30 Jun 2017

Self-build advice from top architecture practice

Jason Pledger started his career as a Junior Architectural Assistant at a practice in Truro, Cornwall, in 1991, and today holds the title Design Director at Laurence Associates. Here, i-build talks to Jason about his career as an architect and reports on his recent self-build projects.

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Q: Can you please give us a description of your professional career?

A: The practice I worked for in 1991 comprised architects, chartered surveyors and technicians. My duties mainly consisted of carrying out detailed surveys and hand-drafting existing layouts on conversion and change of use schemes on redundant agricultural buildings to form residential dwellings. I worked for the same company for a couple of years, gaining valuable experience, before moving onto a practice in Penryn.

The industry was badly affected by the economic downturn of the early 90s resulting in a dramatic fall in workload, and I spent more than a year out of work. I put my spare time to good use and was working in the building trade when, in 1994, I was offered a job by an Architectural Designer. For the next four years, I worked on a variety of schemes from extensions and conversions to self-builds. I was young, driven and desperate to succeed.

I was then offered a job by the owner of a timber frame manufacturer, who wanted me to develop the architectural arm of the company, with a particular focus on self-builds. During the next eight years, I built a five-strong team of architects and we supported clients with land acquisition, pre-application advice, outline and detailed planning applications and Building Regulations.

In 1998, I was headhunted by Laurence Associates which offered me an equity partnership and an opportunity to develop the architectural side of the consultancy. The firm only had one other designer at the time, working on fairly basic schemes. My brief was to develop a team which could offer clients a full range of architectural services. Within a year, the design team had grown six-fold and included a chartered landscape architect and SAP assessor. We went on to win the RTPI ‘Small Planning Consultancy of the Year’ Award for our holistic approach to development.

Q: How did you come to specialise in the self-build market?

A: My father was a builder so I spent time on building sites from a young age. I’ve designed and built two of my own homes and renovated and extended my current one. I have always enjoyed working on residential schemes, particularly self-builds, and you soon become aware of the pitfalls. I believe my hands-on experience helps me to better understand my clients’ needs when undertaking a self-build project.

Q: What has been your most notable self-build project to date?

A: I have been involved in a number of notable projects, but arguably one of the most outstanding is a scheme for a replacement dwelling at Restronguet Creek on the River Fal. We were selected after a rigorous interview process, for which we had to prepare a concept scheme based on the clients’ initial basic brief for a 450 to 500m² house, four-bay garage and boathouse overlooking Carrick Roads. It ended up being more than 750m² across three floors and includes a swimming pool, steam room and gymnasium. The open-plan design meant we had to work with structural engineers to develop a reinforced concrete frame. This will be a flagship project for our practice, and it’s been terrific to work with clients who have trusted our experience throughout.

Q: What have you witnessed as a main concern for today’s self-builders?

A: One of the main concerns is having a cohesive approach through the build process with the different trades involved – and the expertise and experience to manage it. Self-building clients wishing to trim costs may choose to project manage themselves rather than appointing a main contractor. But they may not be best placed to monitor the progress and workmanship, and to ensure a joined-up approach across the trades. I have witnessed some horrendous workmanship on a number of self-build projects, particularly when the architect hasn’t been retained post-approval for the construction phase.

I once went on a site visit and discovered that an electrician employed by the main contractor had cored out a 100mm hole in the bottom chord of a 222mm girder truss to access mechanical ventilation ducting. It might have been the easiest way to do it, but it left the girder truss without any structural integrity. This sort of thing happens when there’s no cohesion between the trades on site, typical of a self-build project.

Q: What do you think is the greatest challenge for self-builders today?

A: Securing funding for self-builds is much harder since the recession of 2008, although the situation is gradually easing as the markets improve. Then you need to find the right plot at the right price. It’s not uncommon for self-build projects to go over budget. Many schemes don’t have a quantity surveyor (QS) on board from the outset to advise on the design process in line with the client budget and to monitor costs as the project progresses. A QS is an independent expert consultant who can prepare a bill of quantities and schedules for the materials and labour needed for the project from the architect’s plans.

It’s also essential to ensure you have a contract with your builder or contractor. All too often, I see problems either during or at the end of the project where there hasn’t been a contract between the parties.

Q: How do you approach a self-build project?

A: Having the opportunity to design a house to suit your own needs, rather than buying one from a housing developer, can be appealing and daunting in equal measure. By following a few key steps, you’ll be able to minimise the chances of the your house-building dreams collapsing around you:

• Firstly, make sure your funding is in place at the start and set a firm but realistic budget, including a contingency to cover unexpected costs.
• Choosing an architect is crucial, and you need to get the best fit for you and your project. Choose someone who’s going to understand your ideas and maximise the potential of your site.
• Do your homework; looking at a site’s planning history may give you an insight into what can be achieved, as well as any issues arising from previous applications. You can obtain this information from your local authority. Check whether the site lies within a designated area such as an AONB or conservation area where there may be tighter restrictions on what you’ll be able to achieve.
• Consider early contact with the local authority’s planning department to assess the viability of your project. Most planning departments offer pre-application advice, although you may have to pay for this service.
• Play to the site’s strengths and try to be flexible about the design of the house.

Q: In your view, which building material do you believe is best for a self-build?

A: It’s very much a personal choice, but I favour timber, simply for its versatility. There are so many variations, species, colours and applications for the interior and exterior. But the material you use will largely depend on the nature of the site, topography and ground conditions.

Q: What advice would you offer self-builders when it comes to budgeting?

A: Establish your budget before finding the plot and always build in a minimum 10% contingency. Projects can grind to a halt due to a lack of contingency funds for unforeseen issues on site, and the tighter the budget, the more stress there will be as the project progresses. And very often that can lead to a compromise with the end product. It’s important to remember that a budget is a tool to help you manage the project efficiently and it will need to be updated regularly throughout the build.

Consider using £/m² to ensure the size of your property is right for your budget – but only use it as a guide. It’s wise on some projects to engage a quantity surveyor who’ll be able to give you professional advice on build costs.

Q: What advice would you offer to those self-builders currently plot searching?

A: Plots of land for development aren’t always an easy or obvious find and you’ll need a lot of patience. The first thing to do is select an area. If your search area is too large you could easily become overwhelmed. Look online, register with estate and land agents, stay across auction listings and let people know you’re looking for a plot. Word of mouth is really powerful. Use Google Street View to identify street maps to identify gaps in the street scene; look for space around existing homes which could attract planning permission for infill development. Narrow sites are often overlooked, but it might be possible to squeeze in a small house with roof lights and courtyard areas, reducing the impact on neighbouring properties.

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