32 Ways to Start Your Self Build Project

Now is the perfect time to begin planning the bespoke home you’ve been dreaming about. Here, the Build It editorial team and experts reveal what you need to know to start your project
Articles by Build It magazine
by Build It magazine
26th January 2018

Is self build for me?

Self builders come from pretty much every walk of life – from families keen to build an affordable home that can adapt over time, through to empty nesters looking to downsize to a high-spec house with minimal running costs. If you’re at the early stages of looking into this route to a bespoke home, here are six essentials to bear in mind:

“Self building doesn’t have to be hands-on. In fact, very few projects involve much in the way of DIY. Unless you’ve got genuine construction skills, you’re probably better off commissioning professional designers and contractors to deliver your tailor-made home.” Emily Smith, Build It deputy editor

“Consider teaming up with a specialist package house supplier to take the stress out of some of the key elements of your scheme. The basic service starts with structural design and building of the shell on site, but can run right up to turnkey delivery of your new home, where the company holds your hand through the process from start to finish.” Sofia Delgado, Build It assistant editor

“Self building gives you the opportunity to get more bang for your buck: this is undoubtedly the best way to create a high-quality home that’s tailored to your family’s needs at a cost-effective price.”

Chris Bates, Build It editor

“There’s no substitute for getting face-to-face with products and suppliers, so head to the Build It Live shows, where you’ll also be able to gain advice from seminars, workshops and even book free one-to-one consultations with our experts.” – Emily Smith

“This is probably going to be the most involved and emotional project you ever take on, so do as much research as possible. As well as browsing the Build It website, be sure to check out Build It magazine where you can find a huge treasure trove of advice and inspiration.” – Shona Jackson, Build It digital editorial assistant 

“Don’t worry if you haven’t got any experience of taking on a major project. Every year, over 13,000 people build their own home, and the vast majority of those have never done it before.” – Chris Bates

Plan it

The first barrier for most projects is finding a plot suitable for the kind of home you want to build – and then getting planning permission to do it. Here’s what you need to know:

“Get familiar with the type of house you’re keen to build by gathering pictures of finished homes and thinking about what it is you like about them. Would a single-storey home, chalet or two-storey house best suit you? What kind of external materials do you prefer? You shouldn’t pin your hopes on an exact design just yet – but if you’ve got a vague idea in mind, you’ll be better able to picture how a particular plot might work for you.” – Tim Doherty, chartered surveyor and Build It expert

Contemporary underground self-build
This striking modern home, created by Ian Armstrong of Arco 2 Architecture, demonstrates the power of a scheme designed around its landscape
Kawartha self-build home
Manufactured offsite by Meisterstueck-Haus, this eco-friendly project was completed in an astonishing 23 weeks – on time and on budget

“Maximise your chances of finding land by letting friends, family, local pub owners, estate agents etc know you’re looking. Drive round the area searching for potential infill sites, side gardens or unused buildings, and keep an eye on planning applications in your target region. It’s a good idea to register with PlotSearch, one of the UK’s leading land-finding websites.” –Chris Bates

“Never buy land that has been lotted up for sale as ‘leisure plots’ with alleged potential. The one thing almost all such sites lack is any kind of potential for a building project at all. If it looks too good to be true, it is!”

Mike Dade, planning consultant and Build It expert

“Make sure you sign up to your council’s Right to Build register. Every local authority must run one – and is then obliged to permission enough serviced self build plots to fulfil the demand identified on its list within each three-year based period.” – Sofia Delgado

“Take pre-application advice from the planning office. Some councils charge, others don’t – but it’s worth doing, as it helps identify potential stumbling blocks before you submit your scheme for scrutiny.” – Chris Bates

“Always allow plenty of time to get planning consent. Applications should take eight weeks but it can be longer. Once you have permission, you may need a month or so to agree conditions – such as details of materials.” – Mike Dade

Design it

Not sure where to start with designing your new home? These ideas will help you narrow down the options and come up with the right brief:

“Decide the key objectives your design must achieve for you at an early stage and write them down. Check back on these goals regularly throughout the project to ensure your scheme is delivering.”Julian Owen

“You don’t have to spend a fortune to add wow factor to an otherwise modest design. Features such as upside-down layouts that maximise views are pretty straightforward to integrate at the design stage, for instance. You could also look to focus your budget on one or two key statement-making elements, such as a double-height living space with feature ceiling beams, a glazed gable, a grand entrance or an impressive staircase.” – Emily Smith

