In my day job – designing and building individual homes for private clients – I am intimately involved with so many different builds at the same time. Each of them have different budgets, priorities, procurement methods and approaches. Most of the week, my team and I are running 10-15 projects at different stages and together, we design, thermal-model, specify, detail and oversee construction on site. We make the decisions — the buck stops with me.

With Building the Dream, there is none of that. I first get to see the project after the big decisions – design, planning, detailing, tendering – have been made. The die has been cast and I am there to watch the ride!

It has been a massive learning experience and a real chance to better understand how to design and build — which I hope to share in this article and in the coming months.

Out of this unique experience a few simple observations have become clear to me, and I thought I’d share them.

Keep it Simple

Simplify, simplify, simplify — and not just for aesthetic reasons. It is nearly always true that the simpler the plan, the better the building. Too many plans end up getting complicated and embellished because the basic concept just doesn’t work. Every junction, corner or valley increases cost, time, the difficulties of airtightness and usually increases the surface area, so more heat is lost.

Test Your Space Before You Build

Really work out how each space is going to be used, and be rigorous. Sunrooms that face north, dining rooms with no daylight, TV rooms with too much daylight. It’s easy in the design stage to stick a label on a room and think you’ll work it out later — don’t. Make sure you get your plan to work with the furniture right from the start. I have been guilty of knowing a room doesn’t quite work and thinking we can work it out later and quite often can’t.

Timber Frame Construction

Eight out of the 10 builds I am following are timber frame and while I can see they have benefits, I have some concerns with what I have seen. Timber frame construction is lightweight and I worry that as the climate warms, they could suffer from overheating in summer as there is no masonry to absorb the heat during the day and release it overnight.

Airtightness is another issue with this type of construction as it relies on membranes, mastic and lots of tape. This is fine if you are using the right products — but I’ve seen too much mastic on building sites, along with dodgy tapes that you just know 5-10 years down the line are not going to be airtight anymore! We recently completed a cost exercise on a project for both timber frame and a sustainable masonry construction. The super-insulated, airtight masonry construction turned out to be cheaper when we costed the whole job.

Circulation Space

This is not a waste of space. Lots of homes try to squeeze in too many bedrooms and en suite bathrooms by sacrificing circulation space. Circulation space defines how a house feels — and can even make living in the house a wonderful experience. Estate agents and TV pundits love to tell us to maximise bedrooms and bathrooms — stuff that! Generous, exciting circulation space is about the most important thing in a home.

Technology — Part One

This goes back to the ‘keeping it simple’ thought, because the one thing about technology you can rely on is that it will go wrong — right when it shouldn’t. The less you depend on technology to make your house low energy, the better. Insulation, good windows, airtightness and mechanical ventilation heat recovery systems are the most important things.

Technology — Part Two

Novelty techno lighting dates like a haircut — steer clear!

Folding Sliding Doors

I am not a fan. Unless you spend serious money, they often don’t work very well. They are not usually airtight and many models have visually heavy glazing bars. I accept that they look great open, but what about the rest of the year?

The Curse of the Jack and Jill Bathroom

Have I locked the door? Why can’t I get into the bathroom — has the other user forgotten to unlock the door? Why have I just walked into a room with someone using the loo? All are questions that these ‘space savers’ regularly raise. If you need one in your design, then your plan is probably wrong!

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