Routes to Self-Build: Professionally Managed

In the first of a three-part series on project management, Mike Hardwick looks at hiring an industry expert
Build It expert Mike Hardwick
by Mike Hardwick
9th November 2015

This is the first in a three part series looking at the key management routes: firstly, professional; then using a general contractor for the build; and finally, project managing the development yourself.

I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of each so you can decide which option best suits you and your scheme. This time around, professional management and the self-build package companies are considered.

Using your architect

If you have used an architect for your design, then you will usually have the option of contracting him or her for a ‘full service’ that will involve creating a suitable design, obtaining planning and building control approvals, finding a main contractor and project managing the development.

All for a fee, of course, which is usually a percentage of the construction price, typically 12-15% (although the RIBA’s Plan of Work guidelines specify more).

The beauty of using your architect is that no one will understand the design and how to build it better, and they will have contacts ranging from planning consultants to general builders. The down side is that I often hear of self-builders who have had an outstanding design drawn for them that is completely unaffordable to erect.

The inference is that there is an incentive to design a more complex, highly specified and expensive house, because the fee will be higher. To avoid this situation, get in touch with the Association of Self-Build Architects whose members understand this problem and know how to design well, but within a self-builder’s budget.

An architect-managed build

modern timber clad home

A closer look: Andreas Adalian’s house on Skye was designed by Alan Dickson of Rural Architecture. Andreas was living in Switzerland during the build, so it made sense for Alan to also oversee the construction by a local contractor. Hold-ups with bad weather and poor ground conditions meant that the project was delayed, with Andreas moving in to a single room while the house was finished around him – hardships that are all but forgotten now that his cosy modern home is complete. The house cost £360,000, equivalent to £1,440 per m2.

Photo: Nigel Rigden

Hiring a project manager

I’m regularly asked the question: “Do I need a project manager?” Well, every project needs to be managed by someone, but the problem with hiring a professional is the fee.

A qualified project manager is going to cost anywhere between 10-15% of your build budget: putting it another way, if you have £250,000 overall, you will be giving at least £25,000 of that to someone else. That might pay for a very nice kitchen, and possibly a bathroom, too.

The problem is one of scale: a good manager on a major development will be expected to save their own cost through efficiency savings – for example, by negotiating better prices on materials and labour and avoiding expensive delays. The trouble with the average self-build is that there is just not enough of a budget to make that sort of saving.

Add to that, if you are building a conventional home, do you really need someone external to your general builder to put it all together? Constructing a house is not rocket science and people do it all the time. That said, if you are building a particularly large, complex or innovative dwelling using unusual materials or methods, then I would suggest that a professional is going to be needed.

Custom build

In recent years, a new term has emerged: custom build. It came into use when the government was actively discussing how self-build could help ease the housing shortage and create more affordable homes. To the government, the term ‘self-build’ meant those who literally built their own properties (which accounts for only around 7% of self-builders).

Custom build now refers to those who decide to use an enabling contractor to create all or part of their home, and the list of these industry professionals is growing all the time. The enabling contractor can do anything from providing a serviced plot to supplying a full turnkey service, with the key point being that they take on the risk for as long as they are involved with the scheme.

Of course, that means you will pay for the privilege, but you should still be able to move into your home, custom made to your own requirements, for around 10% cheaper than the mass-market equivalent.

Package companies

I’m a great believer in the package company route, especially if you are a first-time self-builder. The term covers everything from provision of a simple timber frame or a package of materials to build the shell of your house, through to a full prefabricated system using a company’s turnkey service.

All these routes have their merits and most will offer a heavily subsidised bespoke design service, while some will have a catalogue of designs that can be modified to your exact requirements as necessary.

The big benefit of the package companies is that they will have excellent architects or similar professionals on board.The key to their existence is good design, because if you want to build the dream house they have conceived for you, then you will be obliged to use their full service.

If what they produce is below par, you go elsewhere and they don’t get paid; the subsidised front end is the sprat to catch the mackerel and the aim is to create a design that is so perfect for the client’s needs that they simply must have it.

Many package companies can also handle the planning and building control process and will erect the structure themselves or help you to find a good local builder to do it for you. It is important to remember that most do not offer a project management service as part of the basic package and it will be up to you to find a builder or the necessary tradesmen to finish off the job.

However, they will usually be on hand throughout the project to offer advice and support, so they can still make the whole process that much easier for you.

A full turnkey build

contemporary timber clad house with zinc flat roof

A closer look: “I knew that if we were going to build something it would have to be really fast, clean and efficient,” says Lloyd Smith about the contemporary home that he and his wife Jill built near Winchester. The Lloyds contracted Baufritz, which specialises in prefabricated homes, to design and manage the whole process; the construction phase was managed by Baufritz along with a separate groundworks and basement specialist. The build took just six months from start to finish, and cost £800,000 (equivalent to £2,857 per m2).

Photo: Baufritz

So who should I use?

Employing a professional is all about achieving efficiency and quality while minimising your exposure to risk. Because you are effectively transferring that risk onto others, none of the routes I’ve described are going to be the cheapest option.

However, if you need to keep the income rolling in through the day job and don’t want the stress and imposition on your free time that self management involves, then it’s money well spent.

I think the way to look at it is that if you can get your house built by using one of these professionals within the price you have established and cheaper than the cost of an equivalent house on the open market, so what if it does cost a bit more?

It’s your call in the end, but if you are working to a very tight budget, you are probably best waiting for the next two articles in the series, where I’ll explain how you can trade off your time and save money by getting a little more involved in the building process, and taking on a bit more of the risk.

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