Ben Adam-Smith shares 20 insights about self-building that he has learned while making 200 podcasts and also tackling his own project.
1. There's always something you can do to move your project forwards
The road to building a house is a long one. There are also times when it can feel like it is never going to happen.
Key challenges include finding land, securing finance, gaining planning consent and hiring a team.
Just remember, where there's a will there is a way. You can use your time to increase your knowledge or supplement funds, etc!
2. Visit as many self build homes as possible
There are many forms of research but by far the most effective is getting out and about, and visiting real eco homes.
Get inspiration. Chat to self-builders who have made it through the process and discover what they'd do differently next time.
Sometimes there will be opportunities to get onto construction sites too.
3. Being flexible where you live should ensure you find land
You might be lucky and have a garden plot to develop. Or perhaps you will buy the first piece of land you see!
For most, though, this is one of the greatest challenges to overcome. And it goes without saying that urban plots can come with a hefty price tag, which is why relocating to where land is cheaper and more easy to come by is a smart move.
Yes, it may mean leaving an area you love or moving further away from work, etc. If you are prepared to make this sacrifice then it may save a lot of time.
4. Don’t dismiss custom build sites
Custom build aims to make it simpler to build your own house. This video explains how it works (with an example in the Midlands).
The benefits are that the land is much more affordable and, with initiatives like Right to Build, the local authority has a duty to make land available to potential self or custom builders.
One of the downsides is that you are unlikely to get a plot in open countryside (which is perhaps what we all have in our minds!). The point here is to get over it! Even if you can only build on the edge of a developer site it is surely better than nothing? And quite often self or custom build streets have a great identity.
5. Hire a good solicitor
Buying land is much like buying a house: legally, there's a lot to get your head around. Sometimes it can be even more complicated than buying a house!
So, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. There's a lot of money to be made in buying and selling land, and that means there are a few sharks out there. Hiring an experienced solicitor, whose daily business is land sales and acquisitions, should give you confidence going into this transaction.
6. Don’t get too ambitious with your build route
There are various procurement routes for building a house.
At one end of the spectrum are package builds and hiring a main contractor, while at the other end is self-managing or even building with your own fair hands.
If it's your first time building a house, be careful not to take on too much (and perhaps underestimate what's involved and how it will impact on your enjoyment of the project).
Even just being the client can be a time-consuming and draining process.
7. Embrace constraints
Constraints are not always bad. Yes, you have to be careful of building on slopes and make sure you understand the extra cost that it will incur.
In some projects, the constraints are not necessarily financial. For example, on my own project the majority of land is green belt and only a small section falls within the village boundary. That actually makes the decision of where to put the house quite simple!
Constraints can also add character to a building.
At Lime Tree Passivhaus the house had to arc around the root structure of a dominating lime tree (with a Tree Preservation Order on it). However, the constraints have led to a unique home, full of character.
8. Design a house where you use all the space every day
Architect Sarah Susanka taught me this one.
It's a great tip because it's so easy to grasp.
And it lets you have the things you want . . . so long as you use them!
9. Try not to recreate old styles
Building new is a huge opportunity to build for what's best today.
This includes making the most of light, energy efficiency, comfort, etc.
While Victorian and Georgian housing stock is treasured in the UK, recreating these styles doesn't make much sense. For example, fireplaces and chimneys are pretty much redundant when buildings can be airtight (and meet Passivhaus standard).
10. Don’t be dissuaded from building a Passivhaus
If you like the idea of building a house to Passivhaus standard, be wary of being dissuaded by those who haven't done it or people who don't sell products that can help achieve it.
Take advice from people who have been there and done it. Once you've built a Passivhaus, very few people turn back.
11. Like the people you’re hiring
The process of building a house can take years, so when it comes to putting together your team it's important they are people you can get on with. Yes, they need the skills but everything will feel a lot more enjoyable if there is harmony on all sides.
12. Exercise restraint with your budget
Unless you are experienced with managing budgets or you have a finite sum to play with, it is easy to spend more money than you planned!
A few things run through your mind. You're only doing this once and it's your only opportunity to get the things you want. You can pay for it later!
Of course nobody can stop you doing this, but it will have repercussions. If you're struggling to find land it can be easy to assume more money will solve the problem. A splurge in one area will therefore mean reducing the budget in other areas or spending more overall. Fixtures and fittings is another area where people can get carried away.
Remember, if possible, it's better to build a slightly smaller house of higher quality than stretching to something bigger and then not being able to finish it properly.
13. Focus on the big decisions
Not all decisions carry the same weight. The land you buy, the build route you select and the team you assemble will have a major impact on your project.
Yes, the devil is in the detail but making the right ‘big' decisions will in turn make it easier to concentrate on the small stuff.
Check out our podcast with Lloyd Alter from TreeHugger.
14. Hiring consultants can be money well spent
Nobody likes spending money when they don't have to.
However, consultants can add value (and even pay for themselves!).
For example, on my own project I hired an interior designer. Some people might see this as an extravagance but she has helped us create a low cost kitchen that feels like something much more bespoke (and high end).
15. Keep things simple
It is all too easy to complicate our designs but the most ecological buildings tend to have something in common: simplicity.
If the designs are simplified in the early part of the process they can often end up functioning much better.
16. Engage in the planning process
The UK system is often baffling. You will find huge variation in how it works, depending on where you are.
One thing is for sure – it really helps if you engage with your local authority. Get feedback on initial designs and also, before any decision is made, check in with the planning officer to make sure everything is in order (from their perspective).
17. Install solar PV
Assuming you have invested in the fabric of the building (and therefore have a high performance home), it makes sense to consider whether there is any potential for generating on your project.
Often the most logical choice is to opt for solar PV because it's not that expensive, will look better if installed on a new build home, and can pay back in a fairly short space of time.
18. Being 100% ecological is virtually impossible
Having a blank canvas is a huge opportunity to get as eco as possible.
The problem is that there are always trade-offs. And sometimes with more money you just end up increasing the size of the building.
So really this is about doing the best you can . . . and not beating yourself up. Remember, your house will be awesome!
19. Don’t underestimate the time needed
Building a house is a big project. Even if you're choosing the main contractor or package route, don't expect it to be a walk in the park!
You will need time. A lot of time.
20. Enjoy the journey
For most people, building a home is a once-in-a-lifetime event!
Of course the end product is important, but there is a lot to gain from the journey too.
You will no doubt grow as a person. You'll also learn a lot. And you'll probably face your fair share of challenges.
To get the most out of it, find an outlet for the highs as well as the lows. I've really enjoyed podcasting about my adventure. So, perhaps start a blog, keep a diary or just chat it out with friends.