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Self-build SOS!

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Are you about to jump head first into a self-build or extension project? Before making that leap into the unknown, take time to listen to the sound advice of Julia Kendell, interior designer, self-build advisor and TV host of BBC’s DIY SOS: The Big Build

Have a clear vision of where you are going
That begins with taking the time to establish the ‘mood’ of the house. Even though that may sound like waffle, it’s just as important as the aesthetics and the practical elements. How do you want the house to feel? Are you going to use it as a party space or do children and family take priority?

You can put together your mood board online or by cutting out pictures; include everything you like, it can be individual items of furniture, windows, anything. What’s important is for you to convey the mood and feeling, to give a strong sense of you and your family’s personality and of where you are going.

Then I’d suggest drawing up an emotional list of words to hone in on that mood/feeling – it could be anything from ‘cosy by the fire’ to ‘organic’. Words are open to interpretation so the visuals will be very important for your architect to design something specific to you; they’re creative so they will pick up on the list of words as well to conceive your perfect home.

The reason this is so important is that once the dust has settled and you’ve moved in, you will truly feel that it’s your baby, your vision brought to life. If you don’t have control from the beginning you may end up living in a house that feels alien to you.

Meet the planners
Once the mood boards and sketches are in place it’s time to show them to the planners. It may seem like a scary prospect but you might end up enjoying the experience! Don’t get your architect to draw up detailed plans at this stage – it would be premature. All that hard work could be thrown out.

Your aim when meeting the planners is to get them to buy into your passion and your dream, that’s what will get them on side. They need to understand why you think it’s a good idea to build where and how you want, that way they’re more likely to potentially agree to something that may have been rejected in the past.

Just as importantly, you will find out why they want things a certain way and what your limitations will be. On a tricky site I would suggest hiring a planning consultant, it’s an expense up front but you do want to get the best out of your site so it’s a fee well worth paying.

Be and feel in control
Forward planning and being generally meticulous will put you in control of the project, which will make for a more fun experience. If your budget is six figures, strongly consider hiring a project manager. You can do it yourself, it is possible, but you need to be thorough if you do. People often think managing the project will be easy – it isn’t. There’s the practical side of keeping it all on budget and on time but also the emotional side. It can be quite a strain and can stretch relationships. I’ve come across people managing projects while holding down a full time job, that’s unsustainable.

Getting someone else to manage the build will allow you to enjoy the experience instead of being bogged down by it. You want to feel like you will get to the end because if you’re not careful, you could have a runaway train on your hands!

As for DIY, while it is very rewarding to be } working on your house, be conscious of your skills and limitations otherwise you will end up in a pickle. Be realistic about what you can take on; if you really want to get stuck in, by all means do but take a course to make sure you won’t have to get someone in to fix your mistakes!

Be meticulous in your planning
The scenario is all too common: you’re living in rented accommodation (or in a caravan!), you want to get the build started before the weather turns cold and you’re generally desperate to get on with it! Regardless of your situation, take the time to plan, even if it means delaying the build until next year. Otherwise you will pay for your lack of planning in all sorts of ways – you are likely to spend longer building/upgrading the house, costs could spiral out of control and stress levels with it, and the list goes on.

The first step is to get the experts on board from day one, not once you’re well into the project and are struggling to manage the build. If you are going to project manage, keep clear and easily accessible files, get written quotes on absolutely everything and make sure they’re up to date – if a quotation has lapsed get it redone.

It may sound obvious and common sense but few people adhere to the fundamental rule of planning ahead, whether it’s done by you directly or by a project manager. In all cases you will have to take every single decision, including colours, styles, etc. down to the smallest detail.

It may sound obvious and common sense but few people adhere to the fundamental rule of planning ahead, whether it’s done by you directly or by a project manager. In all cases you will have to take every single decision, including colours, styles, etc. down to the smallest detail.

It can’t be stressed enough: every detail must be in place before you start; I would never give the green light on a project without having chosen every single item, from the hinges and door knobs to light fittings.

All of these decisions impact on how the tradesmen will work. The more information you have for them the better – you want to have an answer when they ask you what kind of finish you want or what you want as a fitting. It will command you respect on site, keep you in control and on top of the budget.

Stay on track
All too often people regret not having done one thing or another on their self-build; the aim on yours therefore should be to make as few mistakes as possible. These are regrets you will live with for a long time, so taking the time to plan is critical.

Once the plan has been established, stick to it. It’s common to veer off course but don’t. You took the time to plan every detail for a reason! If you change one aspect chances are it will impact on another, potentially snowballing.

As the project manager you will also need to stay one step ahead. Keep on top of what is due when and if something has a long lead time, for instance if it’s coming from abroad, allow a few extra weeks for delivery.

That’s because you can never rely on delivery dates! Always phone a few days in advance, and the day before, to make sure it’s definitely arriving on schedule.

There’s nothing worse than having trades people on site hanging around doing nothing because the materials haven’t arrived.

Choosing materials
Spend time on research. When I started in interior design there were no computers; I could spend an entire afternoon in London looking for a fringe or trimming! Now it’s all online, which is in large part why I think people feel comfortable undertaking self-builds. The internet has revolutionised the industry – it’s still time-consuming but the information is much more readily available.

Although it may seem like there’s a myriad of choice, when you factor in your specification, e.g. load bearing, size, etc. the list of options will be whittled down.

For large and costly items go visit the manufacturer, even if it means a trip to Germany! It’s far better to know in advance what you’re getting than having a nasty surprise.

For renewables, consider hiring an independent advisor – there’s  a lot of products out there so if you feel like you’re being pitched it’s worth paying a one-off fee to get advice on the latest developments in the industry and come to a decision of what’s best for your house. Make sure the consultant is truly independent, some may be tied in with companies.

When it comes to fitting out your house there’s nothing better than trade shows like the SelfBuild Show and Improve Your Home in Belfast. It’s one thing to see it online or in a magazine and quite another to have a tactile response. It’s a great way to contrast and compare and get to speak with people face to face.

When not to fall in love
It’s a common mistake to fall in love with an item and buy it in the hope that it will fit into the design and into the house. You may be madly drawn to something but stand back to think if this could lead to you going over budget. It may not fit in with the style you’ve established, and for that matter, it may not fit at all – the dimensions could be wrong or any other specification not suited to your house. It may be too heavy or may simply be overkill.

So before you take that leap of faith, check all the details, e.g. heat output for a radiator, consider the budget and consider whether it will actually fit into the house mood and style. You can go over budget on one item – it happens all the time! Don’t spend unnecessarily.

Contingency: minimum 15 per cent
The contingency needs to be 15 per cent of the budget and more if you’re renovating. You never know what you’ll uncover. You will use it, so make sure it’s there. The last 10 per cent is spent on the bit you see, so you want to still have the money for it, it’s horrible to run out of cash before you reach that stage.

Along with your contingency, on a renovation project you will also need one heck of a sense of humour! The last house I renovated we decided to move in before the kitchen extension was built. We had a mock kitchen in the utility room but there was no electricity in that part of the house at the time so we cooked by candlelight. I got my daughter to plate up the food to bring to the dining room, which was lit. That’s when we found out the plates were covered in dust and the food caked in it!

The good news is that a new build should be straightforward and everything should go like clockwork – the only major unforeseen is the foundations, the rest can be planned for. That’s in theory at least! 

Find out what options are available for your own  home improvement at the SelfBuild & Improve Your Home Show, Kings Hall, Belfast 14-16 February. See www.selfbuild.ie for more information.