Navigating the Planning Process (II)

planning CAD

Part II – Reevaluating Proposals and Negotiating Amendments

While we were waiting to hear from the council about our application, (detailed here) we began to speak to builders about likely costs. Construction costs can vary from £1000 to £3000 per square metre, depending on the site and conditions, complexity and the desired finish. With remodels to existing structures, it’s very hard to think in these simplistic terms as there are so many unknowns. That said, based on the top price per m² and our rudimentary understanding of materials and labour costs, we felt we had a ballpark idea of how much it was likely to be.

We had a few potential builders in mind that we had selected based on personal recommendations. Two offered to provide estimations and when the first one came back with a figure about £100k above our maximum ballpark we were disheartened but knew it could be an overestimation for all kinds of reasons. It wasn’t a straightforward extension and being on a sloping site a builder would be wise to factor in a big contingency.

We held out hope that the second estimation might be more in line with our expectations. We were pretty surprised when he came back with the exact same figure as the other builder. These were two very different individuals with contrasting set-ups and approaches and yet they agreed on the likely cost. At least this gave us confidence that it was quite a true reflection of what we could expect to pay. Meanwhile friends of ours were going through a similar process and finding their quotes coming back around 50% more expensive than they’d expected. Apparently build costs are currently extremely high with uncertainty over Brexit pushing up the price of raw materials while labour shortages are being caused by decline in workers from the EU. Thanks a bunch, Leave.

While all this was taking place, I was constantly chasing the planning department for news of any developments with our application. After repeated failed attempts to glean information, the planning officer eventually told me he’d actually recommended our application for approval but the senior planner had raised concerns at sign-off stage. We were going to need to enter into a negotiation over materials and design. Specifically the roof and cladding and the design of the front elevation. These were things we felt we would be unable to compromise on as they were critical to the scheme.

As we neared the Christmas break it felt like we had reached a stalemate with the plans and our ability to achieve them within budget. It was a very disheartening time as we realised the proposal we’d worked so hard to design was unlikely to be feasible from either a cost or planning point of view.

We started to consider our options. We could plough ahead with the original five bedroom forever-home concept and find a compromise with the planners. If it was approved we’d have to put the build on hold until we could finance it. This wasn’t a course of action we were keen to take. It would feel too compromised and there was no guarantee we’d reach a mutually agreeable solution with the planners. We’d already waited long enough to live in a house that suited our needs and were becoming desperate to improve our domestic environment asap.

The next option was to update the kitchen and bathroom on a budget, repair the conservatory roof and put the house on the market. At one point this felt like a very appealing idea. I was fed up with the whole thing. The daily niggles had begun to feel relentlessly unbearable. Without the end goal in sight of turning it into a fabulous extended home, it just felt like a small, cramped house in an increasing state of disrepair. We were reluctant to go through the misery of moving and pay another chunk of stamp duty especially given suitable houses are rarely available in this village and it had taken us five years to find this one. Nevertheless, we couldn’t live here even in the mid-term as it is so we started to think about tarting up the kitchen and bathroom and looked into what we could do to make the conservatory roof sound. That was when my Dad suggested having a solid roof fitted on the conservatory and it was at that point that we started thinking differently.

We had always planned to demolish our timber conservatory. We estimate it to be around 25-30 years old. It’s solidly built, a decent size and quite attractive but the roof is knackered and it leaks badly. Like all conservatories, it’s too hot in summer and too cold in winter, and it’s far too bright in there. Its position divides the garden and the space would be much better utilised as a patio. But the moment my Dad suggested it would be really cost-effective to put a solid insulated roof on the substantial timber structure, I viewed it in an entirely new light.

All of a sudden it presented an affordable way to increase the useful square meterage of the ground floor. It will always be situated in an annoying place but I could get over that once I realised it  could be an economical solution to achieve the garden-family-room we’d been quoted hundreds of thousands to build anew. Once we’d started to take this idea on board, we thought that with a decent kitchen and refitted bathroom, perhaps we could make this house work for our family. My dad was also confident we could knock the kitchen and dining room through without incurring too much expense, which was also key to my desire to want to stay here.

While the ground floor was starting to look workable, we were still left with the conundrum of the house having only three bedrooms, one of which being a tiny box room. If only we could work out a way to add a fourth bedroom with as simple as extension as possible, this house could potentially be the home we need. We talked and sketched and puzzled until eventually we came up with an idea.

I spent the best part of Christmas redrawing the floorplans the elevations, revising and fine tuning until we had created a design we felt wasn’t just a short term scaled-back compromise, but a truly elegant, efficient solution. We had one less bedroom and reduced square meterage overall, but we still had all the extra ground floor rooms we needed, family room, utility, study, entrance hall. The major compromise for me was it no longer opened up the garden but I felt we were achieving so much for such a hugely scaled-back build that it was worth it.

Proposed Floorplans
Proposed Extension Highlighted in Red

It was radically different to our original submission, but because we’d scaled back, we thought there was a chance we could ask the council to consider this as an amendment to our planning application rather than submit a whole new one. Starting from scratch would mean more work and lots more time. As soon as the Christmas holiday was over I sent over the plans, requested that they be considered as an amendment and waited (it’s a theme).

Eventually our planning officer said they would be able to approve it if we made some ‘small tweaks’. Unfortunately one of these was changing the pitch of the extension roof (fig.1). Increasing the pitch to 60º as they’d requested (fig.2) would mean we’d have to reduce the footprint. This would result in no room for an en-suite upstairs or study downstairs. It was frustrating as it wasn’t even the footprint they were challenging, it was the angles of the roof. And what’s more frustrating was the fact all of this concerned an elevation that isn’t even prominently visible.

Front Elevation Version 01
Front Elevation Version 01
Front Elevation Council Amendment
Front Elevation – Council Amendment
Front Elevation Version 2
Front Elevation Version 2

I redrew the elevation with an increased 50º pitch (fig.3) which I thought represented a fair compromise and outlined all of the reasons why we felt the 60º pitch wasn’t necessary. After two weeks and lots of chasing for updates we were finally told that the senior officer had agreed on the 50º pitch compromise. That brings us up to date. We’re now waiting for official planning approval which I’m assured is imminent, it’s just a matter of filing the documents and issuing the paperwork. I’m not holding my breath on that but we are forging ahead with setting the wheels in motion for the building regulations application which is the next step.

Now I’ve been through the planning application process from start to finish, I feel so frustrated at the inefficiency of the system. We felt like we constantly had to push for any information, the communication was dire. By the time we receive our official planning approval it will be coming up to 20 weeks from initial submission. Even with the amendment we submitted midway through, this is unacceptable when the target is 6-8 weeks. Twenty weeks is a considerable percentage of my daughter’s short life. Budget cuts to local councils is probably the root cause but the system should be better organised too.

I do wonder if we had had our project fully costed before we submitted the application would we have had a less stressful time. I’m not convinced that had we submitted Plan B in the first instance it would have taken much less time. We needed to go through the learning process of discovering our dream scheme was not obtainable before we could accept that the scaled back route had so much merit. We’re completely thrilled with the new concept now though, it’s affordable but offers everything we need, and it will be far less disruptive. We’re dying to get started now.

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