Architect Piers Taylor explains why using a building contract with the help of an architect is the only way of ensuring you get the house you really want — not what your builder wants

When it comes to self build, most people dive in head first without knowing fully what their responsibilities or limitations are. Instead, they bandy around the word ‘project management’ without really knowing what it means, but assuming they are capable of it — only to then fumble their way through a project that is fraught with difficulties, unforeseen expenditure, bodged details and fractured relationships.

While building isn’t rocket science, it does need strategic planning at every stage and there are simple tested methods for this in the form of building contracts, which are used to set up and control the relationships between the people doing the work and those paying for it. They ultimately provide you with the house you want without the grief or heartache.

Accurate Information for Your Builder, Accurate Costs for You

However, a building contract is only as good as the scope of work it describes, and the problem here is that most people can’t accurately explain what they want their builder to achieve — neither do they put in place the mechanisms and instructions (drawings) that control this. As a result, in the absence of a clear set of design-intent documents, the builder effectively becomes the designer.

A set of instructions to a builder can’t be just a vaguely described ambition for a project — it should be a set of unequivocal information where everything can be costed and accounted for accurately.

After 20 years in the business, I know of no other way that works other than using a building contract, and it never ceases to amaze me how many people try to circumvent this stage, or substitute it with vague instructions that translate into vague costs and vague timescales. You should never let a project start on site until the mechanisms to control the holy trilogy of building – cost, time and quality – is put in place. And by quality, I mean design.

It’s curious that so many people think they can save money by not employing professional advice to assist them with the design or the management of their project, and it’s a constant surprise for me that most people don’t use an architect or designer. Buildings, it seems, are things that everyone has an opinion on and somehow this qualifies anyone as a designer. The point of using a designer, however, is to do something on a project that you cannot, and not have them simply draw up what you already know.

I’m reminded of Henry Ford’s comment: ‘If we had given people what they wanted, we’d have given them faster horses.’ Not, of course, the first affordable mass-produced automobile, which revolutionised personal transportation in ways they’d never imagined. If you feel you don’t need an architect, the communication and documentation of the design for a project will almost never be completed. Other than being a missed opportunity to go beyond what you already know, this will also cause you grief.

Using a Designer

Project managers are not designers (whereas architects can be project managers) and they cannot, or should not, take on the production of the technical information needed to communicate accurately to a builder the design intent of a project. Not only are they not typically capable, but they simply cannot fully know the design consequences of what they are proposing — it would mean that the project would be designed by a builder or an untrained project manager.

Builders have their essential role, of course, but would you trust a builder with design? Many builders want to build what they normally build, so why would you want this brought to your beloved vision for your new house? Surely you want it to be special, unconventional and bespoke? Not just in ethos, concept and layout, but also in detail. If that is the case, who is there to help you set out this vision and translate it into a set of instructions for a builder?

Assuming you do have someone to do this for you, you also need this person to follow through with a set of detailed plans that define where every screw goes, what type of screws are used, and then structure this into a set of documents that can be formally tendered so you can compare with some accuracy what is costed. Remember, you’re not asking for an estimate, you’re asking for a formal and fixed price.

The information in this document should be detailed to the point that you may not even need to speak to the tendering contractors: everything that is being costed should have its place in these documents and, ultimately, a cost against it. This is all part of what an architect will do for you, and this will in turn protect you from a situation where your builder simply builds what he wants, not what you want, which has been carefully planned between you and your architect. Similarly, I know no other way that allows you to control your project.

Once you have the scope of the work, you need a set of comparable fixed tenders from a minimum of three contractors that break down the costs of a project into itemised detail. This makes it easy to compare costs, but also, critically, makes it possible to take things out and know the consequences. If, after this – and only after this – you are happy with the costs and the timescale offered by your contractor, then you need to set up the building contract between you and said contractor before work starts on site.

Typically, JCT contracts are used for this, however there are simpler versions out there for homeowners, and these contracts set out the responsibilities for both parties in terms of payments, but also provide control over what gets built and how long it takes.

Never begin work without a contract. It may seem frustrating to have to spend time and money on these things – although typically 75 per cent of an architect’s fee is spent before you start any work on site – but this is money well spent. Ultimately you’ll get the exceptional spaces you want, supported by imaginative detail, and without too much angst.

I’ve no doubt that many people still feel that all of this is an inconvenience, or that somehow they cannot prioritise expenditure on professional support, and instead believe that if they find a good builder, they can just crack on. How wrong they are.

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