Choosing a Designer for Your Self-Build

Mike Hardwick explains the various options for designing your home
Build It expert Mike Hardwick
by Mike Hardwick
26th November 2012

Getting the design right is key to any self-build project. After all, achieving the perfect home is at the centre of what all self-builders are trying to do. Most yearn to escape the conformity of ‘spec-built’ mass-market estates and actively seek something just a little bit different.

It’s a common belief that only qualified architects can design a home, but this is not the case. You may be surprised to know that the plans for a substantial number of excellent, individually designed houses are not drawn by architects at all. In this month’s article, I’m looking at the options available for creating a design, and the pros, cons and financial impact of each route.

Who can design my new home?

The title ‘architect’ is a term that’s protected by law. To call yourself an architect, you must have successfully completed seven years of formal training, be registered with the Architects’ Registration Board (ARB) and have professional indemnity insurance in place. But there is nothing to stop anyone from designing a house – you can do it yourself if you wish. You can use free software such as Google ‘SketchUp’ or simply a stubby pencil, a ruler and a piece of graph paper, but whether your efforts will be any good – or indeed buildable – is a different matter! It’s therefore advisable to bring in someone who knows what they are doing. So what are the options?


Architects are highly-trained professionals and therefore understand the use of space and materials. They can create magnificent designs that maximise the potential of your plot – many are constantly pushing the boundaries of house design. If you want to find one, then the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) website is a good place to start. However, as professionals they can command high fees.

If you are building a cutting edge contemporary home and want to explore radical designs and state of-the-art materials, then this is your route, but if your ambitions are more modest, why spend a fortune on a full-blown architectural service?

A common complaint is that while architects can design lovely bespoke houses, they don’t often pay enough attention to the client’s budgetary constraints; making the design unaffordable to build. Furthermore, if they are being paid as a percentage of the build costs, their incentive may be to go as big and expensive as possible to maximise their potential income. Remember, though, that there are excellent architects who recognise these concerns and specialise in the self-build market. Take a look at the Association of Self-Build Architects (ASBA) website for more information.


This term covers the rest, really. Some designers are highly trained, such as architectural technologists (they are not architects per se, but know all about how a house goes together). Others are self-taught or may have come via other professions such as surveying or interior design having shown a flair for creative house concepts.

In the latter category is Beverley Pemberton, Head of Design for Design & Materials – one of the most respected self-build designers. I asked her recently why self-builders might choose a designer over a qualified architect. She said: “Architects have spent seven years studying their profession and cover everything from industrial and commercial buildings to residential properties – that is a huge remit. Unless they have specialised in residential design, they can often be less aware of costs, markets, planning requirements and exactly what clients seek than a designer who has specialised in the self-build area. Designers may be far more in tune with what the modern self-build market is all about”.

It could be argued that designers who specialise in self-build understand the market, and the financial constraints just that little bit better. I would suggest that for most straightforward design tasks, and almost certainly for routine extensions and loft conversions, an experienced designer is well worth considering.

Package companies

Package build companies have long had a strong presence in the self-build market, and for good reason. They can take much of the hassle out of self-building by offering either bespoke designs or easily modified stock drawings, plus they’ll provide a network of support during the build process.

Design is the key for these companies so the initial fees tend to be low. Get the design right and the client will go on to buy the timber frame or package of materials, which is where the profit margin is. Therefore, these companies often have superb designers in-house who can produce plans at a fraction of the price of a qualified architect.

The ‘catch’ (if you can call it that) is that if the client falls in love with the design, the package company owns the copyright so must be used to supply the timber frame or materials package. However, if the design is exactly right, this is rarely an issue; many novice self-builders cut their teeth using a package company and appreciate the comprehensive service and the wealth of experience they offer.

Buying plans

There are a number of house plan books on the market, and you can commission a local builder to construct an off-the-peg design. The trouble here is that these designs tend to be run-of-the-mill and not terribly exciting. It’s hardly surprising, really – why should an architect or designer give their best work away for free?

Plans books may give a flavour of what you require and be fun to browse through, but ultimately it’s worth paying a designer a few hundred pounds to get the details right by commissioning a bespoke design that has far fewer compromises.


Make sure you understand what you will be charged for the work. As mentioned, architects often charge a percentage of the build costs as their fee including drawings and planning permission. This can be anywhere from 3-6%. If you employ them to see the project through to completion by producing construction drawings and project managing the build, you can expect to pay around 12%-15% of the total build cost. However, it is worth remembering that times have been tough for architects in the recent economic downturn, so prices have come down considerably as they are obliged to compete for business.

Other designers may offer a complete service including obtaining planning permission, Building Regulations approval and the production of construction drawings for a fixed fee, often for much less than what an architect would charge. For simple home extensions, this can be for as little as £600-£800 rising to £1,500-£2,000 for a detached house, plus any statutory fees payable.

Choosing the right designer

It is worth taking the time to get your selection right. It doesn’t matter if an architect or designer has letters after his or her name if they have little flair or creativity. You should be looking for a designer with enthusiasm, imagination and with whom you can communicate easily. Be honest about your budget and your aspirations and ask to see examples of previous work. If it’s full of office blocks and shopping centres when you are looking for a cottage with roses around the door, you have gone to the wrong place!

A good idea is to start a scrapbook containing magazine cuttings and photos of designs and styling ideas you like and, perhaps surprisingly, those you don’t. This will help describe your tastes so your designer will have a better chance of visualising a design that you will like, but that also has a fighting chance of remaining within budget.

Finally, many of you will have an idea of what you would like to build but have yet to find land. When you eventually find your plot don’t be surprised if it is not exactly what you thought it would be. It might be an odd shape, oriented in the wrong direction or might need a particular approach with the planners if, for example, you are in a conservation area. My advice is to identify the plot first and only then go about designing a house that will fit.

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