This modern barn-style home was designed by AC Architects for self builder Colin Amor, using existing foundations left by the developer/vendor of the plot. The result is a highly energy-efficient home, built for £1,185/m² 

When you decide to build a house, it is an intriguing challenge: it takes a lot of discipline, both in terms of your time and finances, to get it right. Many prospective self builders want to know how they can keep costs right down, with some aiming to keep their build costs to around £1,000/m2. It’s difficult and challenging, but it can be done.

There isn’t a ‘one-masterplan-fits-all’ solution to achieving this — every single project produces its own individual problems that affect the bottom line. It’s all about the micro-management of the subtleties; paying scrupulous attention to detail within each aspect of the self build process is the only way you’ll be able to keep costs down.

1. Minimise Groundworks

If you can find a flat and serviced plot, this can be a great way to get your cost-cutting off to a flying start. It might seem obvious, but the less groundwork your build requires, the further your budget will go. Bear in mind you can buy plots at various stages of servicing and planning, and this can also limit your initial outlays.

For example, one of our former clients, Colin Amor, found a plot near Gleneagles in Perthshire with an existing footprint already in place; this had been left by a developer who had to stop work due to financial difficulties. This meant we already had a floorplan to work our designs into. Working to the constraints of a tight budget makes for a much simpler and more pragmatic design — sometimes the most impressive designs also come from working within such tight parameters.

2. Hire a Structural Engineer Early On

When you build a house, you know you’ll be paying for the services of a structural engineer at some point, and as their fee is based on the overall build cost, you might as well hire them at the earliest opportunity. Your engineer can iron out structural problems while in constant dialogue with your architect, ensuring your design is thoroughly thought out before building work commences. It is vital that your design is fixed before starting any build work — changes on paper are cheaper than changes on site.

3. Build a House, not a Bungalow

Maximise cost efficiency by building a one-and-a-half storey or two-storey house — avoid building a bungalow if you can. A bungalow accrues the same foundation cost, the same roof cost, and typically the same cost for the ground floor walls. The only different aspect is the first floor walls. So why not build a house twice as large for slightly more?

4. Utilise Rational Geometry

The design of your home is going to have a huge impact on your budget, so intelligent architecture will help keep you on track. Our clients’ budgets inform how we create the designs — and we will be quite firm if it’s obvious that their budget won’t cover their ideas.

It’s best to utilise rational geometry. Opting for a more traditional design, such as a square or rectangular building, featuring several internal walls in a ‘racking’ structure, is a wise idea. This can work out to be more cost-effective than a home built around an open plan design (where wide spans will require careful planning and more structural support).

5. Be Sensible With Glazing

It’s a good idea to find off-the-shelf, standard-sized products to incorporate into your design. For instance, it may work out cheaper to choose standard-sized windows as opposed to a bespoke piece of glazing. Consider sensibly sized fenestrations for windows and doors, and speak to your architect and engineer about what is most important to you.

If there isn’t a particular view you’re trying to capture with that window, you don’t need it. If you don’t need the window, you don’t need the extra beam — so you can spend the money on something else.

6. Choose Your Construction System Wisely

It’s important to give careful thought to your construction method, and to examine costs closely. Choosing to go with structural insulated panels (SIPs) will initially cost a lot more than the likes of traditional blockwork, but the benefit of a prefabricated kit is that it keeps on-site labour costs down. A kit can be erected in a matter of days, whereas laying bricks can take a lot longer. The cost of labour per day will add up significantly in this instance, and this construction method is more susceptible to on-site conditions, such as wet weather.

7. Consider the Long-Term Running Costs

Always look to invest your budget in the fabric of the building. The fabric-first approach can have a knock-on effect regarding how much you spend on other aspects of your self build. Opting for a highly energy-efficient and airtight build method, like SIPs or a closed-panel kit, can save you further on materials such as insulation, and potentially on the equipment required for your heating system. What’s more, the more heat your home retains, the less you have to pay in heating it.

You don’t have to go mad with ‘eco-bling’ either. Renewables are expensive, and you won’t necessarily see enough payback from certain modes of renewable energy to justify their costs.

8. Project Manage Yourself and Set a Thorough Programme of Works to Avoid Costly Delays

If you want to keep your self build costs down, project managing yourself is probably the best option. Take responsibility for your project, and be sure to subcontract out as much work as possible. This eliminates a main contractor’s profit, meaning you can make your budget go a lot further. Our client Colin Amor also chose to do this, and lived on site to ensure everything ran on time and as smoothly as possible.

Key to project managing is setting out a thorough project time scale and programme with all of your chosen professionals sat around the table. Minimising delays and coordinating time on site can save you a lot of money, and keeping your team happy can have an effect on productivity. You want them to do a good job, so being a reliable client, or project manager, could motivate your team to work that little bit harder for you — avoiding costly mistakes.

You may even consider learning a trade in order to build elements of your new home yourself. You can help lay bricks, or learn basic joinery to take as much out of the labour outlays as possible.

9. Beware the Hidden Costs

Be savvy with the less obvious costs — the more time on site, the more you’ll pay for site insurance, site facilities hire, and the likes of scaffolding, for example. Depending on the length of time you anticipate your build taking, look into buying a set of scaffolding for the duration of your project, then selling it on after. If you hire scaffolding, you will spend a lot more on it over those weeks than it costs to buy it outright, and you won’t get any of that money back! This tip can be applied to other things you might hire — diggers, for example.

The length of time your build is on site will also have an effect on your own living costs — you may be renting accommodation following the sale of your previous home, so the quicker you can get into your new one, the better.

10. Shop Around for Materials to Redistribute You Budget

Be sure to assess every avenue for sourcing your materials, and always get a range of quotes from different suppliers. Try auctions and online stores; you might even find some materials are cheaper to import too. Every penny you save can be redistributed to a ‘wow’ feature in your home, so it’s important that you make the important decisions. Being organised, choosing and ordering all the fittings and finishings early on can eliminate costly on-site delays.

When you build a house, keeping your costs down to around £1,000/m2 is extremely challenging, but it can be done if you are focused and disciplined with your time and resources.

Allan Corfield of AC ArchitectsAllan Corfield

Allan Corfield is a chartered architect and director of AC Architects. He is also a member of NaCSBA (National Custom & Self Build Association), and experienced in designing self build homes


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