For Patsy Parr, getting approval and building her first home in her native rural Staffordshire meant overcoming countless hurdles, but project management experience, plus a bit of family knowledge, resulted in an award-winning build
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Getting her first step on the property ladder in the village she’d grown up in, with prices out of reach, meant Patsy Parr needed to do some creative thinking.
Seeing her mum build a house a few years prior “opened her eyes to the opportunity,” she explains. “It was inspiring.” Finding a plot wasn’t easy, with land rarely coming on to the market. She says she “never thought land would come up in such a great area.”
It was when out for a run one day that she noticed a plot with an old workshop and stables on it. There was just one catch – it was already sold. “I instantly went to them and said if anything happens please let me know,” Patsy explains. She was fortunate in picking up her phone when a ’withheld’ number called, and heard that the agent was calling everyone on the waiting list to see if they had the credentials to go forward. She had “everything ready to go,” and so managed to get the land. “That was my first lesson in persistence,” Patsy says.
Patsy set about putting together vision boards with the help of an architect, Andrea Millner, who specialises in the design of oak framed houses. Patsy knew this was the material she wanted her house to be built of, to be sympathetic to the land it would be sitting on. “This site is surrounded by oak trees,” explains Patsy. “I took images of oak frame buildings from Pinterest, and the architect agreed it just made sense for the surroundings.”
Patsy worked with two architects over the course of the project – Andrea was “very good at making it look beautiful”, explains Patsy, and Andy Denham from Eclipse Architecture was more involved with the practical side of the design, as well as “holding her hand” through the project management, says Patsy. “Having the two of them together was great.” The house features various changes in level throughout, and Andy ensured details such as head heights were considered and taken care of. He also guided Patsy through the project, advising her which subcontractors to arrange and what part of the process should be taken care of next. “It just made sense that they ran alongside each other,” says Patsy.
PLANNING FOR THE WORST
Once she had firmly set her heart on a contemporary look, Patsy says she “geared up for a battle,” which is exactly what she ended up with. It took around two and a half years for planning permission to finally be granted.
Patsy had a lot of conversations with family, and received a lot of help from her aunt, a journalist, who helped simplify the overcomplicated planning guidance she encountered online. She also had an appointment with a councillor, which turned was more frustrating than helpful. “They won’t really give you answers, even if you go with really direct questions,” she says. “It’s very vague. That whole stretch I just found extremely frustrating.” She did however encounter another planning officer further down the line who she says was “more helpful.”
As part of her mission to get approval Patsy spent time taking leaflets around to neighbours, explaining what she was hoping to do. “I had quite a few people slam doors in my face; I really had to pick myself up after that,” she admits. This was one of the few times she felt like giving up on the project.
Patsy submitted an initial application which went through several rounds of amendments. Each time she was given reasons as to why it wasn’t being approved, and her architect used the feedback to make changes. She says it was a dispiriting experience: “They make you feel like it’s been rejected. I think there’s a massive lack of vision when it comes to planning, and young people wanting to do it – like it’s thought of as something they shouldn’t be doing.”
The main restrictions they had to work with related to the height and floor area – both of which couldn’t exceed those of the workshop and stables previously on the site. They combined the total floor area of both buildings to create one larger building, and dug down to create a basement level while keeping within the height restriction.
Finally, after two and a half years of meetings, amendments, and knocking on doors, Patsy was given one final chance at the end of 2019 to present her plans and make her case at a local council meeting, before a vote. “I had to go through loads of hoops,” she explains. “But I got there in the end, I’m relentless!” In fact, she managed to swing it by a single vote.
Patsy decided to break for Christmas to relax before getting the ball rolling again in January 2020, creating the project plan including efficiently scheduling when which trades should come onsite. “When you speak to contractors they’ll tell you they can’t come in until such-and-such trade has been in, but I would see gaps in the schedule so I constantly had people onsite and working,” she explains.
After a thorough check for wildlife, which thankfully wasn’t an issue, work began demolishing the workshop and starting groundworks in February 2020. Although no wildlife was found, a habitat and ecology management plan had to be put in place and maintained, for which Patsy found a landscape architect helpful in implementing.
Building the house
As she was on a tightly controlled budget, Patsy took every opportunity to save money, and project managed the build herself (with the help of architect Andy). Despite the inevitable stress, she says she enjoyed it, particularly after the gruelling planning battle. “It was intense,” she says. “But you’ve got control, and know where you are with stuff, so that felt a lot better.”
Patsy’s job involves delivering events – including the construction of large sets – so she says that many elements of project managing a self-build felt familiar, and “aligned to her skill set.”
One of the toughest parts of the experience to contend with was occasional bouts of misogyny – at one point she even had to ask workers to leave the site. “It’s still a male-dominated industry and it’s not very often that a young female runs the site,” she explains. The first scaffolders she hired refused to acknowledge her as the project manager and had to be asked to leave, while other contractors made occasional derogatory comments. “There were a few moments like that, but I also had some really golden people that were super helpful,” she adds. “I think some took pity on me because I didn’t understand the lingo!”
Aside from the general running of the site and organisation of contractors and ordering of materials, Patsy’s role consisted of a lot of ferrying materials to keep the process moving. “I felt like doing that meant they were never able to take their foot off the gas, because I was just constantly giving them the next thing they needed!”
