HPH278 : A beginner’s guide to self build – with Geoff Stow
Having worked on his own hands-on group self build project, and site managed others, Geoff Stow shares his experience on where to start when it comes to self build.
Interview with Geoff Stow
Geoff's involvement with self build started years ago when he worked with a community arts project in south London, making a video with a group of self builders who were promoting their scheme in Lewisham. So when Lewisham decided to do another scheme he put his name down, chairing and being part of a group of 13 that built their own houses on a Walter Segal project. From there, his involvement continued with working as a site manager for other group self build schemes, including the Hedgehog project in Brighton.
“My background isn’t as a builder really but I think in some ways that’s quite interesting because it’s actually coming at it as a novice. I’m sympathetic with people who are trying to get a scheme off the ground.”
Geoff also runs courses on timber frame self build, and self build project management at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales.
It's likely to be harder than you're expecting!
Geoff says he's never met anyone who said they wished they hadn't done it, but does stress that you should be prepared for a lot of hard work. He thinks there is actually very little in place to make things easier, with the majority of things at the beginning like planning and finding out how to connect services, being geared up to failing.
Whereas most people spend their time at the beginning sketching designs for a plot they don't yet have, he recommends instead taking that time to research and understand the issues involved. That could be around planning, environmental issues, insulation, ventilation etc.
Take the opportunity to go to the exhibitions to grow your understanding and help you talk the same language as the experts, but bear in mind that a lot of it is sales focused.
Understand the issues around claiming back the VAT, and get yourself organised with a good accounting system so you can keep track of staying within budget.
Build your knowledge by checking out some of the self-build books around, like Mark Brinkley's Homebuilder's Bible. They're worth reading for finding out about things like health and safety requirements, working out how you're going to organise your project, whether you might be able to site manage it yourself, and understanding what the relevant issues around that might be.
Use your suppliers by asking for detailed information, and if they can't provide it then don't use them. Geoff gives the example of a window supplier, where you should be providing wall designs and asking what's the best way of fitting them.
Have a sensible budget
Keep in mind that things rarely come in under budget or ahead of schedule, so have a sensible budget that is based on real costings, not just how much you'd like to spend or how much other people have spent. Be wary of the figures that people quote when they say their house cost X amount per square metre, as you never quite know what has been included and what has been omitted.
Budget high for all of the initial stages. Things like the foundations, services and access roads can have plenty of unknowns and it's much easier to price up more accurately for the above ground works. Add on a good contingency once you get quotes in as this should free up money later on.
In addition to budgeting for the overall cost of the build, if you're using a self build mortgage you will need to consider your cash flow. They work by releasing money once a stage is finished, so although you might have enough money in total, you might find the project grinding to a halt if you do not have it available at the right times.
Finding land will probably mean making compromises
Geoff's key piece of advice for finding land is to be flexible, as there's not that much of it around. He thinks it best to spend time in the area where you're looking as quite often word of mouth can be helpful.
Take the time to understand your site
Geoff estimates that, depending on your skill base and level of organisation, around a year is a good length of time to spend on your research. As part of this he recommends spending time on your site and understanding how to place the house so you can get the best out of it. This will include things like orientation, window placement and learning how the sun falls on the site at different times. During this period you can also be going to exhibitions and talks, doing courses, going on Passivhaus open days and speaking to other people that have built their own homes.
Focus on getting the fabric of the building right
Geoff says you're never likely to hear someone say that they wish they'd put in cheaper windows or used less insulation! So concentrate on getting the insulation, windows, detailing of doors, heating systems etc right, and getting it to the best quality that you can afford. It doesn't necessarily have to be the perfect house straight away, and you can always retrofit your dream kitchen or build a second stage later when finances allow.
Speak to other people for advice
Get as much information as you can from suppliers and manufacturers about their products and their detailing. Also speak to builders' merchants who might be able to suggest alternative products that you might not have come across.
Geoff follows a couple of Facebook groups which he says, if you filter through a lot of the rubbish and sales pitches, can actually have really good information and experience that people are willing to share.
“There's no right way of doing it…what there are is a lot of wrong ways!”
