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What should you know before starting a self-build? (and what can you learn along the way!)

It is many peoples dream; to either build your own home or to change the one you have, but there is so much to learn and understand, “so where do I start”, I hear you cry.

I have written two books and compiled an ever evolving Ebook store on the subject, all to be found in my Ebook store, so below are a few snippets to help you on your way.

1.Planning permission and finding the right Architect

The important aspect for you before deciding on the best architect is to first understand exactly what you want from them, which of course, is influenced largely by what you are building.

An architect has a role to play and is a commodity to be employed in just the same way as, say,

a carpenter. However, as there are good and bad carpenters; so also there are good and not-so good architects.

There is a lot of difference between the input required for a virgin plot of land with no planning

yet, and a plot purchased with detailed planning ready to go.

Take the case of you, the client, who have bought a plot of land, probably knowing that you will

obtain some form of planning for your dream home. In that case, you need the services of a

highly qualified architect. They will need to first understand the limitations of what you can build, and then go about designing it with you. A lot of skill and experience is required here, not only in the architectural sense but also in using the knowledge of the planning process.

However, if your project already has detailed planning approval and, therefore, only requires

the mechanics of the build process to be put in place – Building Regulations, drawings, and so

on – then a totally different level of expertise and qualification is needed and therefore, a different level of expenditure from you.

2. Choosing the Right Builder

Builders come in all shapes and sizes (quite literally) so it is important that you employ the right size contractor for the works in question, and builders come in one size fits all don’t they?..... well no they don’t!

There is a potential problem in employing a builder to say complete major refurb/alterations works if he is more at home building a small extension or knocking a few internal walls down. His quote might seem attractive, and that is the point; it is entirely likely that due to his lack of experience he has not interpreted the requirements and confused ambition over knowledge. A builder who is in reality too small for the works will almost inevitably bring heartache to the table. Irrespective of his motives and integrity, it is not about the individual trades associated with the works, but more about whether or not he can cope with say the agreed program and management, not to mention understanding the potential problems associated with that level of works.

The other end of the scale is the builder who is actually geared up for larger works than your renovation/refurbishment/extensions job. A larger builder will have a staffing infrastructure to support along with their own plant and vehicles which all has to be included when quoting for works. Therefore it is inevitable that his quote will come in high.

No point in going out to tender with the wrong size builders since it will firstly be wasting several peoples time (including yours) and secondly delay the proceedings whilst you then go looking for others when the quotes come in wrong. That of course is assuming that you do not make the mistake of being seduced by the cheaper quote of the smaller builder and take his word for it when he tells you he can cope with works of that size.

3. Who will manage the whole shebang?

Unless you have many years’ experience in construction – both in the mechanics and the management – there will be elements where you will require knowledgeable help.

Whether it’s knowing how to actually navigate the pre-construction process, or understanding the mechanism of the build and the sub-contractors, you will need that knowledge.

Now, I am not trying to discourage you from taking up this role; my books – The Self-Builders Guide To Project Management and The Self-Builders Guide to the Construction Phase are aimed at providing you with practical advice, but part of that advice is, know your limitations. There may be aspects that you can happily tick yourself and there may be ones that you cannot. A good manager will de

legate certain parts but will at least understand what they are.

Construction works, whilst not an exact science, need people who truly know what they are doing no matter what the size of the works, and although not every job warrants a Project Manager/Consultant, when you employ professionals or builders, do not assume that they all know what they are talking about.

4. Neighbours and keeping them onside

If you have bought a plot or building with planning approval previously granted, there is a serious chance that the project was met with resistance from your neighbours in the form of objections at the application stage.

This is an unfortunate fact, as people in this country inherently oppose change to what they perceive as ‘their’ territory, and the issue becomes worse, as local authorities are more likely to grant permission for a new dwelling in an existing built-up area; hence, the term ‘backyard developments’. Unless you are lucky enough to be building in the middle of a field, it is more than likely that you will need/want contact with the natives who can, on a whim, be your best friends or worst enemies.

There are a few reasons why you need agreeable contact with your neighbours:

Party wall agreement

Section 80 demolition notice

Parking restrictions and deliveries

There are a few reasons why you want agreeable contact with them:

Site security

Information on positions of say buried services and drains

Tolerance to site noise, dust, and so on

5. Costing, Programme, and Cashflow

While there may be no such thing as a ‘typical’ self-build project – each coming with its unique set of challenges and opportunities – every project does have identifiable stages of development, from the initial digging of the foundations to the final fix.


Let’s assume that you have received all of your quotes back, and you are reaching conclusions on who is doing what; so, you need to create a tool for how much it will cost you.

Whilst there are literally dozens of project management tools out there of varying complexity, to my mind, the simplest are often the best, and when it comes to a costing sheet for the project, a basic spreadsheet will do the job, as it is straightforward to adjust and can evolve to form a payment record.

Programme of Works

When it comes to a creating a programme, again a simply created spreadsheet works, as with the costings it is straightforward to adjust.