Responsibility for ordering materials varied between Patsy and contractors, but she would price check anything she wasn’t ordering, to ensure the prices being quoted were reasonable. “If I could save any money then I was looking to do that,” she says. The oak frame company, Enville Oak, supplied everything needed for its construction, and her groundworker helped with the ordering of bricks as and when required. This was a slight frustration as she says that the bricklayers didn’t always say quickly enough that they were running out of supplies.
Patsy took care of ordering materials such as plasterboard, as well as cutting and installing the insulation herself. “I was really buzzing when I got the certificate to say that the house was well insulated,” she says proudly.
It was always Patsy’s intention to continue working and not take time off for the build. She set herself an office up in the stables – demolished at the end of the project – but ended up being furloughed in March 2020. “It was kind of a blessing in some ways because I could be here all the time,” she says. She returned to work in July 2020, by which point they had “broken the back of it,” she explains. “It was just a case of being onsite to do those last few bits, and I was able to work from here anyway.”
Although being furloughed gave Patsy more time to spend onsite, she thinks that if she had remained working as normal, it would not have greatly hampered the timings of the build: “It would have been harder, but I don’t know it would have taken longer,” she says. She laughs: “I had a whip out!” She moved into her house in September 2020, with one minor delay caused by a tipped piece of wood – helping rainfall off the flat roof – being installed the wrong way round and needing to be redone.
Patsy agreed prices for all contractors upfront – “if they were onsite for longer I wasn’t paying any more,” and gave each a diary of when they were due onsite, detailed to coincide with daylight hours. Although she took a strict line, she did also make sure her workers were well looked after, including different breakfasts each day of the week, which “meant they liked coming to the site.”
The house was constructed using both oak frame for the single storey section and blockwork for the two storey section, with both elements finished with oak cladding. Patsy chose zinc for the roof, which inspired the house’s name Little Gem, due to its sparkle.
As well as it being a harmonious material for the surroundings, she chose oak for its sustainability attributes, a very important element for Patsy. “I work with a company called Energy Zone, and talked to them early on about how to make it as sustainable as possible,” she says. Along with the large windows, installing an air source heat pump was a “non-negotiable” she budgeted for from the start. There is also underfloor heating throughout the house.
As you enter the large master bedroom with open plan ensuite is on the left, with this level also featuring the second bedroom and main bathroom (a Jack-and-Jill style affair shared with the second bedroom). At the end of the large hallway are stairs up to the kitchen – at ground level due to the sloping site. Here bi-fold doors frame a view of the nearby church, which was a key goal of Patsy’s. From the second bedroom a set of stairs lead down to the basement level, housing a cosy living area, additional bathroom and plant/utility room. From here a set of spiral reclaimed stairs, shot blasted to colour-match the floor, take you back up to the kitchen.
Large windows, including within the gable end where the master bedroom sits – as well as skylights – have been installed throughout. Patsy used the same flooring throughout the whole house: “I think that’s important for making it feel bigger because your eyeline never breaks at any section,” she says.
With a strict build budget of £190,000 to stick to, Patsy found herself using creative thinking to save money wherever possible. An example was when she found (on Facebook Marketplace) an unused kitchen that had been intended for a show at the NEC, which was cancelled due to Covid. Patsy picked it up for £5,000 – including appliances!
Because the kitchen features no extraction or ventilation, Patsy was recommended to install a fire suppression system from Plumis. The panels housing the system are more discreet than more traditional systems, and in the event of a fire, it releases steam that reduces the oxygen in the air to suppress it. “It made sense to have them, and they’re pretty!” Patsy says.
When designing how the interior would look overall, Patsy aimed for a ‘boutique’ modern style. Each room features a different colour scheme – purple in the master bedroom, yellow in the second bedroom, black and gold in the kitchen, and green in the living area. “I feel like it reflects my personality in each room,” she says. “I went with colours that I love.” Knowing the budget would be getting tight towards the end, Patsy bought a few statement pieces early on.
Having been living in the house for nearly two years, Patsy says she “loves everything about it. There isn’t anything I would change.” The house has won two awards: following a suggestion from the building inspector she put it forward for an LABC Building Excellence Award, in which it was Highly Commended. With added confidence, Patsy entered her home in the Homebuilding & Renovating Awards 2021, and it won the Spirit of Self Build award – just as her mum’s project had, two years prior. “I think we were a bit competitive!” she says.
Moving forwards, Patsy would like to see the Government introduce more opportunities for young people to undertake self- or custom-builds. “Quite often new builds are nothing like how you’d actually want to live,” she says. “I think we’d have a lot more interesting property. I want to champion what a young person can do.”
As for whether she’ll do another build in the future, it’s a maybe, but not for a while. “I would do it again in a heartbeat but I’m not in a rush,” she says. “I’m just enjoying this one at the moment!”
“Getting the planning by one vote, I’ve never felt as good as that in my entire life!” – Patsy Parr
“Two and a half years of planning battles, and doors slammed in my face. I also had a wobble when I ordered some plasterboard in the wrong thickness.“ – Patsy Parr
PATSY PARR’S TOP TIPS
- “Knowing where you’re going. Have a vision board of what you want to create”
- “Persistence and having a relentless streak is important, because it can take a toll on you”
- “People are kind, so ask for help! We often shy away from asking for help but go to local experts and ask for their thoughts – it helps to have a base level understanding before starting, and build up your knowledge”
- “A rest can really help you to reset and go again, take those little moments”
- “Give it a go! Quite often we’re told that ‘we shouldn’t,’ that it’s out of our remit, but it’s not”