The joys and challenges of designing and building your own home

Barrie Todd is a leading figure in architecture in Northern Ireland. Writing from his own personal experiences, he details how building your own home is a truly gratifying experience

GRATIFYING: There’s nothing quite like a successful self-build but the design process can be deflating and frustrating if not properly managed
GRATIFYING: There’s nothing quite like a successful self-build but the design process can be deflating and frustrating if not properly managed GRATIFYING: There’s nothing quite like a successful self-build but the design process can be deflating and frustrating if not properly managed

Since our marriage in 1973, my ‘interior-architect’ wife and I designed all three houses in which our family and ourselves have lived.

The first was a designed and ‘self-built’ conversion of a coach house in 1976; the second house was designed for friends in 1982 which my family and I acquired four years thereafter, modified and inhabited for thirty-four years; and the third was designed by my wife and me but ‘contract-built’ in 2019.

So, out of those varied involvements a range of interesting experiences arose.

While I am an architect, that is not to say that laity do not also become involved in the design process per se.

Clientele crucially prepare outline briefs of their requirements and thereafter make key design-related decisions covering a broad spectrum of topics.

Whether architect or client, involvement in the design of one’s own house is one of the most enticing and gratifying experiences.

The process, however, can also be deflating and frustrating if not carefully managed.

Indeed, it can also be daunting when realising that you may have to live with any erroneous decisions made during the design process.

To enable proceeding with confidence it is therefore of utmost importance that your architect avoids single ‘fait-accompli’ design presentations and instead, takes you through his or her thought-process.

Such a procedure is known as ‘option-appraisals’ and, in the primary design-stages, involves the presentation of layout plans showing a variety of accommodation options accompanied by an explanation of advantages and disadvantages of each, thereby eventually arriving at a solution which best meets your ambitions and needs.

Those processes having been completed to your satisfaction allows the architect to further progress the designs through to more finalised and technical stages to enable submission for Planning Permission, Building Control Approval and ultimately construction.

Decisions such as these made at an early stage in the design process also avoid having to make changes of mind during construction which can often result in delays in completion with potential increases in construction cost.

The ultimate gratifying experience happens when seeing your contributions to the design-process gradually unfold as the building works progress towards completion and occupation.

Indeed, that feeling of excitement, anticipation and gratification is arguably further enhanced when a self-build process is adopted.

Self-build is however a bit of a misnomer insofar that, apart from the multi-skilled DYI enthusiast, a lay person will likely not directly participate in the building process but be more-so involved in procuring, programming and coordinating all of the trades personnel required to complete the respective works.

And therein lies a challenge – and I purposely use the word “challenge” as opposed to ‘problem’ for the following reasons:

A challenge presents the exciting potential of achievement whereas a problem often represents a drudge, resulting in unwelcome resentment.

Probably the biggest challenge in a self-build process is the likely undependability of trades personnel.

The underlying cause behind this frustrating anomaly is more than often down to trades personnels’ allegiance with building contractors, they being a long-term source of repeating employment opportunities.

To compound these frustrations, the preparatory work of one trade is more than often required to enable a different trade to follow and fulfil their particular role.

If that sequence does not take place in a managed manner, the result can end up in the second trade ‘walking-away’ thereby creating a knock-on disruption of many other following trades.

That self-building also reduces construction-cost is also a misnomer.

Not only do established building contractors often enjoy beneficial building-materials buying powers and VAT recovery, but in a competitive marketplace most work for very small profit margins which can be as low as ten per cent.

These factors combined with aforementioned costly programming disruption and delays can result in self-build costs being potentially higher than that of contract- build operation.

However, as is often quoted: “money is not everything” and if you are an ardent self-build enthusiast then, with all above in mind, ‘go-for-it’ – relish the enjoyment and experience ultimate gratification.

My wife and I did so, way-back in 1976; never regretted it and will never forget the joy and gratifying feeling we both experienced then.