Architect Piers Taylor looks at how prioritising your budget towards the structural elements, rather than the finishes, is the wisest of all investments
It is tricky to consider the raw quality of the space and the hidden layers of construction in a house, when in glossy magazines it is the attention-grabbing peripherals that so often receive most of the coverage. When beginning a self build the ostensibly sexy, superficial things such as the fit-out and finishes are distracting, but initially, it is far more important to focus on the bigger picture of creating space and light, and the constructional principle of your build.
Get this right – and use the fabric of the building intelligently – and you might find that you don’t need these ‘finishes’ in the conventional sense. Inventive construction is the most beautiful thing of all. I’d rather live in an honest, dignified, simple and clever shed with makeshift interiors, than in an ordinary, developer-spec house with the best fit-out in the world.
Concentrate on the Fabric of the Building
First of all, you need to be spending money on getting the fabric of the build right, as this can’t easily be upgraded in the future. You can easily live with a temporary kitchen, but not temporary walls or roof.
My philosophy is that it is better to build part of a vision than a complete compromise. It’s curious that in an age of gimmicks and gizmos, quality isn’t considered to be very exciting. When you are buying a car for instance, it is far better to focus on the quality of the engineering than the bells and whistles such as heated wiper blades.
It is not that I don’t think parts of the house (such as kitchens and bathrooms) aren’t important – they are – but a flash bathroom won’t transform a banal and ordinary building. Your house will (hopefully) be standing for a long time, and the delight of clever, light-filled spaces with inventive and robust construction will give you huge amounts of pleasure long after the novelty of a glossy and expensive kitchen has worn off.
It is essential to invest time in getting the fundamental constructional principles of a building resolved. This aspect of the building should last almost indefinitely, and it is here where key savings are made.
The OSB used here to build internal walls has been left bare to stunning effect
The Expense of Following Construction Convention
Structure needs rethinking from the first principles, perhaps even by going against the grain of how most houses are built. It is deceptively hard to take a steer here, as all too often builders do what they’re used to — and in a world where everyone is an expert, the construction industry isn’t very good at rethinking how it goes about its business. Small changes in the principle of construction can lead to big savings in terms of cost.
For example, there’s an obsession with (over) layering in most housebuilding: timber frame, for example, is typically clad on the outside with masonry, and on the inside with a sheathing board and then plasterboard, followed by skim and paint — layers and more layers.
All of these layers typically require different trades — a bricklayer, a carpenter, a plasterer and a painter. This is not generally efficient and, importantly, if you’re managing the build, there’s nothing worse than cajoling different trades along, and trying to sequence each so there’s a seamless overlap from one to the other.
The Merits of Dry Construction
I am a huge fan of simplifying the construction process — reducing the trades involved to the point where very often, I try to avoid wet trades entirely. I’m also not overly enamoured with blockwork, facing masonry or plaster due to them being highly weather dependent and messy, and they’re not things that a self builder can easily take on themselves on a DIY basis.
While I do have the greatest respect for good bricklayers, many seem to think that as their work is unlikely to be seen in the completed building, workmanship isn’t important. It’s ironic that it is so hard for masonry buildings to be finished well, because everything is designed to be covered up.
Want good-quality facing blockwork? You’ll have to pay twice as much. Far cheaper to cover poor-quality blockwork with plaster, then to cover the poor-quality plaster with paint, and to cover poor-quality junctions with skirtings, architraves and cornices. With a dry, lightweight building, it is much easier (even for the amateur) to achieve good-quality finishes and, what’s more, it can also be typically cheaper.
With dry construction, one trade – carpentry – can also build most of the house, and many budding self builders can do the majority of this work themselves. Over the years, I’ve tried to make each project I’ve worked on more and more simple to build — and lightweight. Certainly, in the ones I’ve built myself, I’ve eliminated wet trades completely, except maybe for modest pad footings which I’ve mixed and poured myself.
With lightweight construction, many people are conditioned by the legacy of postwar bungalows and question the durability of buildings that don’t use masonry — but, if detailed correctly, they will last just as long. Interestingly, far from being inferior to a heavyweight building, it is far easier to achieve a better quality house with dry construction — and, importantly, a self-finished building with exposed timber frame and unpainted sheet materials can be incredibly beautiful.
Expose the Structure
Don’t be afraid to take a risk — just because something isn’t conventionally done, doesn’t mean you should avoid doing it. While I am not a great fan of plasterboard (because it needs taping, plastering, painting, and isn’t very durable) I am a big fan, however, of self-finished buildings — where the bones of the building are exposed.
This is the real beauty of a house — seeing the essential structure, sinews and skin, rather than the superficial covering items. For me, exposed and varnished concrete screed is more beautiful and durable than any other floor covering, plywood is far nicer and more durable than plasterboard, and exposed rafters are better than any ceiling finish.
So, select carefully when it comes to your method of construction, and only then think about the fittings. You could even camp in your watertight shell while you continue to fit it out.