Let me be clear. After 12 years of editing Britain’s best-selling magazine and biggest website for people doing this kind of thing; having self built already; having personal access to the country’s leading experts on all aspects of home construction from project management to planning permission; being able to tap into the whole building materials industry for expertise; being on first-name terms with many of the country’s top home design brains; hell, I’ve even written a book that other people read on the subject — if I can’t show you how to carry out a really slick, well-organised, cost-effective, nerveless remodel in this column over the next few months, then we’re all stuffed.
What I’m saying is that if anyone can avoid making the mistakes that we all worry about, it should be me. As I’ll no doubt go on to prove, of course, knowing what the mistakes are and actually avoiding them are two very different things — but let’s see. I hope that in sharing my build experiences with you and hopefully giving an honest, open account of the project, you’ll understand the process better, feel that if an idiot like me can do it, anyone can, and do it properly yourself, too.
So the situation was that we had left our self built home in the Midlands (which we featured back in the July 2007 issue of Homebuilding & Renovating) and, with two children under five, we quite understandably wanted a home that would give us all a bit more space, with a nice garden and close to the usual requirements for good schools and so on. After a few months of searching for a plot, we ended up not so much falling in love but struggling to ignore a rather sad-looking 1960s home in a beautiful village in Staffordshire.
It had everything we wanted on paper — it was big, it had a nice large garden (on a half-acre plot), we could live in it immediately even if it would be like living in an early 1990s Travel Tavern, and it had plenty of potential to improve and make our own. It was the archetypal worst house in the best village — but it had a nice feel and we could imagine our family here for years to come.
After a few months of coming to terms with the house, we commissioned a full measured survey of the property. Looking back, it was one of our better decisions — in order to successfully improve a property you need to know exactly what you’ve got, and the only way to do that properly is with a survey that works directly into CAD packages. Our surveyors, Grantham Coates, spent a full day using all sorts of exciting-looking equipment and we ended up with something that has formed the basis of all our design work since. Good design has to start somewhere, and an audit of what you have is key.
To be clear, we didn’t bother with structural surveys or the like. We rather took the view that it was a bit pointless, as we planned to do such an invasive project anyway — and in my experience ‘full’ structural surveys have been anything but.