Known for following the journeys of some of Britain’s most ambitious self-builders as they create their dream homes, Kevin offers i-build’s readers his advice to help ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes that so many of Grand Designs’ intrepid individuals make.
Q: What do you believe is the biggest
challenge for self-builders today?
A: Well, I think the biggest challenge, funnily enough, is when you get out of the design stage and into the build phase because I think most people assume that building a house is somehow like building a car in a factory – it’s not. We still haven’t got to the point where building a house can be straightforward.
There are a few companies that offer off-site fabrication homes where you’re delivered either finished volumes of buildings or finished panels that just slot together, but frankly, most construction in this country is pretty antediluvian, it’s so primitive – we’re still gluing bits of rock together with mortar – it’s terrible, and I think it really takes people by surprise, particularly people who come from very organised, disciplined industries. They think the project management of the process is going to deliver a really streamlined process and it doesn’t because the actual business of building is still quite messy. You’ll discover all of a sudden; there is a shortage of concrete blocks and you think how on earth can there be a shortage of concrete blocks or a lack of labour or the windows are going to take 12 weeks and not six weeks. You’re effectively building a prototype in a muddy field and it’s thousands of components from hundreds of different suppliers, so you’ve got to be super-organised and, even if you are, it’s still going to be horrible.
Q: What advice would you offer those considering undertaking a self-build project?
A: I think the best advice, first of all, has to be plan, plan, prepare and plan, and line everything up – and even if you think to yourselves ‘oh we’ll order the light switches later,’ you probably can’t because at that point you’ve decided which manufacturer you want to use, and there’s only one manufacturer who does that beautiful light switch that you want in that beautiful colour and you’re determined to have that. At that point, if they then tell you that they are out of stock and won’t be manufacturing anymore for four months your world implodes. So it’s actually very important to be fully prepared and to take along consultants and experts who have experience with building with you so they can hold your hand through the process – tell you when you need to be placing your orders, when you need to be making decisions.
One of the things people always come unstuck with is the fact that they are never prepared for the fact that they have to make sometimes dozens of decisions every day and it’s exhausting. Try to do as much of that in the early stages because you’re going to get frustrated by that fact that planning takes months and months. It can take you two years sometimes before you even get onto the plot itself, and you can become very impatient to get on site, but my goodness, that’s luxury. Use that time really well to detail the building as much as possible, to decide on every tiny detail because the more you prepare, the cheaper, quicker and easier the construction process will be and less stressful.
Q: What is the most outstanding example of a self-build that you have seen?
A: Funnily enough, I always come back to the same one. It’s not necessarily my favourite Grand Design, but it was the one Ben Law did in the woods in Sussex. The reason it’s extraordinary and outstanding is because the house is a timber frame built from coppice timber and Ben is a coppice worker, so he knew the timber and the material – it was his timber that he had grown. Seven or eight years later, every bit of wood in the building had effectively regrown in the forest. The walls were insulated with straw bales from a neighbouring field; they were plastered with mud from the pond down the hill – it was a building made of where it is, from where it is, by Ben, who farmed and lived there and is of that place. It was a glorious process to watch. It was a kind of joyous other way of doing things. One of the key people on the project was a guy who was a guitarist whose job it was to one, go and get the shopping for lunch and two, to play the guitar and sing – he was like the court jester of the project – which was brilliant.
Q: What do you believe has been the biggest innovation in the self-build market?
A: I’ve wondered about this – whether it would be your self-build mortgages, but actually, I think the biggest innovation would have to be what is happening in Bicester, at Graven Hill. Another innovation is a big self-build project of 1000 homes in Amsterdam, Almere; it’s a whole self-build community. About 10 years ago I took a visit there and funnily enough, there was one of the directors of the local authority in Bicester and low and behold a few years later they announced that they were going to turn this ex-MOD site – a very beautiful wooded hill with a forest on it – into a site for self-builders.
It’s started, and we’re filming a series about it which will go out next year, and we’ll follow the first 10 pioneers. There are a further 1900 plots available for self-builders to buy and build their homes on. It’s a really exciting project – a self-build city.
Yes, it has its problems, and yes it’s not perfect but what’s fascinating about it is the local authority planning department are effectively offering fast-track planning service in just a few weeks – providing you comply with a basic number of conditions. It encourages diversity, it encourages sustainable construction, the setting is beautiful, it’s wild and I think it’s going to be a really interesting scheme.
