Self-builder and renovator Jason Orme reflects on the main challenges you face if you want to tackle a house build in the UK.
Interview with Jason Orme
Jason Orme is the Editorial Director of Future Plc, the publishing house behind Homebuilding & Renovating magazine, of which he is the former editor. He would categorise himself as a serial self builder, but more recently has taken on a renovation project in Derbyshire with the intention that it will be his family home for at least a few years.
Doing a renovation has made him a bigger fan of self build!
With the renovation and remodelling project coming to an end, Jason says the process has been more ambitious, costly and stressful than a self build. Once you have planning permission on a self build you are theoretically in a position to have control over everything, whereas with renovation you tend to be at the mercy of the unknown with old houses that are full of surprises. It's not something he would be keen to repeat!
Despite that, Jason and his family were drawn to the project because of a love of the plot, the location and even the original house to some extent. They didn't need to create much additional space, but rather remodel what was already there and make it more energy efficient.
Covering up the 1960s ugly stone-clad facade, they built a third layer around the outside which provides excellent levels of insulation, although airtightness will always be more of a challenge to achieve than if starting from scratch on a new build.
Although Jason is happy in the house and looking forward to enjoying it for the next few years, he hasn't ruled out another self build in the future, although it would take something special to move away from the location they now have.
Justify spending on the house by calling it an investment, not expenditure!
Jason has always tended to put any spare money into property, which he hopes will end up being an investment rather than a cost. He says he's happy to have large outgoings and mortgages on properties because ultimately it should pay back, while at the same time you have the enjoyment of living there.
Self build is delivering fewer homes than ten years ago
2005 saw a peak in self building of up to 19,000 homes a year. That is now closer to 14,000, although the demand is probably greater than ever. Jason cites the two main causes as being problems for people selling existing properties to provide the finance, and the types of plots available. While land opportunities have improved a little, it is typically serviced plots on large developments like Graven Hill, rather than individual plots. When people dream of building their own home part of that dream tends to be the location, and living on a large estate, whether a self build or not, isn't to everybody's liking.
Jason sees some kind of balance being self build communities that can give an element of individuality and isolation to people.
“This has been my twentieth year in the self-build sector and the frustration for me really is that we’ve sold an awful lot of magazines over the years and met hundreds of thousands of people at the shows and spoken to people on the websites, more than you can imagine really. We haven’t actually really made a fundamental difference if we’re honest with ourselves in terms of the number of self-build homes that have been delivered.”
Research they have carried out with the National Custom and Self Build Association has shown roughly a million people in the UK are ‘actively' looking to build a home, yet only a few thousand each year go on to do it. Jason suspects the majority of these people have a look on Rightmove and are put off by the out-of-reach prices. For those that do continue, his instinct that what's stopping them isn't not being able to find a plot, but that they're so fixated on a certain type of plot which they're not going to find at a realistic price, or perhaps they just somehow can't make the commitment.
“So, I think if people can be flexible and have that imagination then by and large, with a reasonable budget and obviously that varies from area to area, it shouldn’t be unrealistic for them.”
There should be an influx of plots on the market soon
The right to build legislation came about in the UK in 2016, which made it compulsory for local authorities to keep a register of people interested in buying plots of land, and ensure that they had that same number of plots available to purchase within three years. We're now at that point of those three years having passed so thousands of plots should be coming to the market, but whether they will be plots that people want or in areas they want to live in will be the issue.
Self-builders can have an advantage over developers
In his seminars at the Homebuilding & Renovation Show, Jason explains how there are two types of building plots.
One type is that which has a ‘For Sale' board outside and can be found on the market through estate agents and auctions.
The second is what he describes as the plots that developers go after. These can be found using planning permission data and using Google Maps.
Opportunities for self-builders arise where there are plots that large and small scale developers can't quite see how they could build housing. Where they're looking for a field or flat piece of land to build ten houses, they won't be so keen on more awkward scraps of land, like old garages.
“So, the self-builder’s opportunity, I think, is in actually embracing the stuff that makes them different which is the individuality of the design and that agile nature of development.”
Management of budget is critical and needs flexibility
Jason has often found that people who work in offices don't feel that they are well-placed to self build, but actually he thinks they have transferable skills like organisation, project management and making tough decisions about money.
Having control of finances is crucial and Jason says it helps to think of it in terms of a spreadsheet where if some things are going above original estimates, then reductions might need to be made elsewhere in order to balance it out. He thinks if you can be flexible in terms of these smaller pots of money rather than thinking of it as one big pot, then you can begin to take back control.
With finance often being the biggest cause of stress on a job, but plenty of other factors beyond your control to add to it, Jason says to some extent it should be part of the main contractor's role to absorb that stress on your behalf.