Basically, the tasks to be completed are identified and listed down the left-hand column and blocks of time are shaded in the corresponding row to show the start date, finish date, and the duration of each task. Additional columns can be added for budget costs, actual costs, and the resources required for each task. It can be as detailed and complex as you wish to make it.


For many people, the whole point of self-building is to make the money they have available for a home go further – so it follows that accurately planning and managing a budget should be a primary concern. This process should start well before you even buy your plot of land, and shouldn’t finish until you’ve paid the final contractor and jumped though all the hoops to reclaim VAT on your building materials.

When you first begin to work out your budget, it makes sense to plan out and weigh up the costs of all the different aspects of your project – even if that means working in round numbers. You should have a total figure in mind that you want to work towards – whether you are borrowing money or not – and a simple chart is a good ready reckoner to start with.

6.Types of Build

There are arguably, fundamentally two main methods of constructing the superstructure in the UK – masonry aka traditional construction or timber frame construction.

In its basic form, masonry, which to some speaks for itself, usually involves an inner skin of blockwork and an outer skin of brick or blockwork. The two skins are separated by a cavity, which almost always includes an element of insulation.

Timber fame construction usually has the inside skin constructed with an engineered timber-based panel, with the outer skin more often than not of brick or block. Again, there is a cavity that sometimes includes insulation.

The key difference between timber frame and masonry isn’t so much the materials used to make the walls, but the fact that the timber frame is made in a factory and delivered to site in trucks.

This takes away a lot of the labour and simplifies the process from the builder’s point of view. Both construction methods have their pros and cons, and it’s not so much about which is better, as which is better for you.

7.Working with builders

For you to be able to work with construction workers, whatever they call themselves – contractors, sub-contractors, tradesmen, or labour, you would be wise to get up to speed with their mentality.

The majority of men, and sometimes women, in construction work hard and earn their money, and let’s face it, that’s why they get up and go to work in the morning – to earn money. As much as possible!. However, the moment we start using words like tradesmen, craftsmen, or contractors, be prepared for him (or occasionally her) to have an ego the size of China and pedantic demands to go with it.

The more time I spend project managing, especially with Mr and Mrs SB, the more I realise that one of the biggest fears you good people have when contemplating embarking on the self-build journey is how to deal with ‘the immortal subbie’. At best, he (or she) is a know-all, pedantic prima donna who believes that the entire build hinges around their colossal ability – at worst, they may be bitchy, argumentative, demanding, aggressive, and a downright pain in the backside!

This attitude is not trade-specific. Show me a self-employed tradesman, and I will show you the demigod of the construction industry, who will single-handedly want to dictate the programme of the complete works because everything must hinge around his artistry – when he’s there of course!

8.Paying your bills

Let’s make a couple of points clear here – firstly, construction workers like most other people in the world, put in a day’s work with a view to getting paid for it. Secondly, if you become known for dragging your heels when it is time to pay, it will have a ripple effect on the works and therefore your programme. This is not some theory of mine, it is fact, you ask several tradesmen who he is most likely to work for and give his best shot, the one who is slow to pay his bill or the one down the road who pays promptly. They will all chorus the same view. Likewise, who is most likely to squeeze a bit extra work out of a tradesman without a cost implication, the good payer? .. of course it is!


There will be several times during the build that you will require certain works to be inspected by governing bodies such as building control (BC) (local authority or private), Building Warranty (BW), or even certain incoming utility services.

Building Control

The role of checking that building regulations are being complied with falls under the purview of building control bodies. There are two types: a local authority building control (LABC) service and a private sector approved inspector building control service. You are free to choose which type of building control body you use on your project.

Building Warranty

Subject to whom you use for your BW, it is entirely likely that the same company taking on the inspection/audit trail are also offering private building control. Therefore, the surveyors/inspectors are qualified to the same extent for BC as they are for BW.

Utilities Inspector-Water

Unless you are using what is known as a TAP5 approved ground worker who can inspect and certify his own installation, you will need to have the water board come and inspect the new service pipe before it is covered up, in order to set an appointment for the connection and meter to be fixed at the road/boundary.

Most water boards will require you to have accepted the quote and paid for it before the inspection can be authorised.

10.Health and Safety on Site - CDM

To some it might appear to be a rather tedious subject, and especially now with the recent changes to Construction Design Management (CDM) legislations, simply a necessary box to be ticked that might not make particularly interesting reading. However, health and safety (H&S) on site is an extremely important subject, and one to be taken very seriously.

Roles –

A domestic client is any individual who has construction work carried out on their home, or the home of a family member, that is not done as part of any business

The contractor, if it is a single contractor project, who must take on the legal duties of the client in addition to their own as contractor. In practice, this should involve little more than what they normally do in managing health and safety risks

The principal contractor, for projects with more than one contractor, who must take on the legal duties of the client in addition to their own as principal contractor. If the domestic client has not appointed a principal contractor, the client duties must be carried out by the contractor in control of the construction work.

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