Design & Build: Package Houses Explained

Working with a package company could be the no-nonsense route to your dream home, says Chris Bates
Chris Bates, Editor of Build It magazine
by Chris Bates
2nd August 2021

Embarking on a self build project doesn’t have to mean laying every last brick yourself. In reality, most people rely on some degree of help from a specialist housebuilder. That’s where package suppliers come in.

In a nutshell, package companies provide solutions to many of the key challenges self builders face, from tracking down a suitable plot and getting a design past planning, to overseeing construction and handling Building Regulations.

Suppliers typically offer a flexible suite of services, allowing you to tailor the package depending on how much (or how little) involvement you’d like.

If you want to lay the groundwork for a stress-free project, working with a company that has years (or decades!) of industry experience is a smart choice.

Choosing a home design & build package

Package companies offer a sliding scale of services to choose from, depending on the level of involvement you’d like in the project.

Stunning oak frame package house by Oakwrights

Oakwrights took the planning drawings from an outside architect and turned them into detailed structural plans to create this gorgeous oak frame home. The company’s WrightWall and WrightRoof encapsulation systems were used to complete the thermally efficient shell of the building.

At one end, your provider might supply the materials for the assembly of the structural envelope to get it to weathertight stage. You could then take over by sourcing trades to complete the final kit-out, as well as getting Building Regs approval.

At the opposite end, some suppliers are involved from the outset of the build, potentially even helping you find the plot itself.

Most people begin their package home journey at the design phase, either by tailoring plans from the supplier’s catalogue of existing homes or working with their in-house team to create something bespoke.

If you’d rather steer clear of the nitty gritty and leave most of the work up to the professionals, then a turnkey solution is your best bet.

“Around 15 per cent of our clients opt for this method,” reveals Joe Martoccia of timber frame specialists Potton. For some, that means engaging the package company to complete each stage of the build, but most choose to employ their own builder.

“It’s an attractive route for people who don’t have time to get too involved in the project, or for those who can simply afford to do things this way,” says Joe. You might also prefer this method if you’re not confident in your ability to oversee everything.

Nine out of 10 self builders are first-timers, and there’s no shame in relying on the experts to make sure you get things right.

There are variations – some firms will require you to go to at least the wind- and water-tight stage with them, for example. This is known as a shell build route. Consider employing a project manager (PM) to oversee the remaining parts of the build. “I’d recommend this route if you’re not sure you have the level of expertise required to manage the project yourself,” says Joe.

While any builder you employ directly will make money on costs for materials, professional PMs usually work for a set fee. This may account for 15 per cent of the total build, but an experienced project manager will have a good nose for securing budget-friendly deals with reliable tradesmen and materials suppliers.

“By engaging a PM or opting for turnkey, you’ll find that it’s easier to stick to schedules,” says Joe. Labour can account for a massive chunk of your costs – as much as 60 per cent in some cases – so it stands to reason that running on time will be a huge boon to your budget.

Working with a package company also offers you the opportunity to seize the reins. “Self project management is likely to be the most cost-effective route, provided you follow your package company’s build manual,” says Joe.

You can make further savings by taking on some or even all of the part-finish work yourself. But if you’re thinking of tackling the majority of the project as DIY, it’s probably worth asking yourself whether you really need a package at all.

Package house design options

The first step in creating your package home is to decide on a build system, be it timber frame, brick-and block, steel frame or structural insulated panels (SIPs). Companies tend to specialise in specific areas, and their staff will be more than happy to discuss the relative merits of each system with you.

The design and supply of the framework will be the key components of whatever package you select. You might choose a standard structure from a company’s catalogue, for example, which can be personalised to suit your needs and the quirks of your plot. The great thing about this is you’ll be investing in a high-quality, tried-and-tested construction.

But don’t rule out packages if you’re looking for more flexibility – many companies will also allow you to work with an in-house design team on bespoke creations.

“We operate like a firm of architects and work to a brief according to the client’s budget, the site and any other criteria,” reveals Mark Windsor of Design & Materials.

“We’ll then guide customers through planning and building regulations, help them find a builder and supply all the structural materials. The client can then choose their own brickwork, roof tiles, staircase and windows, as well as internal fittings.”

