1. Appoint the Right Architect

As well as ensuring he or she can design, check whether your chosen architect can also detail up the design and project manage the construction stage. Some people split the process, so that one firm designs and a different company takes over for the site works. I don’t like this, as there are split liability issues and the second person doesn’t have the initial design in their soul.

Also, think twice before accepting the cheapest quote: if a cheap price comes in, you invariably get a cheap service.

2. Go for Maturity

It takes years of experience (and mistakes) to know what you are doing, so avoid giving someone fresh out of college the job of designing and running your house project.

3. Create a Sensible Budget

Be honest with yourself and don’t push your budget to the point where you can’t afford a pint at the pub. There is little point in sitting in a grand house if you can’t afford to heat it or live life a little. I remember seeing one couple in sleeping bags in an unfinished house that went way over budget because they kept adding extra elements. So create a budget, then adjust and alter it if you need to, but always refer to it.

4. Write a Strong Brief

Project creep is the demon of all designs and clients. Without a brief, how can you comment or compare design developments? Before you know it, your three-bed bungalow has become a five bedroom townhouse — ask yourself why the changes are needed.

5. Make Time for the Project

Building a house and getting the different stages right takes time, and to succeed clients must build time into their busy lives. Even when you have employed the best designer and builder, there will need to be meetings, conversations, emails and agreements. Don’t expect to simply be handed back a perfect design after one meeting and then have it built. The best house projects are those with clients who commit time and energy to meeting up, answering questions and thinking about the options that are put in front of them.

self build home exterior a frame with glazing

6. Agree How to Communicate

It’s vital that you agree this at the outset. Can you be approached nine to five, or are you only available out of office hours? Make sure that all meetings are recorded and written in minutes, so there is no confusion or ambiguity. I use minutes to record what is and is not agreed, and what the next steps are.

7. Be Honest from the Start

Don’t be influenced by the latest fad. If you like certain styles, then stick to them. We can’t all live in modern glass boxes. When working with clients I have seen many start with a description, only to find that they like something else entirely different. This can often occur with couples who haven’t talked through their own brief with each other, or discussed style, fittings or budget. So before you get together with your architect, sit down with each other and talk through your choices.

8. Programme the Works

This sounds so obvious, but work out how long each stage will take. This adds reality to the project and avoids the pressure of unrealistic timescales. From the programme you can look ahead and create key milestones for design, planning, Building Regulations, tender and construction. Each of these can then be broken down later, into a more detailed programme. If you can’t draw up a programme, ask your architect and they will be happy to assist. The programme helps you develop cash flow forecasts for payments and is a vital tool when you approach your bank to organise finances for loans to pay fees, contractors and suppliers.

9. Go for the Full Service

We often see clients who want a partial service and then choose to run the site works. As soon as this starts, the calls start to come in when they hit problems on contracts and inspections, technical questions and disputes between parties.

interior of modern self build kitchen


The open plan kitchen area in Neil’s own home

10. Don’t Keep Changing Things

Part of the fascination of design is the development and evolution of the brief into sketches, then layouts and finally a completed design. There will be alterations and different versions. My job is to guide this process along, so there is consensus and agreement on the completed work. I always accept that it is healthy to double check, so I don’t mind change. However, if changes occur all the time, it becomes chaotic and hard to move on, and demoralising for the designer.

11. Keep on Track on Site

Making changes on site is the biggest sin of clients. As you pass each work stage, you should see each as a major passing point and not a point to go back and revisit. Sign off the drawings — it’s all too easy to pick up another magazine, or talk to a friend, or see another product. When I built my house, we made the conscious decision not to vary anything on site, even the fixtures and fittings.

12. Make Decisions Before Work Begins

If the drawings are complete before site works commence, then you will have thought through all the decisions. Where is the shaver point? How high is the TV in the living room, for instance? Every time you add this on to the site works, the potential for delay and cost increases.

13. Pay on Time

A common mistake is when clients say they haven’t got the money or it’s due shortly, and ask if those involved in the project can wait. If you make people wait for fees, it doesn’t foster a relationship of trust or respect. Your borrowing problems are not the team’s problems.

14. Look at the Bigger Picture

When I first meet clients, I am always excited by the possible commission and the challenge they want to give us. It’s quite a responsibility to have their future home in our hands. So pay for good advice and your project should run along well. Enjoy the experience — if you are going to do this just once, then you had better make it work. Most architect-designed houses are one-off prototypes. If you haven’t built before, the chances of you getting it right first time are greatly improved if you pick the right help.

Neil Turner Architect of Howarth Litchfield PartnershipNeil Turner

Neil is a director of architectural practice Howarth Litchfield Partnership and specialises in residential design

Featured image: iStock, House exterior: Brett Charles, Interior: Jeremy Phillips

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