The tide is turning for self-builders

Posted on: 8th February, 2016

Category: Home, Garden & Environment

Contributor: West Cork People

by Thomas Riedmuller. Pictured above: Natural Building Course at The Hollies Centre, Enniskeane.

Two years ago, I wrote about building your own house with natural materials and without a mortgage.

Since then the law, which regulates building control, has changed twice. The first change in March 2014 led to the near extinction of self-building. The second change, from September 2015, keeps some strictness about building regulations, but makes self-building more likely again. Here are some of the relevant details.

Two years ago the government introduced additional requirements for everyone who intended to build a house: The nomination of a competent ‘Assigned Certifier’ to inspect and certify the works (usually an architect or engineer). This led to a considerable increase of cost on many building sites – frequent visits for each stage of construction, professional fees, certification of detailed drawings ahead of time; the assignment of a competent builder to carry out the works. This ruled out rural self-help networks and gifted, competent DIY builders who hadn’t bothered to form a company; the submission of certificates of compliance on completion (signed by a professional certifier). This meant that the responsibility for safety and compliance with building regulations lay with the certifier – if anything serious did happen this person might have to suffer the legal consequences (potentially including jail). Self-builders took a severe hit, particularly if their building methods were not standard, but either innovative or traditional (non-industrial). Such certifiers were hard to find and expensive.

A year and a half later, a new amendment to the law means that the owner-builder is responsible for compliance with building regulations (as before), but that he or she is allowed to opt out of Statutory Certification (explained above). Your building has to comply with building regulations (that was always the case) and an inspector from the County Building Control Authority may call round to check.

The magic formula in the amended law is: For ‘new single dwellings on a single unit development’, you can let the authority know that you opt out of certification. This means that owner-builders are ‘in business’ again.

An interesting fact is that some developments don’t require planning permission. If you have a house, you can add an extension of up to 40 square metres without applying for permission. And there are a number of exempted buildings, particularly for rural situations – the County Council will send you the list and specifications of exempted development.

So, take heart and consider building again. You can make your home without a mortgage – a unique home that meets your needs and is perfect for your activities – a beautiful home made of healthy, natural and local materials.

You don’t have to build a huge house. Smaller houses are cheaper to build and to heat. Most expenses are incurred by running a house over time, not by building it.  You can also build in a modular way – build a small house in one season and move in. Stop paying rent. When you find you need more space build a second ‘module’, another small house or an extension.

Small is beautiful. This wisdom, published by the British economist EF Schumacher in the 1970s is truer than ever. Economy of scale applies to commercial and industrial development.

I prefer the concept of human scale: materials and technology that can be mastered by yourself and your community. Schumacher called his philosophy the ‘study of economics as if people mattered’.

At The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability near Enniskeane we emphasise the importance of people, their families and friends. There are several examples of houses that were built by their inhabitants who learnt how to build with natural materials such as earth, clay, straw, stone, lime and timber. Now they are dedicated to helping others change some limiting beliefs that society holds for us:

You don’t have to be a professional architect or builder to design and build your own home. Instead, you can learn how to do it yourself and consult with experts for specific questions (such as building regulations).

A building project does not need to drive you into debt. Building materials can be cheap or even free. Walls made of cob (clay rich subsoil dug out on site or nearby, mixed with straw) are inexpensive. Plasters and paints can be homemade. A lot of glass and many other materials are free if you know where to look. It’s astonishing what still gets thrown away.

Building a house need not be just toil and sacrifice. It can be an enjoyable venture. A journey of learning where you are making new friends. A process of personal growth.

By the way, children can learn how to build walls with cob too. In fact, school groups come to The Hollies every year, now also as part of the Discover Primary Science and Maths programme.

Thomas Riedmuller lives at The Hollies and teaches courses on natural building, permaculture, and conflict resolution. See www.thehollies.ie for more inspiration and training courses.

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