Project Routes

1 Materials only

This level of service represents the bare bones minimum of the various build routes: your chosen supplier will provide the materials for the structural shell only. The design, construction, internal fit-out and finishing will all be left to you.

You might be able to hand most of the work (including project management) over to your chosen contractor or hire individual trades yourself, depending on how involved you want to be.

Some oak frame companies do not offer this package as erection of the structural shell requires specialist skills from their on-site team.

2 Supply & erect

Like the above, this option is the ideal fit for self builders who are keen to take on a large proportion of the work themselves.

Typically, you’ll have commissioned your own design from an independent architect.
This will be translated into plans by your chosen supplier, who will deliver the structural components to site to be assembled (in most cases) by their team, usually to watertight stage.

That leaves the internal fit-out to be completed by your contractor or individually hired trades.

On the plus side, this course of action means the central shell of your build comes from one company at a fixed price. Plus, you have the freedom to choose your own designer.

On the downside, you’ll still be assuming a lot of the risk and effort associated with the build – especially if you’re taking on project management yourself.

3. Design, supply & assembly

This level of service is considered by many to be the ‘standard’ package. It includes your design (either bespoke or chosen from your provider’s portfolio of pre-set plans), supply of core materials and construction to varying degrees of completion, but at least to wind and watertight.

Some suppliers provide follow-on elements, including internal joinery, windows and doors. Others also include planning and Building Regs in this type of package.

This leaves you free to co-ordinate the internal fit-out as you like and decide who will take on the mantle as project manager. “About 40% of our customers choose to manage the builds themselves,” says Paul Newman, director at Potton.

“Of those, roughly 40% work with a professional project manager and most of the
remainder work with a main contractor.

Only a small proportion are looking to take on a significant amount of construction work themselves. Some, for instance, decide to take on elements of decorating and other finishing work either for the sense of achievement or to save money.”

For some suppliers, this is the highest level of service offered.

4. Project management

This route is the next step up from the above, as you appoint a professional project manager from your supplier’s in-house team of experts.

This hands-off approach takes a lot of the stress off your shoulders and places more risk on your chosen package company, making it ideal for first-time builders or people who don’t have the time to dedicate to monitoring the project’s progress.

This service can extend as far into the build as you like, leaving you free to take on more responsibility once the scheme reaches first fix, or leaving it with your PM right up
until completion.

5. Turnkey

The crème-de-la-crème of self build packages, this route hands over the maximum amount of the build (and therefore risk) to your supplier.

The whole construction process will be delivered to an agreed price and timeline, with the company looking after everything from planning and design to construction, Building Regs and the internal fit-out.

As so many elements are provided by the same company, this type of build often involves several trips to their factory so you can decide on every detail including sanitaryware and floor finishes, right down to the style of plug sockets and door handles.

A lot of the design decisions are made up front, which means it’s tricky to make any changes once the fabrication of the house is underway.

Plus, there will be few opportunities to get hands-on on site. On the plus side, this level of
service pretty much guarantees a stress-free process, as well as the assurance of a fixed price and timeline.

 

Package companies have a good reputation when it comes to delivering on value for money. That’s partly because they usually work to set fees agreed early in the process, giving clients the best possible chance of staying on budget. But the big question for self builders is whether a package house will hit the mark in terms of design.

It’s a common misconception that package homes look staid and faintly European. But stunning designs from companies such as timber-frame experts Border Oak and brick-and-block specialists CB Homes have really blown that myth out of the water.

In fact, you can work with your chosen company to get pretty much anything you want, whether it be a Tudor-inspired cottage with traditional green oak beams, or a super-modern pre-fabricated SIPs home.

Engaging contractors

Even if you choose not to buy turnkey, you can still take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of your frame provider for the rest of the project. “Most package companies will be able to recommend good builders or project managers in your region,” reveals Joe Martoccia.

Firms such as Potton regularly assess the work of the contractors they vouch for. Nevertheless, it’s always worth asking to view examples of their previous builds and find out whether the clients were happy with the process and finished result. And, of course, ensure your chosen builder has experience working with the materials you’ve selected.

Additional content from Rebecca Foster. Main image: Self builder Angie Martin used design & build specialist Potton for her project… full story

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