Q: How important do you believe it is to include renewable systems in a self-build project?
A: It’s a no-brainer – why would you not want a building that generates money for you or at the very least provides zero energy bills? Renewables are profitable, renewables generate income and if you can turn your house into a small power station – why not? If you can reuse water to water your garden, it makes life a lot easier, cheaper, simpler.
The idea of pouring thousands of gallons of fossil fuel into your building to basically, by proxy, heat the big pocket of air just above the building – because that’s where the heat goes eventually – seems a bit of a waste of money.
When you have the opportunity to build from scratch you can make something really well, make it airtight, you can manage the ventilation, you can make it healthier, you can make it greener, you can make it cleaner; you would be happier, richer and healthier for it, so I don’t see a reason why you wouldn’t do it.
Q: Where do you think it’s important for self-builders not to make compromises?
A: I think there are three places where you don’t want to compromise when you’re building. One is enlisting the help of good professionals who understand the opportunities that you have – whether that’s a great project manager or a great architect as I think actually having your eyes opened in terms of design – which may make your life easier or more delightful – is something architects should bring. Secondly, I think it’s important to invest money into the bones of the building – the quality of the construction and its weatherproofing, its insulation, its airtightness, in its ventilation and its energy performance. Thirdly, I think the other thing that it’s always worth spending money on is stuff you touch – door handles, stair rails, window closures, kitchen taps – all the stuff that when you touch it you can instantly sense the quality of what it is because tactility is a very important quality in building that we don’t really ever take advantage of.
Q: What advice would you offer
to those who are considering
hiring an architect?
A: Hire the right architect – there’s no excuse anymore. 30 years ago you would have to traipse to the RIBA and have to ring up different numbers and arrange to meet people but nowadays you just go onto the website, see the architect’s work and get a feel for whether or not you find their work beautiful and whether or not it speaks to you in anyway and if it does go and meet them and look around their buildings. It’s not about just hiring an architect; it’s about hiring the right one, the one who sees the world as you do. With an architect, what you’re really asking for, what you are paying them for, is for them to deliver you your future. Your future environment. That’s a very, very great responsibility. That individual has to want to deliver your vision, not theirs. So, it’s very important that you mesh, that you feel as if you could be mates or soulmates – maybe not immediately. But what you don’t want to do is be spending your money on their vanity project, what you don’t want is to get something which actually doesn’t belong to either of you, it’s sort of a neutral, third-party ‘well we can only agree on these things so this is what we’ll have’, and you end up with something quite bland. It’s better to spend time finding the right individual. There are tens of thousands of people out there that are experts at building and designing, and they will help you, but you’ve got to shop around.
Q: Do you believe there is a ‘best’ building material for a self-build?
A: I don’t, no. I’ve seen people build with sticks that they’d gathered from the fields around them and I’ve seen them build out of straw and mud, and I really admire the low impact value of those materials and I admire the craftsmanship required to put them together. I’ve also seen people use very highly processed laminated timber and I’ve seen them even build just with blocks and mortar and it's interesting that each of those methods has a really compelling advantage. So, I find myself going from one project to the next going ‘this is it, this is the answer’, but then at the next project I think it’s something else. But I think the answer is probably partly to do with where you’re building – is it on the edge of a cliff, is it on a remote site where it’s difficult to get materials to or is next to a builder's yard? Does it have to happen quickly, does it have to withstand wind, does it have to be super airtight, is the agenda to disappear into the woodland? What sort emerges once you start to work out your brief and what you want and where it is and how quickly you’re going try and do this and what the available labour is, for example, that sort of determines it. If you go to Ireland and try and build with anything other than concrete, it’s hard, the same with many parts of France. So, why not go with the flow and make use of the available talent. If you’re in an area which is full of stonemasons or timber craftsmen, then that’s a bit of indicator or a bit of a lead, isn’t it?
Q: In your opinion, what is the most common mistake made by self-builders?
A: It’s the old military thing isn’t it, fail to prepare, prepare to fail. You’ve got to spend a long time planning. If you try and design something on the hoof, while you’re on site, you’re already spending money where you shouldn’t be. You need to have the whole thing tied up, every decision made before you get onto site. It’s better to spend three years planning and one year building, because if you spend one year planning, you’ll spend three years building and that’s the expensive bit.
Kevin McCloud will be appearing at Grand Designs Live at London’s ExCeL from 5 to 13th May 2018. For more information visit the Grand Designs website.