge was appointing a builder
Christmas time was the deadline for receiving responses to their tender. Donal says, “I’m sure the builders were delighted to be filling out a huge tender document on Christmas Eve!” They narrowed it down from four builders to two, met both and then picked one. Availability was a very important factor, as well as previous experience and price. The tender process took a couple of months and the actual build lasted just over 12 months from start to finish.
A precise calculation helped them stick to their budget
The quantity surveyor broke the build down to a very detailed level, so they knew exactly how much it would cost. Donal says they were reasonable estimates with a bit of wriggle room to alter the spec if needed, when it came to actually buying fixtures and fittings.
There were only a few minor changes during the build stage. Donal attributes this to the time spent upfront with their architect and quantity surveyor on the spec. It gave them a baseline to go back to, which helped them manage their finances. And they had monthly budget reviews with the builder.
They tried to attend site as often as possible
The building contractor was effectively the project manager. So for Donal, the biggest challenge was not a technical one, it was just keeping on top of everything and being available. He admits it’s difficult when you have to take calls and send emails while at work, but says you just have to find a way.
Donal advises others to take any chance they get – before or after work, or at lunchtime if you’re nearby – to go to site and give an opinion so things can move on. His wife spent any spare time during the day onsite, involved in the daily decision-making. Donal recalls a few times where just being there averted a disaster, explaining, “So, if we weren’t there, they would’ve done x, but because we were there, they did y.”
Keeping their architect engaged in the entire build process was worthwhile
Laws have changed in Ireland and you have to have an Assigned Certifier; an engineer or architect signs off the various certification and documentation across each phase of the build and can be held accountable by the local authority.
Donal and his wife chose to involve their architect (who they found through word of mouth) for the whole project. So she had a vested interest not just from a design perspective, but also legally and financially. As the client, they had the reassurance of a professional overseeing the builder.
They leaned on their architect quite a lot. As Donal explains, “It’s not just somebody who draws nice designs, prints them off and you go, ‘move a wall here, move a wall there.’ It’s far more than that. It’s a design eye, it’s finishing, it’s the construction knowledge that the average client doesn’t have.” She was a good sounding board when they had to make decisions, offering suggestions and steering them in the right direction.
Sustainability had to be balanced with budget
There were times where a sustainable option wasn’t the most economical or expedient, for example they considered rainwater harvesting but the cost involved would have pushed the build over budget.
However, they tried to reduce the carbon footprint of their new build where possible:
- Orienting the house for solar gain, with canopy-style shading to reduce overheating.
- Avoiding the need for oil due to high-spec insulation.
- Using an air source heat pump.
- Leaving some of the garden as a nature area for wildlife, planting some clover there instead of grass so as to have a low maintenance meadow.
How stupid is our obsession with lawns?
If you're planning a vast lawn for your new house, is it actually the most sustainable thing to do?
Donal recommends listening to a Freakonomics episode which ponders how natural lawns are and looks at alternatives.
And if you enjoy that, check out last year's interview with Lisa Kerslake on creating a biodiverse garden.