Geoff stresses that there is no right build system to use, and the method that you choose will be based on a lot of criteria. Whatever method you do choose, just make sure that it's of the highest quality you can afford.
A lot of it will be down to personal preference, and whether you like timber, stone, brick etc.
Geoff's preference is for timber frame, partly for the accuracy and speed which it affords. He personally would also avoid very innovative systems by very small companies as there can be a question of whether or not they can actually deliver.
Also consider what kind of products you want to be using. Some people might want high performance foam insulation, whereas others will want to go as natural as possible and use sheep's wool or Warmcel type insulation.
“Whatever building method you go with, you just need to really understand what the issues and the criteria are. The good points and the bad points. And ignore what people say about their method being the best, it’s modern or it’s developed by NASA or something ridiculous. Just understand what the issues are with all of them and base it on real costs.”
Decide how much involvement you're going to have
As a client there are options as to how involved you will be on the project, ranging from paying huge sums of money to a building company who will do everything for you, to getting hands-on and doing practically everything yourself.
Probably the biggest deciding factor is thinking about what skills you have, but not necessarily assuming that because you can do something yourself it will necessarily be quicker or cheaper.
“So, if a job that a skilled person can do quickly and well and you can do fairly well and take a long time over, that might mean that it’s longer before you move in and you’ve got more mortgage repayments, more insurance, if you’re renting a house then there’s the rent that you’re paying while you’re doing it. So, you might think you’re saving some money but actually, are you really?”
You might also find that by doing a job yourself and taking longer about it, you might be holding up the next trade that can't come in and do their job until you've finished. Instead there might be jobs that you can do which won't involve holding anyone else up, like prepping and putting up cladding for example.
When it comes to managing the project, you have the choice of paying someone else to do it, or doing it yourself. Obviously doing it yourself in theory should save you money, if done well, but consider whether you have the expertise to: keep things on track and on budget, get prices and employ subcontractors, nudge people when needed, make sure the work is being done to a high standard, check health and safety standards are being adhered to, keep neighbours on side etc.
Do it on the terms of what you can afford, what skills you have and what you want your level of involvement to be.
Being too fixated can be a common pitfall
Geoff sees people that might become completely fixated on building a straw house for example, when actually the site they have might not actually be ideally suited.
“It’s just understanding the issues around those sorts of things and not necessarily getting very fixated on one thing where you end up making your build really complicated because you’ve got this one fixed idea that you saw somewhere on television that you want.”
He also says that no matter what you do there will be people saying that you shouldn't have done it that way. And maybe even you yourself will look back and think you might have done it differently, but just try to get as much right as you can based on the knowledge and research at the time.
People always say they want to be in by Christmas!
Geoff suggests when it comes to how long a project will take, that if you're planning to do a lot of the work yourself then try and avoid it going over two winters, as the second is always particularly tough (especially so if you're living in a caravan!) Realistically you could be looking at 12 to 18 months on site, but less than that if you have builders.
He also recommends trying to get as much finished as possible before moving in, even if that means throwing money at some good contractors to speed things up. Finishing off works once you're living there is much harder to do and becomes less likely to ever get done.
To help keep on track with the budget and schedule, try not to make changes as you go along. You can make minor changes but you don't want to be deciding to change window placement or move walls once work is on site.
Work with an architect who is on your wavelength
Keep a scrapbook of ideas and images that you like and can show to a designer or architect, and make sure you work with someone who is going to design the sort of thing you want.
Although it's not necessary to employ an architect, having a good one on board that is sympathetic to your ideas can elevate your plans and give you a wow factor, rather than simply being a series of rooms joined by a corridor.
Having an architect involved could just be paying someone for a simple check over your plans and offering advice, to a full package of designing the house, getting it through planning and building control, and seeing the whole project through to completion and sign-off at the end.
A key consideration in choosing who to work with is finding someone who is on your wavelength that you feel you can work with. Ask for proof that they really understand the issues that matter to you, as some might claim to be providing a sustainable and energy efficient building just because it complies with current building regulations.
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About The Author
Lucy Cowell is owner of the Virtual Assistant company Quantum PA. Being immersed in the world of architecture for over 20 years and since working with Ben Adam-Smith, she is now determined to build her own house one day too!