Pitched ceiling by Hyve Architects
Designed by Hyve Architects, this pitched ceiling with a roof lantern helps to filter natural light down into the room below
Minimalist cantilevered staircase by TAP architects
This cantilevered staircase from TAP architects and Gray & Dick provides a striking focal point for this contemporary home

“As part of the briefing process, keep a list of your must-haves, like-to-haves and the features you really don’t want – and pull together inspiration from magazines, Pinterest and similar resources. All of this information can help a designer understand what you need out of your home and what turns you off. A well thought-out scheme will respond to your brief, the planners’ concerns and the characteristics of your plot.” – Chris Bates

“Designing your new home should be a fun and enjoyable experience – and it works best if you start out on the process with an open mind. Sometimes the best aspects of a self build project emerge from what initially seems to be a crazy idea.”

– Julian Owen, architect & Build It expert

“If money’s tight, keep it simple. The most cost-effective house shape is a square box with a dual-pitch roof, as it maximises floor area and is easy to build.” Mike Hardwick, project management specialist and Build It expert

“Think through everything in detail – right down to the number and placement of sockets and switches. You should put as much care and attention into the design phase as you do building the house.” – Sofia Delgado

Cost it

No matter the size of your budget, you’ll want to be sure your spending stays on track throughout your scheme. Here’s where to start:

“Keep things in proportion to your budget: work out what can be achieved for the money you have, rather than stretching an inadequate fund. And be realistic. Experience shows that self building always costs more than you think, so be pragmatic with your decisions. Running out of money halfway through is no joke.” – Mike Hardwick

“The high street banks don’t tend to understand the needs of self builders, so visit a specialist broker, such as BuildStore in the early stages for advice on the best option for you.” – Emily Smith

“Keep at least 10% of your project fund back as a contingency. This will cover you against the inevitable unexpected stuff that crops up along the way – such as when the first shovel hits the earth, and you suddenly discover poor ground conditions will necessitate more expensive engineered foundations.” – Chris Bates

“Get an accurate estimate, so you know what to expect and can compare like-with-like when you put the work out to tender. The Build It Estimating Service gives you a thorough budget report using live costs for materials and labour, so you can gain a total understanding of what your scheme will cost and easily identify where you could make changes to the spec to fit your budget.” – Shona Jackson

“Spend your money where it counts – namely on permanent items such as external wall finishes, roof coverings, windows, doors and your staircase, which will last the life of the house. Kitchens and bathrooms always look good when new, so you can upgrade them when your finances recover.”

Mike Hardwick, self build consultant and Build It expert

“Accept that, regardless of how much you can afford to spend overall, you will probably have to make some compromises to keep within your budget and achieve value-for-money.” – Julian Owen 

Build it

Every self build comes with a number of choices, from specifying materials through to coordinating trades. These tips will help ensure a smooth project:

“Consider taking on more of the risk by managing the project yourself. By co-ordinating the individual trades, you can eliminate a general builder’s profit margin and therefore save money. Remember, though, that this will be at the expense of your time and – in all probability – your stress levels.” – Mike Hardwick

Lewis home
The Lewises managed their first self build, designed by Oakwrights, themselves. Inexperience caused a few delays, but they’re delighted with the results
Ellis house kitchen
The Ellises worked with package home providers Potton for their self build design, planning and frame erection, before engaging a main contractor for the rest of the work

“Protect your investment by taking simple, smart steps. Get references from trades and be sure to actually follow them up. Put decent contracts in place, too: the Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) offers a number of plain English templates. And don’t skimp on a self build insurance policy: you’ll buy it hoping to never use it, but if you do you’ll be grateful you didn’t try to cut back on what’s a relatively small expense in the context of a home building project.” – Chris Bates

“Self builders with full-time jobs aren’t likely to be able to dedicate sufficient hours to managing a project themselves: it takes more than evenings and weekends to organise a build and you’ll need some daytime flexibility. If you can’t guarantee that, then budget for a professional project manager or main contractor.”

Tim Doherty, chartered surveyor & Build It expert

“Make sure your new home is built according to the permitted plans, and if you make changes, get them approved by the council. Contrary to the impression given by some TV shows, if the design alters during the works, you’ll be building something that doesn’t have permission at all – not to mention it will cost more.” – Mike Dade

“Don’t get fixated on one building specification or system; there are almost always different options and some may be more appropriate to your design and/or your project route. The trick is to understand the merits of each alternative and to balance them against considerations such as cost and performance.” – Tim Doherty

“Open a trade account with a builder’s merchant and negotiate on everything you buy in exchange for your loyalty: big orders mean big savings. Don’t expect a blanket figure – but do be prepared to haggle.” – Mike Hardwick

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