Having completed his house build this year, Ben Adam-Smith evaluates his own performance as a self-builder.
It's sometimes tricky to draw a line and say that you are at end of a self build. While there are lots of little tweaks to decor and a lot of work to do in the garden, our contract has been fulfilled and everything is functional.
So for the last two podcasts of 2018 I'm going to reflect on my build. Then in 2019 I'll wipe the slate clean!
In this podcast I'm going to analyse how well I did as a self-builder. What did I get right and what could have been better.
What went well
We have created a home that we love
Until you move into your house you can never guarantee it'll feel like a home. When we moved in, almost immediately it felt like we'd lived there for years. Our children didn't even blink when they were introduced to their new bedrooms. The layout is instinctive. We want for nothing.
We hired a competent team
From architecture firm to main contractor and interior designer, everyone delivered for us. Sometimes it feels like we got lucky! But I think spending time hiring the right people was one of the smartest moves we made.
We paid for a full service
Not everyone can afford to do this, but it was within our means to get all the work carried out by a main contractor with the architecture firm overseeing the project.
Of course this is not the cheapest way of doing things but with two young kids we did not have lots of time to play with. Also, I think we knew ourselves. In fact I classify myself as a DIY disaster, so it was an obvious choice to let the professionals get on with things. That left us to ‘be the client'.
We have built to Passivhaus standard
Right at the top of our brief was to build a house to Passivhaus standard. Although it's too early to look at the bills our home is certainly comfortable, with the even heat synonymous with Passivhaus. It also has all the other benefits you would come to expect. There's no condensation on the inside of the windows. We have constant fresh air and the smells created from cooking disappear.
My wife and I worked well as a team
We brought different skills to the table, which is always handy. Kay had project managed marketing campaigns before so was comfortable with staying on top of emails, listing priorities and updating budgets. I had the more technical insights as to what we should be doing… and I liked to focus on the big decisions.
While we probably had momentary disputes, I can't really remember many of them now! And I even won the odd discussion.
What could have been better
There are always things to learn on a project, but I think it must be a good sign that I can't think of a single clanger.
The project is not as ecological as I would have liked
This is probably my biggest regret of the project but I made all these decisions with my eyes open.
One challenge we had was that my wife did not want to live in a ‘new house' with a roof full of solar PV! I, on the other hand, was really keen to try not to copy a style from the past. I wanted to build a house fit for the 21st century. That meant we had to find the middle ground.
So we built a Passivhaus that has traditional form and uses traditional materials.
We went down a masonry route to keep things cost effective. I was also keen to understand more about building with masonry (as it is one of the main construction methods in the UK).
So we have no renewables and we are a masonry build. I know why we ended up here, but I do look at other projects and get slightly envious about what they have achieved!
We increased our budget
Some people say a budget is the budget. When we went out to tender we got a bit of a shock!
Plenty of value engineering suggestions were made but we didn't feel comfortable compromising on what we wanted. Fortunately we were in a position to pay more.
But the point here is that overall we have spent massively more than we were planning on day one!
Our cost-cutting didn't always work!
After the shock of our tender returns, we had to make some cutbacks. Some of these I wouldn't even be able to tell you what they were now.
However there are a few that I would like to revert (as soon as is financially possible). The driveway is top of that list. We changed from a resin surface to shingle. This saved us over £20,000. The downside is we have a noisy driveway, with stones go everywhere and it's tricky to walk on.
Following on from this we also got rid of the paving around the house and put shingle down there too. There's no doubt that this also saved a lot of money. We had always anticipated using this back door most of the time. That doesn't really happen. We almost exclusively use the front door… and I do wonder whether a large part of that is the surface.
I didn't catch the little things in time
The more you are on site, the more you can spot little things that might be about to go wrong. I was on site every couple of days but it's amazing how much progress can be made in that time.
I'll give you an example. In the guest en-suite bathroom we wanted the following tiling pattern.
The tiler did not get this information and tiled it horizontally.
This was his error and we could have got him to redo it. However, it would mean half a bathroom's worth of tiles would go in the bin and he'd be out of pocket £1000.
Needless to say the conventional tiling pattern still looks pretty damn good, so we decided to leave it that.
If I'd been on site when the first few tiles were going up, we could easily have corrected course.
I got tired by the end of the project
Self build fatigue is real. As it got towards the end of the project I perhaps got a little casual with some of the furniture purchases. It would have been lovely to dig into the specifications and find out what was in them and where they'd come from.
Instead we would take a cursory glance and if it looked like it would fit the bill, then we'd go for it!
Overall, we did really well
I'm in a fortunate position to get to see lots of eco homes and hear first hand from the self-builders what it's really been like. As such, I think we've got a lot to celebrate.
Funnily enough the majority of the ‘little niggles' get forgotten. After all, life moves on.