Where costs do go out of control during the construction, it isn't usually down to the construction but flaws in the design process. A good design process should include the budget, engineering issues and proper site layout.
“Where I see the failures, it’s usually where the architect at that early stage hasn’t been able to put all those different factors together into a package that the main contractor can then go on to deliver. It’s often just left to the main contractor to work out the gaps.”
There is always more to learn
With twenty years in the business, Jason says it's a constant learning experience and you're never going to know it all. From talking to other self builders, architects and contractors you will find out other ways of doing things and improving on them.
In his experience it's often self-builders that are also engineers who quite often try to find out everything they need to know about house construction on their own, so they can almost second guess the designer and the architect. Jason says this usually ends in tears because they're never going to know it all!
In his experience it's far better to leave all that to the people he is employing to do it. Where it often falls apart is where there is a breakdown in trust between the homeowner and the people that they're employing.
When it comes to architects, the ones to avoid are those that struggle to understand the relationship that they're meant to have with their client. It shouldn't be a case of dictating ‘this is the design you should have', or even ‘what do you want me to design for you?'
“The happy medium is the one that you’re looking for where architects can deliver something that obviously adds their value in. And going back to that thing about trust really, I want architects to be able to come up with ideas that I can’t and solve problems that I can’t. That’s really what you’re paying for.”
Architects often tend to be specialised in limited styles of design, rather than excelling at all different types of house.
“It’s wise, I think, to try to pick a design style first and pick almost a process and a target, an objective almost for the project, and then begin to put the team together on the back of that.”
There needs to be trust within the team
Jason says there's also a misconception in the sector that builders are there to be feared or controlled, when actually, the good ones clearly know far more than their clients and should be empowered and just left to get on with it.
Finding that builder that you can trust in this way is he says part art and part science: the science being the recommendations and background company checks.
The other part comes down to gut instinct, and thinking about whether they listen to you, are constructive, understand what you're trying to do with the house, can relate to the family and can appreciate that the budget is tight and that this will be critical to the project. It will need to be someone you think you can trust to be around for the duration of the project and sometimes have difficult discussions with.
Design flexibility into the house
Having seen so many self builds, Jason is able to grasp the feel of a home and what does and doesn't work so well. The right mix can be a space that doesn't feel too grand or clinical, but instead gives you that ‘wow' moment each time you walk in, and that is down to good architecture.
It is important to build flexibility into the design, with space for a growing family so far as is possible. And while the rooms and spaces themselves don't have to be large, if they can be flexible in their design it allows a family space to spread out and do their own things.
With the trend for adding extensions to create an open plan living, cooking and eating area, Jason feels they are often designed with daytime and summer in mind, but come winter or the evening they can be lacking that cosy, snug space where actually people just want to curl up in front of the TV.
Jason cites a number of reasons why people are staying in their houses for longer: houses are more expensive, stamp duty makes it very costly to move, flexibility in working arrangements means people don't have to move for work as much. And while people tend to stay in their homes for longer, their needs change depending on children growing up, moving away etc, so that flexibility again is so important with being able to adapt to the occupants, rather than moving out.
It isn't affordable enough for younger generations
A notable change in the types of people attending the home shows is that the self build community is getting older and greyer. Nowadays self build can take more money to do than it used to, with greater demand for land and resulting prices escalating, and the cost of materials increasing.
Jason worries that the opportunities for self build are not as available now to people in their twenties and thirties, and this is something that he would like to see change. But that will take changes in financial offerings, planning law and land availability.
His advice to them would be to be realistic and flexible in terms of area and the type of plot to go for. He warns against holding out for the perfect plot on the edge of a village with panoramic views, and suggests instead considering looking at the less attractive plots. He says as well as ugly duckling houses, there are ugly duckling plots which, once landscaped and with a well designed house on top, can really add value.
Jason suggests starting out in self build like starting on the property ladder, where you start small, do it two or three times and work your way up to building the house of your dreams. And with labour accounting for roughly half the costs on the build, he says you can save thousands of pounds by doing things like the tiling, kitchen fitting, decorating and landscaping yourself.
“One of the great unwritten things about self-building and renovating as well is that you never seem to quite get that day where you sit back and you say, ‘I’ve done it’ and you can sit back and enjoy it.
“You’ve just got to enjoy it as it goes through and take those little marks because there’s always going to be the garden to do; there’s always going to be that bit of the house that you didn’t quite finish off properly. I think for people who are interested in housing like we are, and there are thousands of people like us, I think, you have to just realise that that’s part of the process and part of the pleasure.”
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