HPH187 : What keeps a self-builder awake at night? – with Will Kirkman from Ecomerchant
Will Kirkman from Ecomerchant shares the key results of a survey the company ran to find out what self-builders worry about most.
Interview with Will Kirkman
Will didn’t actually get a PAYE job until his 40s. Assorted pursuits over the years, including farming and metalwork, eventually led him to civil engineering. He now runs Ecomerchant, a sustainable building materials supplier.
Will says that self-building is a unique and new experience for most people who do it, so there can be a lot of uncertainty along the way.
In an effort to find out a little bit more about the market, the company surveyed customers and identified the top five worries.
1. How much should my project really cost?
Total build cost is made up of many components. It can be hard to work out what proportion of the total should be on various upfront fees and professional services versus the construction itself, let alone establish actual costs. As dreams become reality, controlling costs can also prove tricky causing anxiety levels to rise.
Will acknowledges that there is a sliding scale depending on how ‘standard’ the build is and how hands-on a self-builder plans to be, but suggests an indicative cost of between £1200 and £1800 per square metre.
When it comes to build cost, trusting the professionals is important. Will suggests the core three team members would ideally be client, architect and builder, and recommends engaging with the building materials supplier as soon as possible.
Will says there are ways to prevent the budget being blown by unforeseen problems. If a builder is doing something for the first time, the quote is likely to take into account this increased risk. So it is wise to choose an architect and builder that is experienced with your preferred build system.
2. Am I getting good value and good quality?
Will says, “I think this is about being sensible about what your expectations are and also understanding what people’s skillsets are.”
He argues it is reasonable to want a house to perform in the long term and therefore expect it be built to a high standard. Unlike the volume housing market, self-builders are in more control of this; but success relies on the entire build team sharing a common understanding of what they’re trying to achieve.
Will recognises that people can be tempted by short-term savings, especially if their project is going over budget. However, these savings will often cost more in the long run; some examples include:
- A relatively inexpensive paint can peel off or fail in other ways;
- Plastic baths will always move, leading to gaps along the silicone, and possibly leaks and damage;
- Internal doors contribute massively to the acoustics of a building and cheap ones won’t insulate noise well.
Aesthetics can also distract from a product’s core function. Will reminds us that “value and quality are different things to taste.” Concentrate on how something needs to perform, when weighing up options and prices.
3. Am I paying too much?
Being new to the build process can mean people worry they are paying too much. Whatever your budget, you will want to feel that you spent your money wisely.
While a huge budget may make some decisions easier, Will thinks you are better off being wise than being wealthy in terms of the build; of course money is critical, but getting the job done the way you want it is important too.
A good way to better understand the process, without adding costs, is to network within the self-build and construction environment. Asking how people have used products and materials will help and you can even learn from other people’s mistakes.
4. How can I find a reliable supplier?
While big builders’ merchants might compete in terms of service and special deals, they tend to offer a similar selection of products driven by industry standards. Keeping things simple makes life easy for everybody concerned, but this means self-builders typically encounter problems when it comes to getting more in depth advice, especially on less common building techniques. Will explains, “What builders’ merchants are generally not keen to do is to invest an awful lot of knowledge at the counter front or in the branch, because they don’t see a return for it easily.”
Will argues that there is a need to promote local builders’ merchants, who are more likely to support regional build systems or non-standard construction methodology.
5. Who do I turn to for help and advice?
A good starting place is looking at case studies and finding out what other self-builders are doing. For general help and advice, Will says it’s best to talk to someone who has done what you want to do.
For technical or professional help, he suggests that a sympathetic architect who understands your ambitions can help find tradesmen with the right experience. However, Will also notes that when he has supplied some building companies with new materials, such as lime plaster for the first time, they realised it wasn’t too difficult and were happy to offer this new skill to customers.
Other avenues of research include the Internet and roadshows. Will points out that this stage of the process doesn’t have to cost much, so it’s well worth testing the water before you spend a lot of money.
Some of the relevant information might be too technical for the ‘average punter’ and this is where you might have to abdicate responsibility to the experts. For those wanting an eco-home, it can be hard to work out what that might even mean and the right questions to ask.
Sustainability can mean different things to different people
An eco-home could be summarised as: benign in construction, use and potentially in disposal. As Will says, “It benefits occupants’ health and wellbeing, it doesn’t pollute the environment and demands very low levels of energy.” He adds that most buildings built using eco principles feel like really nice houses!
Some people worry that they aren’t creating the best possible eco-home, but self-builders need to set their own realistic goals. Will compares the desire for an eco-home to healthy eating. “Doing something is better than doing nothing. One salad a week is better than no salads a week. And we’re not expecting everybody to be vegan. There is a happy medium that is entirely personal to every single person.”
Find out more
Visit the website of Ecomerchant
Download a transcript of the interview with Will Kirkman
The Future of Housing
During our interview with Will he mentioned our documentary The Future of Housing.
This explored the quality of housing in the UK and how we might improve the situation.
There's also a chance to see some exemplar projects.
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About The Author
Robin Goldberg is a teacher, currently enjoying a sabbatical during which he is overseeing building work to his house and getting ‘hands on’ where possible. The works include a loft extension, but the sabbatical is also being spent planning for his longer term goal of a self build.