Lucy Pedler, architect and founder of The Green Register, talks about the importance of good communication throughout a self-build project.
Interview with Lucy Pedler
As a child, Lucy was interested in the worlds of science and arts and wanted a profession that could combine the two. She qualified 35 years ago, and has worked as an architect in the UK and US.
Influenced by her father, an environmentalist, Lucy wanted her career to encompass both architectural and environmental work. In the early ‘90s, she worked as a Product Specialist at Construction Resources (the UK’s first Ecological Building Centre) for five years; this involved researching the environmental impact of building materials and systems, and training other construction professionals in green building.
In 2000, Lucy launched The Green Register, a not-for-profit organisation providing independent training and promoting sustainable building practices across the construction industry.
Poor communication is the cause of many problems
Lucy believes we spend quite a lot of time as human beings not saying what we think! If you can communicate effectively – using a bit of tact and choosing words carefully – people know where they stand. Lucy says some people think she’s quite direct but at least there’s no grey area.
Making the importance of communication clear from the start helps to create an environment where everybody’s comfortable talking about the build.
A robust brief ensures everyone’s on the same page
Good communication is key to making the project a success and this begins with a detailed brief. To produce one, the architect or designer must first thoroughly understand what the client wants.
This document should then be referred to throughout the build process as things inevitably change. For example, there may be planning issues, unexpected problems on site, or design alterations. A detailed brief aids important discussions about the time, cost and design implications of changes.
It’s worth spending time setting the green agenda
When people tell Lucy they want a ‘low energy house’ she needs to clarify exactly what that means. Clients may just want low energy bills, or they may have concerns about the bigger picture: the way the house is built, materials used, internal environment, wellbeing, etc. It’s a lot of work that has to be done at the beginning, but Lucy says you’ll reap the benefits throughout the process.
Be realistic about the budget from the outset
A fabric first approach is much better in terms of environmental issues and impact. But Lucy understands that the majority of people don’t have the money to do 100% sustainable buildings, commenting, “Don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t got the perfect house because whatever you do is going to be better than the average house in the UK, which is very, very mediocre.”
Lucy advises people to be honest about access to funds and what you have upfront. Then everybody involved knows what you can afford. You don’t want to run out of money and work to suddenly stop onsite.
The project lead should manage expectations about cost
During a career spanning more than 30 years, Lucy can’t remember a project where the cost didn't change, usually in an upward direction. Managing clients’ expectations won’t make the problem go away, but lessens their disappointment.
The architect (or lead) should explain the process and set expectations that the project will probably go over cost and time. If unexpected costs arise, they’ll refer back to the brief so the client can decide whether to increase the budget or save costs elsewhere. Lucy says self-builders often see the long-term benefits of increasing the budget.
There’s huge value in face-to-face communication
Modern communication technology sets expectations that everything can be done immediately. While some decisions are quick to make, Lucy thinks we’ve lost something in not being given the time to consider things.
Projects can be discussed remotely using phone, Skype and email, but Lucy gives reasons why talking to clients in person can be advantageous:
- You can sketch over plans while talking through concepts.
- It's easier to compare room sizes on plans with the room you’re all sitting in.
- Some decisions take a bit of time and are best explained face-to-face.
- You can observe non-verbal reactions, e.g. facial expressions.
3D modelling makes it easier to convey concepts
Many clients can’t understand 2D drawings and Lucy comments, “Why should they? It took us seven years of training to get where we are.” She recommends a programme called SketchUp, which is very simple and can quickly produce a 3D walkthrough to use with clients, helping them to experience light and height and changes in space, etc.
It’s important that concepts aren’t presented as a fait accompli, and Lucy says clients should feel able to give feedback. Reviewing conceptual designs is a key stage for communication, when you’ll work out basics such as the position of the living room or the size of the kitchen.
Design iterations take time and can be costly
Lucy recalls a client who requested ten different designs for a 2m x 2m bathroom and chose the original one in the end! A helpful approach is for the architect or designer to state upfront the number of design options included in their price, and make it clear they’ll have to start charging extra for any additional major changes.
A collaborative design and build approach is worth considering
While in the States, Lucy worked with contractors from the conceptual stage onwards and the contractor would inform some of the technical decisions. This approach required a high level of trust, but meant shared ownership of the project. And when it came to pricing the job, the cost was quite realistic.
Lucy says when you go out to competitive tender, contractors may not have understood the drawings or might not be pricing accurately. She cautions, “Although it might appear initially to be the lowest cost, at the end they’re clawing back what they need in order to make a profit.”
A neutral third person can mediate between client and contractor
Lucy says if clients can afford to appoint someone to oversee the project that’s a real plus. The architect or project manager can tell them early on what’s likely to happen during the construction stage and clarify what their fee will cover.
Self-builders often get much more involved, but Lucy suggests clients don’t take on the project management role themselves as they’re too close to the project and usually don’t have the experience needed.
Agree a schedule of meetings for the build
When the construction stage begins, you’re introducing a lot more people, so communication can be challenging. And clients often perceive progress to be slow and see costs increase and timescales slip during this stage.
It’s helpful to plan a schedule of meetings and clarify to the whole project team where they’ll be held, who does/doesn’t need to attend, what’s going to be covered, etc.
Lucy says the one group of people they find very difficult to get into Green Register seminars are builders. She recommends ‘toolbox talks’ if you’re trying to achieve a low energy building, as spending just a few hours explaining the concepts is money well spent.
3 more tips for a successful self-build
- The amount of information and decision-making can be overwhelming. Decide how involved you want to be, e.g. technical decisions may be best left to professionals trained to deal with them.
- It’s important no one in the team holds back. The client, architect or contractor needs to share their concerns or say if there’s something they have doubts about.
- The Green Register encourages post-occupancy monitoring (e.g. of airtightness, fuel costs, etc.). This can reassure you that you’ve got what you set out to achieve.