The Value of Hiring Consultants for your Building Project

Mike Hardwick explains why cutting out the middleman isn’t always a cost-effective option
by Mike Hardwick
24th April 2019

A deep desire to make our money go further means we tend to focus on buying materials and skilled labour when budgeting for a project.

This is completely understandable – after all, making savings in these areas will yield tangible results, so you get that instant gratification of money well spent.

We’re far less enthusiastic about paying for consultants, however, maybe because the outcomes are not so obvious and the word itself is often considered synonymous with ‘expensive’.

Somebody once described a consultant to me as “a person who, when you ask the time, borrows your watch, tells you what the time is and then sells the watch back to you.” In other words, money for old rope.

But the truth is the right consultants can have a vital role in adding value to your project – and they have the ability to save you considerable time and money, too. So this month I’m looking at some of the best professionals to go to, and how their advice can help make your scheme a success.

Planning consultants

These experts can prove critical to the success of your self build journey (and can be just as important to a renovation, conversion or extension).

Without planning permission, you simply don’t have a viable project. Add that to the paucity of suitable plots and the number of hoops that have to be jumped through before you can gain consent to start building a residential dwelling, and the whole process can quickly feel quite daunting.

Mike Dade looks at a rural plot in Kent

Planning is often referred to as a game, and having someone who understands the rules and the mindset of the referees can be invaluable.

These consultants tend to have served their time as officers of a local planning authority (LPA), and often in the LPA catchment they work in. So their advice is usually based on knowledge of the systems, policies and personalities involved in their area.

They’ll be able to help you navigate the process and give you an honest appraisal of the likelihood of gaining consent.

Read more: How much does it cost to get planning permission?

While most minor applications are approved pretty much on the nod, contentious plans for new homes can stir up a hornet’s nest of opposition.

So knowledge of how to present your proposal in the best possible light, while complying with national and local planning policies, is worth paying for.

Quantity surveyors

Bringing a quantity surveyor (or QS, as they are usually referred to) on board can seem like a bit of a luxury. After all, your contractor or builder’s merchant can advise on how much material you need and what the labour will cost, can’t they?

While that may be true, the question you need to ask yourself is how sure are you that the prices you’ve been quoted are accurate or complete?

Read more:  Building surveys for home renovation projects

A QS can take your plans and accurately predict how much of everything you’ll need, how long it should take your builder or trades to put it all together, and therefore how much it should
cost to complete.

The service doesn’t come cheap, but it can easily pay for itself on large or complex projects.

What’s more, you can use the information provided (less the prices) to inform quotations from builders. So when they reply, you will have a solid idea of the value for money contained in each quote.

You’ll also have the opportunity to challenge any that appear too high or too low. Another way to gain much of the same detailed advice is to use the Build It Estimating Service.

Quantity surveyor vs estimator

Approved inspectors

When it comes to securing building control approval, you have the choice of using your local authority’s (LA) in-house service or an approved inspector (AI) from a private company.

They both have their merits – and in many cases they can be a valuable source of information about potential pinch points in your project.

As the name suggests, your local authority inspector will be based in the area, so they can usually be on site at short notice.

They will also have a good knowledge of presiding soil conditions and be familiar with many of the builders in your region.

You’ll know how much they charge upfront, too, because it’s published on their website – but this will be the same regardless of complexity (which may work in your favour or against).

Self build structural warranties

An approved inspector will approach the job on a risk basis, meaning that simpler jobs can be cheaper: less supervision is required because there’s less to go wrong.

AIs and structural warranty providers may offer a tied up package, so their inspections can be combined. This makes for fewer site visits (potentially saving money) and only one inspector for both aspects, so there’s less chance of disagreement between the two.

The only thing an AI can’t do is issue a stop notice if something is going drastically wrong on site. But they can issue a reversion notice that hands responsibility for Building Regulations approval back to the local authority, which does have the power to stop works.

Ecological consultants

If your proposed project might affect any protected flora and fauna on the site – think the likes of bats, newts and rare orchids – your LPA will ask you to undertake an ecological survey.

This is especially common if you are undertaking a conversion or replacing an existing dwelling.

Environmental protection has become an industry in its own right, and I could relate many stories of self builds being delayed or becoming much more expensive because of the measures demanded to protect endangered species.

In itself, this is no bad thing, but given that the costs associated with dealing with bats and the like can be astronomical, it is well worth finding out if you are likely to run into a problem before you set out on a major building project.

Read more: How to deal with bats on site

In my experience, ecological consultants are passionate about what they do and as a result, their reports can be very thorough and detailed.

That’s all well and good, but the lines can sometimes be blurred by phrases like “there could be [insert rare species] present” or “this is the perfect environment for [insert endangered critter] to thrive”.

This leaves the door open for planners to question whether there might be an ecological risk and to err on the side of safety, which can pin massive costs on you.

Reports should be worded in such a way that they make it completely clear if there is or is not a problem to be resolved. If there is, you’ll have to deal with it, if not, you can crack on.

Heating & lighting consultants

I’ve grouped these two professionals under the same heading because they both serve the same purpose in their respective disciplines.

It is very easy to let your plumber decide how many radiators you need and where they should go, or for your electrician to make the call on what type of lighting and where – but both aspects will have a huge impact on the experience of living in your new home.

Plumbers and heating engineers are not the same thing, and having someone accurately calculate the likely demand for heat and hot water in your new house is vital if it is going to be comfortable and economical to live in.

Building plans and builders at work

Under or over specifying the hardware can cause major problems, especially when it comes to renewables such as air and ground source heat pumps, which must be accurately sized to
meet a household’s requirements.

For those of you going down the Passivhaus route for energy performance, a Passivhaus-qualified consultant is a must before you start design work – the chances are this will be your chosen architect or designer.

Lighting can make or break the atmosphere of your new home. It’s easy to specify a grid of halogen downlighters and a ceiling rose in the middle of each room, but is that really the best option?

Read more: Lighting cost guide

A skilled consultant specialising in this field can address your requirements for ambient, accent and task lighting using smart controllers and the latest low energy LEDs throughout.

If you want a high-quality feel to your home, getting the lighting right is a really cost-effective way of doing so.

Financial advice & project protection

When it comes to obtaining a suitable mortgage and insurances, I’d always recommend that you speak to expert consultants.

Arranging finance for a self build or conversion project is often outside the scope of the high street lenders. So specialists in their fields, such as BuildStore and Self-Build Zone, are an invaluable resource. Their experienced consultants are invariably a wealth of information on the best options for your scheme.

Other advisors

I could also blow my own trumpet here. There are a few self build consultants like me out there, and every now and again we might be asked to meet up with clients contemplating a self build to run through their designs, look over their potential plot and suggest options to make the build as smooth and cost-effective as possible.

I like to think I’ve saved some of them considerable sums by pointing out potential pitfalls that might be overlooked and, on occasion, I have advised clients to walk (or run) away from a scheme that could be a potential money pit.

It’s so easy for potential self builders to see everything through rose-tinted glasses when a nice-looking plot comes up. Sometimes an impartial and fresh pair of eyes is just what is needed to inject a dose of reality into the merits or perils of a project.

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