As Self-Build Architects, a significant portion of our work is designing Self Build homes—by this we mean properties that are designed and built by the person living in them, as opposed to New Build which relates to property development by a company.

We have a unique process—we begin by asking our clients to imagine their lives in the completed house and to describe their desired interaction with it. We then analyse these descriptions in detail to give us a highly defined brief. If you are thinking about embarking on a self-build project, there are several things that you will need to consider to ensure a successful project. To help, we have produced some top tips and advice for self-build success.


Be realistic about cost from the outset

— Have a very clear and realistic idea of your budget from the beginning

— Make sure to define the brief/scope from the start. If embarking on a self build project then total floor area is a good jumping off point.

— Beware of project creep, the one thing guaranteed to increase a budget is an increase in the size of a project.

— Be clear on your priority list and stick to it, understand clearly from the outset which elements you are prepared to do without should your total projected cost outstrip your budget.

— Obtain initial advice from your Architect i.e. us. We are happy to have an initial conversation free of charge with a view to designing the project.

— Beware of inferring construction cost from other types of projects, for example if a local builder successfully completed a side extension at £1500 per m² a couple of years ago, it does not mean that you can apply this per m² cost to a self build or a larger renovation.

— Avoid using estimates from publications and TV programmes, for various reasons they can often be misleading.

— VAT is 0% rated for Self Build properties. But do not forget to consider professional fees (which are not normally included in construction cost estimates), pre-planning and planning fees and cost of landscaping and furnishing. Allow 10%—15% genuine contingency. A genuine contingency is one that you do not tell anyone about, not even your architects.


Consider the full life cycle cost not only the initial outlay

— Running costs are often overlooked, particularly in projects where sustainability is not the main driver behind the project. However, even if your project does not strive to achieve exceptional sustainably performance, the cost of key items such as glazing, insulation, heating and cooling must also be considered in terms of ongoing running costs and maintenance.


Choose finishes commensurate with you budget

— Keep a very close eye on the cost of finishes and fixtures. As a client you can’t control the cost of labour, but you can control the cost of purchased items, which can quickly increase the cost of a project. This includes items such as floor finishes, sanitaryware, lights, doors and ironmongery.

— For example, engineered timber is often cheaper than solid boards but will give the same look. Always check the condition of your existing floorboards, they can be repaired, sanded, filled and oiled to produce a great floor finish.

— Finish your bathrooms in a combination of tiles and painted walls, this is cheaper than tiling an entire room.

— Only opt for underfloor heating if budget allows. Avoid installing on upper floors as this is usually unnecessary and increases the cost significantly.

— Keep an eye on the quantity of glazing. Good quality glazing and frames come at a cost

— Less is more! Recognise that minimal, open plan living can be expensive to create as it can involve significant structural works, bespoke joinery items and sprinkler systems. Before you chase after this aesthetic, ensure that you want to live in a space where you can see, hear and smell everything that your family are doing.


Save WITH your professional team not ON your professional team

— A good professional team will not come cheap, will normally be larger than you initially thought and require a surprisingly large chunk of the overall budget. Having said this, an experienced and well manged professional team will prove invaluable throughout the project.

— For example, an experienced and reliable quantity surveyor will often cover their fees and much more mainly through appropriately challenging contractors claims for additional cost and manging the process of pricing and approving variations to the contract when the project is already on site.

— It is better to have the right team fully on your side, working hard throughout the process to control the cost on your behalf, and value engineer the project if needed, than having to push an inferior and unmotivated team to act with your best interests at heart. Ensure that the professional team are aware of any budgetary constraints and select contractors who come recommended, follow up on their references.

— If budget is very tight, it might be better to work to a negotiated tender with one preferred contractor who is involved from the beginning, rather than a competitive tender. If doing a competitive tender go out to at least 3 contractors.


Don’t spoil your house, make it spoil you

— Regardless of your budget, a self-build project will always have an element of luxury within it, after all, you would not embark on this costly and at times bumpy ride if you did not think that the end result will somewhat improve your standard of living and perhaps your entire lifestyle, but what does luxury means to you?

— If your idea of luxury is known brands and big names, golden taps and expensive wow factor features, it will be very hard to keep your budget under control. If you take this approach and try to spread your budget too thin, you will be struggling to fit as many of these ‘wow factor’ items into a tight budget, which in turn will force you to compromise on quality of the all important internal organs of your house, such as insulation, mechanical and electrical items.

— Instead of spoiling your house with these small and expensive treats, you can make your house spoil you with durable, effective and relatively inexpensive luxuries.

a) A window seat with the right relationship to the garden, considering your orientation for a morning sun.
b) A penetrating view as soon as you enter your home, passing through a sequence of interconnected spaces all the way to the garden.
c) Walls, floors and stairs working to do more for you and enhancing your daily activities within your home.

These types of features, well designed from the outset and tailored around your daily interaction with your house can prove the most cost-effective way to create a real ‘wow factor’ felt not momentary by first time visitors, but by you and your family sustainably and for the long term.

We call those luxuries ‘Everyday Scenarios’ and it’s why we named our practice Scenario Architecture.

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