Finding a site

Plan

Building a house to your own design and specification is the dream of many people. But like all ideals, it can be difficult to achieve. Individual building sites are not easy to find and you must work that bit harder to secure a good one.

Finding the right site to build your house on can be difficult. It’s a process that isn’t recommended for the timid; some people tell stories about searching for years and this is true for many, especially if you’re particular about views, privacy, the need for extra land and all the other variables. It’s not that sites aren’t available, the problem is accepting one that is less than your dream. You may also have to revise your thoughts about the type of house you want to build. If what estate agents say is true about location, location, location, then the approach most likely to succeed is one that begins with finding the site, and it’s only then that the design can be brought into play. Flexibility, combined with the ability to focus your time and energy on the hunt, will give you the best chance of success.

Types of site
A greenfield site refers to land that’s not been built on before – whether in open countryside, gaps in rural areas, on the outskirts of villages or between existing houses. Brownfield sites as defined by NI Planning Service, are those ‘in the built-up areas of settlements that have potential for development, and that includes previously developed land, undeveloped land and vacant buildings’. It’s important to note that by definition, a brownfield site is not heavily contaminated, otherwise it would not be considered for development. If you suspect soil contamination on your site you’ll have to get it professionally assessed to see if it is safe to build on. Samples will be taken and a course of action recommended.

Disused land and brownfield sites are very easy to miss. It takes a lot of imagination to see a telephone exchange, a disused industrial unit, or a scrap yard as the site for a beautiful home, but they all could be, subject to planning approval. Technology has also helped with the development of mini piling systems and tanking for example, both of which could make a problem site viable.

Building on agricultural land is a possibility but many areas in ROI have qualifying conditions. Some counties will require you to have spent a substantial period of your life living in the area, referring to farmers, their sons, daughters and/or anyone taking over the ownership and running of the family farm. If your background isn’t farming, then sons and daughters of non-farming persons who have spent at least five years living in the area and wish to build within 5km (3 miles) of the family residence will be considered. Returning emigrants who had spent at least five years living in the area in which they propose to build can also apply to build on agricultural land. These can include those wishing to reside near other family members, carers for elderly immediate family members, working locally or retiring.

In NI high quality agricultural land is viewed as an important resource so the planners favour maintaining compact settlements, directing development to areas of poorer agricultural quality land and encouraging the re-use of redundant or derelict land. As obtaining planning permission for a greenfield site in an open area is therefore difficult, these sites are rare.

To find out if a site is viable, it’s important to check your council’s Development Plan and any Local Area Plan for the locality, in particular for policies restricting/permitting development in certain areas. These might include greenbelt, coastal areas, rural housing control zones etc. You should also keep an eye out for maps covering Scenic Amenity, Natural Heritage Areas (NHA), Special Protection Areas (SPA), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Areas of Geological Interest. Archaeology policies relating to the site you have in mind should also be noted. If your site falls within any of these areas, you should take advice from the Council Planning Department before proceeding to purchase.
In NI, a new building in the countryside will only be acceptable if it:

Blends sympathetically with landform, uses existing trees, buildings, slopes or other natural features to provide a backdrop, is an identifiable site with long established boundaries separating the site naturally from the surrounding ground and it does not spoil any scenic aspect or detract from the visual appearance of the countryside.

Existing house
Buying an existing house and demolishing it is another option which does tend to put the cost up. You may think that planning permission is more likely, but beware of trying to replace it with either a taller or larger dwelling, or not exactly on the footprint of the original; all the normal caveats of planning permission in your area still apply. Neither does buying an existing dwelling guarantee ground ready to build on, but the fact that a building is there does mean it is less likely than with a greenfield that the ground will be poor. Also, the ‘good’ ground may only lie exactly where the house was built and if your design is wider than that you still could face expensive foundations.

Historic buildings
If the building is Listed (NI) or a Protected Structure (ROI) there are separate and strict guidelines about what you may and may not do. Planning permission is needed for work carried out that would materially affect its structure so you may not be free to create the design you wish. If in doubt, write to your local authority (ROI) for a declaration under Section 57 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 about the structure and its curtilage (land and outbuildings immediately surrounding a structure which is (or was) used for the purposes of the structure). This declaration states what types of work can be carried out without affecting the character of the structure, and in addition, the normal rules on planning permission apply. The declaration will be available to you within 12 weeks of receiving a request, there is no fee. If you disagree with the declaration you can appeal to An Bord Pleanála.
In NI consent will normally only be granted for extensions or alterations to a Listed building when all the following criteria are met:
– The essential character of the building and its setting are retained and its features of special interest remain intact and unimpaired.
– The works proposed make use of traditional and/or sympathetic building materials and techniques which match or are in keeping with those found on the building
– The architectural details (e.g. doors, gutters, windows) match or are in keeping with the building.
Many listed buildings can tolerate some degree of thoughtful alteration or extension so may work as a site if the situation is what you are looking for. It’s a case of weighing up if you will be allowed to do enough to the building to create the type of home you had envisaged constructing from scratch. Always bear in mind that what appear insignificant alterations to you may not be the view of the Council and Department of the Environment.

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About Gillian Corry

Gillian started the magazine in 2001. She is a graduate of Edinburgh University and a qualified domestic energy assessor. In 2010 Astrid Madsen took over the editorial chair and Gillian is now an occasional contributor.

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