Mark Brinkley, author of the Housebuilder's Bible, explains how his book can guide you towards building a better home. He also shares some of the themes that have cropped up while he's been editing the latest edition.
Interview with Mark Brinkley
Back in the 1980s Mark Brinkley was a developer, buying plots and building houses or flats in almost the exact same location he finds himself in today. However when the chancellor at the time Nigel Lawson ended double mortgage tax relief there was a market crash and Mark had three plots on his books and was up to his eyeballs in debt.
With three young children to support one option was to ride out the storm and build himself a house. It was this task that made him realise how different the process was when you're not just creating a magnolia box to sell but instead trying to put your own expression into a place.
That process made me realise that there was a need for a guidebook here because I was struggling, even though I was a professional builder.
40 years of distilled knowledge
Mark says it's more of ‘a project' than a book and part of its success is that it continually evolves.
Mark has only ever written one book but it is now up to its 15th edition.
The purpose of the book has not really changed over time. It's a hand-holding exercise to explain the process and without trying to sell anything.
When he put together the first edition he started to think his way through a project, writing down all the steps.
I still try and make it as a great introduction to the whole idea of house-building in general and self build in particular.
Mark says about 90% of it hangs together nicely but of course with so many options there are some loose ends which he adds to a section called the Apocrypha (just to continue the biblical theme!).
Key stages in the process include:
- Finding a plot
- Engaging with the planners to see what's possible (there can be limitations)
- Working through the design stages
- Sorting out finance (making sure you juggle your aspirations with your means)
- Hiring a builder (most commonly through a tender process)
- Deciding your role (will your architect supervise or could you project manage?)
Beware the sales machine
In 1994, when Mark released the first edition of the Housebuilder's Bible there was little in the way of competition or other resources. In fact the internet was still in its infancy! These days you can probably find all the information online but Mark warns that it can often come laced with a product or service.
I'm not selling any services, any materials, just good old-fashioned, hard-earned experience put down on a page.
Mark is also keen that you decide what to do with the information. He will drop a few hints and highlight potential pitfalls but the final course of action is down to you.
Building ‘simply' is always an option
The model house is a case study that Mark uses to drill down on costs. In each edition it is a different project but it acts as a reference point to show how you could build a simple house on a flat site with few complications to a comfortable but not fancy standard. From this Mark goes onto explain how you could increase the specification or do things differently.
Don't miss out on comfort and good ventilation
Mark says that the green building agenda has been his abiding interest and passion ever since he started working in construction. His most recent self build project embraced the Passivhaus methodology.
I put quite a lot of emphasis in the last edition about just how lovely it is to have a warm, comfortable, well ventilated house. It beats having a 24-inch TV screen or a £50,000 kitchen any day of the week! And just the pleasure of coming into a lovely warm space in the middle of winter is fantastic. Also having a well ventilated space because British homes, by and large, are not. They are stuffy as hell or they are leaky, and stuff like that, to me, seems common sense. For a lot of people it isn't common sense.
Mark believes that Wolfgang Feist and the whole Passivhaus movement has been a great help because there is a clear path of what you need to do and why… Follow all the principles and it will work.
Installing a gas boiler was a mistake
One transition that has been noted in the recent editions of the Housebuilder's Bible is the move away from burning fossil fuels for heating, perhaps opting for a renewable source (such as a heat pump) instead.
It was around 2016/2017 when Mark was considering the options for his home and the general thinking at the time was that if you built a high performance home and put in a gas boiler you would only be using a very small amount of gas. While this is true, installing a gas boiler is a decision that still irks Mark. Today the zero carbon agenda has moved on and the default has become renewables.
With every edition the numbers are brought up to date
When it comes to building a house everyone wants to get a firm grip on costs. Much of the information in the Housebuilder's Bible will only change subtly between editions but costs are something that have changed dramatically.
The inflation rate has gone up 8% per year
Mark compared the model house from the 11th edition (in 2015) with the model house in the current edition (2023) and he discovered there has been a phenomenal increase.
That's an inflation rate of 8% a year in building when the published national inflation rate was – for a long time – virtually zero.
Some prices have gone up and some products have changed
The price increases are not across the board. Mark says that timber is a good example. It doubled in price but the UK imported a lot of timber from Russia and so when they invaded the Ukraine, that supply line closed overnight.
Some finished materials, such as kitchens and bathrooms, or paint are largely unchanged. Mark wonders whether there were huge profit margins before and that they may have eaten into them a bit.
Other tricks to watch out for include the products themselves changing. For example, plasterboard might have remained at £5 per sheet between the 1950s and the 1990s. However, the specification was going down over time.
By the time they'd got an aerated gypsum in there it was like having a sheet of newspaper in terms of soundproofing. So the standards were getting lower. But lo and behold, the headline price is exactly the same.
Self build is often the preserve of the wealthy
Mark suggests that house-building in places like the South East has gone upmarket. There are fewer self builds than 10 years ago yet the amount of money spent on them has gone up significantly. While self build can be a route onto the housing ladder with help from family members in the trade, etc. it is only possible in places where land is plentiful and affordable (such as parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland).
Even Graven Hill is dividing into two distinct markets
Graven Hill is a flagship ‘self build and custom build community' which aims to diversify the delivery options giving more people the opportunity to build or customise a house. However, as Mark reads it, the self builds are all grand designs!
The houses up on the hill, the self builds, are actually very grand houses. They're all completely different, chaotic in the great sort of Dutch self build… Lower down the hill we've got the custom builds and they look much like you'd see on a developer house anywhere in the country.
Plan well to avoid running out of money
When you're building or renovating it can seem like the perfect opportunity to put all your fancy ideas in place but it is important to be realistic.
Mark shares an example of a neighbour who is preparing for a green retrofit and has had to work through three iterations, each time simplifying the scheme to reduce costs and fall within the budget. So it's imperative to cut you cloth accordingly.
This may be a hard pill to swallow but it beats the alternative of plunging head first into the build and then discovering halfway through that you can't finish it.
Stretching out the project is about the only way to continue when funds are dwindling
While you can save a bit of money here and there, there is no magical bullet (or wonderful plumber who's half the price of all the others!) so when you are out of funds you have to claw your way back, working to fund the next stages. Self-builders can add years to their build programme. Do not think this is an easy option because there will be a big emotional toll.
Hiring a quantity surveyor is money well spent
One tip Mark has is to make sure you get a professional to work out what it is going to cost.
We hired a quantity surveyor, despite the fact that I write a book that has building costs at the centre of it. Even I get nervous when I see a set of plans and think, how much is it going to cost? You know, can I estimate it to the nearest £100,000 let alone to the nearest £5000.
A self build industry has emerged
One thing that has changed as Mark has released his various editions of The Housebuilder's Bible is the support industry around self build.
A really interesting place to go is the National Self Build and Renovation Centre in Swindon which is now about 20 years old and it's got better and better and better… Another good place to go to is the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in North Wales. It's always a fascinating place to visit, full of ideas and a bit more radical than the one in Swindon, but it's an eye-opener.
Mark also mentions the Self Build Education House at Graven Hill.
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