Since building my own house I am still very much interested in what other self-builders
are up to. I sometimes mourn the fact that Mr Clark and I probably won’t be taking on another build in the near future, so I reckon the next best thing would be to poke my snoot into other people’s business.
As luck would have it I know some people who are building their own homes at the moment. They have kindly accepted my request for an interview, and happily enough are more than pleased to be able pass on their essential top tips to other aspiring housebuilding adventurers.
This week I had the great fortune to talk to a friend who is just starting out on his build after many months of preparation. We will mysteriously call him Mr X. Why? I hear you ask. Well I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you, let’s leave it there.
I met Mr X at a café near his build, and as I slurped my latte and he drank tea and ate a chocolate brownie I asked him:
What type of build are you taking on?
We completely demolished an existing house, so everything is being done from scratch. The groundworks have just been finished using a raft construction, and the timber frame, which is being manufactured off-site, will be put together on-site. We already had the utility connections but had to reroute electric and telephone connections to the next door neighbour’s house, which cost a fair bit of money. We have a contingency budget for those kinds of things.
What gave you the idea to build your own home?
We’ve got a big family and have been looking for a house with enough space to grow into. There was nothing affordable in the area so we started looking for alternatives and the most obvious path was to build our own house. We wanted our four children to be able to have their own space do their homework and music practice in peace and quiet, and also have a garden big enough for a game of football. We looked at build websites and magazines and could see potentially how much it would cost to build a place – we did our sums and thought … maybe we could do that. We found a plot locally that could contain a house big enough.
Are you using a main contractor or using subcontractors?
Subcontractors and a professional project manager.
What was your reason for making this choice?
Money. Also the project manager is working for us and a main contractor would have his loyalties split between his workforce, his own network of subcontractors and us.
I know that you have renovated houses before, are you planning to do any of the work yourselves?
We would rather have professionals do it. The opportunity for us to earn the money to pay the project manager and subcontractors is bigger than the savings we would make by doing the work ourselves.
Did you have some input into the design of your house along with the architect?
Yes, basically we did some back-of-envelope drawings for the architect as well as providing him with a wish list of things that we wanted, and he combined both to come up with a design. He is very much a champion of an environmentally friendly ‘fabric first’ approach to building. (Mr X is lucky enough to have Charlie Luxton as his architect).
We tried not to scrimp and save on essentials like insulation. To save money we might potentially leave some parts of the build unfinished, because you can’t redo insulation but you can always go back and finish things off. We didn’t go for an air source or ground source heat pump or any of those fancy ways to fuel a house, we are going for a gas boiler because the technology is efficient and the energy usage is going to be small. The point is to use as little energy as possible. We made it clear in our planning application that it is a very high performing house in regards to energy saving.
How easy was it for you to get planning permission?
Initially we applied for outline planning permission and the planners rejected it – they said the house looked too imposing and not quite in keeping with the rest of the street. We adapted the design and also hired a planning consultant to help the architect to submit new plans – he came up with some really good ideas and we got permission. I believe that most planning offices have planning portals so that neighbours and members of the community can use them to type in comments. Generally these things are put in place so people can make objections. There were four comments submitted from neighbours, three of which were in support of the application.
What difficulties, if any, have you encountered so far?
The most recent difficulty has been that the part of the foundations which will be supporting the brick skin will have to come up. When the concrete was poured, it wasn’t tamped down properly so there are air pockets in the concrete. This means that if there is water ingress and the steels rust it could expand to several times its current volume, which will obviously cause problems for the brickwork. We consulted the structural engineer and he wasn’t happy with leaving it, so it will have to be relaid.
What effect has your building project had on you and your family?
We haven’t had a holiday, we don’t buy stuff and it has taken a long time. You have got to get it right – it is very important with a timber frame; you have to get the details nailed down before you start the build. There have been delays, there are the sacrifices we made because of finances and it has taken up a lot of my time. Every part of it so far has had delays and difficulties, but stress-wise – I haven’t found it stressful yet.
What keeps you awake at night concerning your build?
Money really, because at the moment we haven’t got enough money to finish it. Everyone says that building can be a strain on everything including your relationships, but I am prepared for that. I also think it is important to have a high level of trust in the people who are working on the project – you’ve got to get really good people who will sort things out.
What is your estimated build cost?
Not including architect’s fees, the cost of the land, or management fees it is £348K.
What is your estimated build time?
The demolition started in August 2015 and the house will be finished in April 2016 (but there was a big run up to the start of the build). You have to think ahead and make all your decisions up-front – everything, even the position of the taps because you have to put the utility pipes in the foundations.
Do you have any tips for aspiring builders?
- Get people who are really knowledgeable and who you really trust, and are also completely loyal to you professionally – people who are prepared to be adaptable and are able to question their own knowledge and expertise; because things develop and technologies change.
- Question everything, absolutely everything from the smallest detail.
- It’s your house. It’s not like buying something from a shop, you can get whatever you want, that’s the exciting part, and because of that the costs can escalate. You need to keep a spreadsheet and a really tight account of every decision you make, as well as the to-do list. Eventually you’ll be looking at costs that are only a small percentage of the total build cost, but if you stop to think about it, they could all add up, so don’t let flights of fancy get away with you.
- Get a really good idea of costs. We got two estimates from quantity surveyors but they were massively high and weren’t really realistic. Our project manager reviewed them with a dose of realism. We made a Gantt chart for the stages of the build. At first it was very difficult to get an outline of realistic costs and time scales, but when we got these we had some sort of grounding on which to make decisions.
Mr X cycled off into the afternoon sunshine, but before he went he agreed to be interviewed again further into his build. During the interview he had drawn a sketch in my notepad of what his house will look like (plan and elevations) and I, wanting to see the site, went off in my car to have a look (obviously). I drove down a leafy road and sure enough, there was the site in a fantastic location. The sight of Heras fencing made my heart skip a nostalgic beat. I will probably sneak a peek every now and again to see how they are getting on. I expect the builders will wonder who the small blonde middle-aged prowler is, but I reckon there are worse hobbies than build-spotting.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Mr X for taking the time to talk to me. I’m very much looking forward to hearing all about how his build is progressing in our next interview. Here are some pictures of his build so far…