The most important thing to think about when starting a self build project is not just ‘what am I going to build’, but instead, ‘how am I going to build?’

What I mean by this is that, so often, the loose term ‘self build’ is used to cover a vast range of different ways of going about the process of building a house — with little in common with one another except for the fact that, at the end of it, you will (hopefully!) have a new house for yourself.

At one end of the scale, this could mean briefing your architect and then disappearing on holiday until you return to a beautifully built home. Your architect can fully design and document the project, tender with several building contractors, and oversee the project on site. This should grant you reasonable confidence that if the scope of work is accurately pinned down and nothing changes, your project will be on time and on budget.

The Black Shed by Rural Design

Architects Rural Design worked on the Black Shed, designed to suit the abilities of the self builder

At the other end of the scale, you could design your own building, submit your own planning application, prepare your own Building Regulations and working drawings, and physically build every aspect yourself. You’d probably need a few structural calculations at some point and electrical certification (Part P), but other than that, there’s nothing to stop you getting on with it.

Which Build Route?

So, where on the self build scale are you positioning yourself? Somewhere in the middle is, I suspect, the approach that most of you will take — doing some of it yourself, and overseeing groups of subcontractors to do the rest.

The important thing is to be both explicitly clear about what your mechanism of delivery of the project is and, critically, how the design and construction of the project reflects your approach. If someone else is building it, you can rely on their expertise; if you are building it, you’re relying on yours.

Even if you have some subcontractors building bits of it under your management, there’s a great deal you need to know and do — not just your strategy for organisation and control, but knowledge, skill or technique around materials and methods of construction. Each approach will necessitate a very different type of building, unless you are an extraordinarily adept self builder.

Impact on Design

The interesting bit though, is how this affects the design — and the interesting question for self builders is how much you can do yourself. For me, a project that embraces your skill level is a really exciting and interesting one.

One of the things many of us aspire to achieve is perfect tolerances and perfect levels of finish. But as many of us are unlikely to ever become master craftsmen, there is a different way; a way that may encourage you to take on more, not less, of your self build.

A Home Designed Around the Self Builder’s Skills

Rural Design’s The Black Shed on the Isle of Skye is a very good example of a house that was intelligently designed by the architect around the skills of the self builder. The technologies, materials and finishes were ideal for someone with relatively little construction experience, but lots of practical common sense and enthusiasm.

The building is effectively a simple, but beautiful shed. All of the materials used – black corrugated sheet, OSB (oriented strand board), blockwork and so on – are all widely available, standard materials. There aren’t many ‘finishes’ to speak of which are great in a self build, as it is often these things that catch self builders out and add layers of unnecessary expense and complexity.

Interior of the Black Shed

Using wood for the walls instead of plaster meant the self builder could do the interior finishes

Limit the wet trades

In the project — generally ‘dry’ materials that can be screwed, fixed or bolted together are easier to use for self builders. Where there are finishes in The Black Shed, they are generally self-finished materials.

Where there are wet trades (such as the blockwork used to construct the stairs) the detailing doesn’t attempt to emulate the skills of a bricklayer, and are relatively crude and ‘naively’ done in a conventional sense — but all the better for it.

The project is a celebration of the skills of the self builder. It is so exciting to see a project that embraces the skills that many ordinary people have, and turns them into an extraordinary piece of architecture.

The Hands-on Experience

It is at this end where some of the real joy of self build can be discovered — the actual doing it yourself. Merely managing a project isn’t exploiting the potential of self build. At best, you may (possibly, if you’re very lucky and resourceful) save money, but there’s far more to extract from the self build process than this, where the building you end up with could be one that anyone could have built.

But, by building it yourself, with your own hands and with your resourcefulness, you enter a very different relationship with your house, the materials you use and the spaces you make — and this is where the real joy of self build happens.

Working with actual materials, fixing them yourself, being a part of and controlling the build, is incredibly exciting and empowering. Also – I will, of course, advise you to strictly keep to your schedule – working on your own house encourages experimentation.

There are delicious discoveries that can be made when you exploit the freedom you have if the build is your own, and you try things out. When you are in control of what happens, and when you have the freedom to add your own mark to materials, finishes and spaces, you will discover the real empowerment that arises in crafting your own house — hand-built, by you.

Being in Control

Without wishing to curb any enthusiasm I might have awakened, regardless of your experience and the process you use, the most important thing is to put in place a mechanism for controlling the three essential aspects of the build: time, money and quality (or how long it all takes, how much you spend and what you actually build and its resultant performance).

A little bit of upfront expert advice that helps you bottom out all of this is probably the best bit of money that you will spend. Ironically, the more carefully defined your strategy for delivery, the more freedom you will have to innovate.

Top Tips:

  • Match your build route to your skills
  • If you are building as much as possible yourself, choose a design with elements which you can realistically build
  • Limit wet trades as things you can screw, fix or bolt are easier for the DIY self builder
  • Stick to your schedule
  • Impose systems to control time, money and quality

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