There is more than one way to build a house or extension. This means that, if you’re looking to undertake a project of this sort, you need to work out which route is best for you. It’s not just a matter of whether you have any building skills or not — but more a case of assessing how much time you have to offer, your own ‘transferable’ skills and also how much control you want to have over the project. The good news is that you can have as much or as little involvement as you want.
Using a Main Contractor
What it Means
While you will be responsible for the design process, a main contractor will be responsible for getting the house built. In most cases this means they will arrange a team of subcontractors in the various trades to undertake different stages of the project, although some main contractors take on most of their own building work (particularly bricklaying); they will also arrange delivery of materials to the site, although you will be expected to choose (and pay for) the big-ticket items.
Because you’re outsourcing more of the involvement in the work to someone else, this route places much more emphasis on finding the right main contractor. It goes without saying that you will need to be able to maintain a good working relationship with them. You will still need to be in touch with the main contractor on a daily basis, although you could get away with only visiting the site twice a week. You’ll need to be able to make decisions on products and also pay large chunks of money to them at regular intervals (usually either on a monthly invoice or at agreed stages).
This is a way of still being involved in a building project that is ideal for those with time constraints or a lack of experience. You won’t have to worry about lining up all the individual trades, checking deliveries and so on, but you will still be able to influence the big picture.
This isn’t a worry-free option. You will still need to visit the site regularly, as employing a main contractor on your behalf merely shifts the burden of responsibility from you hiring good tradesmen to you hiring a good main contractor. So there is a potential for things to go wrong if the main contractor messes up. Also, you do pay extra for this route — the main contractor/project manager will want to take 10-20% on top of all costs.
Is it for Me?
This is a sensible route for people who want an involvement with a building project but don’t have the time to handle all the finer details. You’ll still get a certain amount of stress but, assuming you have a reliable main contractor, then you should have someone who can absorb most of it. You don’t need to have any experience of building for this route and it’s a good way for a first-timer to learn the ropes.
What it Means
You take on the role of project manager. You will commission a designer to come up with a design scheme and, when it comes to building the house or extension, you will gather together a team of specialist contractors in their various fields: groundworks, bricklaying, roofing, plumbing and so on. You will also buy in all of the materials and provide adequate site facilities, insurances and so on.
You will need to be a supremely good organiser, both of shortterm schedules (looking to the day ahead) but also, at the same time, the bigger, longterm picture (looking to the next month). It’s a question of lining people up — and as a result, a good contacts book really helps. You will also need to know material requirements — not just what you want but, more importantly, if you want to keep costs down, and by how much. You will need to know what each m² of brick facing requires (it’s 60 bricks). You’ll need an in-depth knowledge of the building schedule (i.e. what trades come after each other and which work together) and an eye for the paperwork involved in running a site — from finances to insurances and inspections.
You will also take on the filling-in tasks – such as keeping the site tidy – that fall in between the task lists of each trade. This is a huge ask in terms of time and stress — but ultimately very rewarding.
There are potentially big savings to be made by using this route. Not only will you save on the cost of a main contractor (who will usually add 10-20% on to the basic cost of labour and materials as his payment) but you will also be able to have more influence on the savings made through the materials specification process — you’re likely to be much more motivated to look for good value in materials for your own home than any builder is.
Also, one of the things that self-builders and extenders like most about taking on the role of project manager is that they can really get a close involvement with the project and keep an eye on every detail.
That means not only greater direction over the schedule, quality of work and the materials specified, but a generally greater sense of satisfaction when the job is finally finished. Plus, you really will know every inch of the house, which helps immensely with future repairs.
Running a building site takes up a lot of time and effort. You’ll need to be on site at the very least twice a day and ideally would be able to appoint someone – perhaps a friendly joiner who is around the site a lot at certain stages – to sign for deliveries. You will be on the phone a lot, too. As a result, many people find it hugely stressful and not a little overwhelming, and not far off impossible when combined with a full-time job that offers no flexibility. One of the key negatives remains, however, that it’s down to you to ensure that the tradesmen have done a good job. While Building Control and warranty inspectors will ensure minimum standards are set, huge amounts of work often fall outside their remit. So you’ll need to keep a close eye on tilers, plasterers and joiners in particular to ensure the finishes are up to your desired standards.
Is it for You?
Yes, if you’re organised and ideally have experience of building — or access to someone who has. You’ll need to be full of energy and able to handle tradesmen from different walks of life — and be able to be firm but fair with them (although they won’t expect you to know the details of their jobs). Access to a mobile phone and flexible working are essential, as is the ability to find reliable local tradesmen.
How it Works
You will commission a company to take on the design and build of your new home. They will handle every – thing from concept design to planning permission, construction and, in some cases, internal finishes.
This is the most hands-off, stress-free self-build route. You will need to be closely involved at the design stage to ensure the plans meet your requirements, because changing things as you go along will be problematic. Also, you will need to be able to make key decisions quite far in advance — so be prepared to choose door handles, flooring and so on sometimes even before ground has been broken. The key demand is a slightly heavier wallet, as getting other people to manage your project for you and soaking up all the stress does cost.
If anything comes close to the concept of hassle-free self-building, this is it. Everything is pre-designed and predetermined, leaving very little to chance on site. This no-variance approach means that there’s very little room for things to go horrifically wrong on site — assuming that things don’t change from the initial design. Getting everything engineered off site usually means that it’s easier to remove ‘builder error’ issues such as air leaks around windows, for instance. It’s usually quicker on site, too — some of the prefab kits can be erected in a matter of weeks (although they are in the factory for weeks beforehand).
Also, by going to the same company for a design and build service, you’re much likelier to get that all-important synergy between your budget and the eventual build cost.
The more hands-off you are and the more other people shoulder the responsibility, the more you pay. This is the most expensive of all the routes. As it’s the most hands-off, you might also find that it’s perhaps the least rewarding emotionally of all the routes — you won’t know where every last pipe is. Finally, there is almost zero scope to change your mind along the way — so you’d better be good at visualising your new home from early on.
Is it for You?
Self-builders using package companies tend to fall into one of two groups. They are either far too busy and possibly inexperienced to want the gamble of being too involved with a building site on a close basis; or they really buy into the design or construction ethos of the package company itself. This is particularly the case with the oak framers as well as some of the European-based timber frame companies (with some exceptions, package companies tend to be the exclusive source for timber and oak frame systems).