Even years of experience in the construction industry doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride for a self-build, as each project is different. Below, Chris Stanley, Housing Manager at the Concrete Block Association (CBA), discusses his experience building his own home and offers valuable advice to anyone embarking on a self-build project.
One of the first things you learn when you enter the construction profession is that each project is different, and things happen that can be out of your hands. Until you start digging those foundations, you’re somewhat in the dark. I was perhaps a little too close to the industry to foresee that I, too, could encounter hurdles.
Familiarise yourself with local planning restrictions
My biggest stumbling block came in the form of planning regulations. To do my bit for the environment, my ambition was to build an ultra-low energy, Passive house-style home, with a south-facing garden and façade to make the most of solar gain, and solar panels on the roof.
This was, unfortunately, not in line with the local authority’s requirements. To reduce the mass and impact of the original design, I was forced to incorporate a gable and valley roof unlike the surrounding properties, which made the installation of solar panels impossible as the cost vs return would be negative.
To avoid having to resubmit plans and minimise delays, it’s important to get the local authority on board from the get-go. Make sure you are familiar with their design stipulations and what policies they regard more important before you spend time drafting your plans. This will prevent disappointment down the line.
Know what the role of each professional is
It’s also crucial to understand what the various individual professions involved in the construction process actually do. People are occasionally confused by what the difference is between a chartered surveyor, say, or a structural engineer.
While a surveyor will offer you impartial advice on a variety of property-related issues, depending on their field of expertise, a structural engineer is a problem-solving design professional who has the technical expertise to ensure a building is constructed safely and cost-effectively.
Choose the right materials for what you are building and where
When you make your selection of building materials, it is important to consider the long term. What is the purpose of your build? Are you building to live in now? A holiday home? To have somewhere to retire, or for posterity?
Also consider the lye of the land. It’s important to know whether the soil type is clay, sand or chalk as it could have a significant impact on your build. Choosing the wrong foundation system for your soil could prove very costly in the future. You should also take into account any nearby trees. As a rule, any tree within a distance equal to the mature height of that tree from your build, will affect the construction.
Understand detailing and thermal efficiency
Looking at the finer details of thermal efficiency and air-tightness is crucial if you aspire to build to the best sustainability standards. This will save money on energy bills, as you can minimise how much ongoing heating or cooling your home requires.
Masonry products are highly reactive materials and deliver homes which are warm in the winter and cool in the summer, due to their inherent thermal mass properties. Despite this, you should still look out for thermal bridges; these are areas of a build with a higher thermal conductivity than the surrounding materials, typically breaks in insulation. They can account for roughly 30% of a building’s heat loss.
At the CBA, we offer a free and easy-to-use tool to help anyone involved in a building project determine the ideal materials for their project. The U-value calculator measures the thermal transmittance of a building’s exterior wall and enables its user to achieve optimal energy performance. The CBA website also has a wide variety of Thermal Bridging details available for free download.
Take advice from the pro
Finally, I want to highlight how important it is to listen to your main contractors’ advice. They know the professionals to work with, and it’s a good idea to let them recommend who is best for each job. Trying to source everyone yourself can get complicated and time-consuming.