Building good relationships

Communication skills are vital if you are going to manage a self-build project. Graham Norwood explains
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The Independent Online

If you think the most important element of a successful self-build project is hard graft, think again. It isn't just bargaining over cheap materials, either. They are both crucial but you have missed the big one: good communications.

If you think the most important element of a successful self-build project is hard graft, think again. It isn't just bargaining over cheap materials, either. They are both crucial but you have missed the big one: good communications.

Ask Karen and David Pritt, who have just moved into their self-build six bedroom house in Cumbria. The project lasted 12 months but ran to time and to budget, despite a fire destroying the interior just after Christmas. "We were determined and just got on with the job. We did the drawings so knew what was required and when. We drew up schedules and found builders and other experts by word of mouth. We didn't need to hire a project manager because we were organised," says Karen.

Despite doing a higher-than-average share of the work themselves, they had to communicate with a host of professionals, from mortgage lenders to bricklayers - and they had no experience of self-build before. But both Karen and David had the advantage of professional communication skills. Karen works in personnel, so deals with people in a range of disciplines every day, while David is a management consultant, analysing information and speaking with clients. Even so, the whole exercise was "very stressful" according to Karen.

"Effective communication is an under-estimated skill. It's central to self-building. You will undergo extensive consultation with strangers, who will usually know much more than you. Time is money, so it pays to be clear when ordering - whether it's people or bricks," advises Peter Davies, who runs a communications and training consultancy in Bristol.

He says the earliest stage of consultation involves your own family. You must get a gauge of how disruptive self-building will be on your life and that of your partner and children. More than 50 per cent of self-builders live in some form of temporary accommodation during the build period, typically nine to 15 months. This is because they usually need to sell their existing home to free equity for the early stages of the build. The physical and emotional issues involved in, say, two adults and two children living in a caravan for up to a year needs careful discussion.

Then there must be family agreement on the type and size of property. Typical questions to be resolved involve the number of bedrooms, en-suites and reception rooms, plus the type of kitchen and bathroom, and whether you need a large garden and garage space.

The next stage, assuming you go ahead, is to cost your dream. This will involve a land or estate agent to give you the cost of plots in your chosen area, plus an architect to give likely design and building costs. Then you need to find and buy a plot, which may involve bargaining with a seller. Then you must liaise with a lender to get the funding, which may involve giving a presentation your proposals.

But success at this stage marks only the beginning of your communications exercise. Then comes the ordering of materials, plant and labour, with up to a dozen different skilled crafts involved as well as council officials. Many self-build experts suggest the "three quote rule"; that is, getting three written quotes for each job and the supply of materials. You must communicate to know when quotes expire, if deposits are required, timescales, and if equipment or information is required beforehand. You will need to communicate day-to-day on site management, too, to ensure the right people are ready to arrive for the next stage of work.

Many self-build experts say that if you are in doubt about your ability to communicate and manage resources over a lengthy period, then you should hire a project manager. The cost can be high - up to £30,000 for six months in exceptional circumstances - but this can avoid wastage if you doubt your own ability to communicate.

The A-Z of who to talk to

Architects: you will need a chartered architect if you want a truly unique property designed by someone who can project-manage the build too. Otherwise, you will require an architectural technician who can produce drawings to accompany your planning application and to satisfy council officials monitoring building regulations.

Bricklayers: these will require on-site instruction and supervision.

Building control inspectors: for most projects these make nine separate visits to ensure the building work conforms to legal regulations, and they must also sign off the completed project. Their support is usually essential to trigger payments from your self-build mortgage lender.

Councillors: you may need to lobby the elected district or county councillors in the area where you build if your planning application is in any doubt, or if there is any likelihood of objections from existing residents.

Electricians: ensure they have the appropriate qualifications.

Engineers: a chartered engineer may be required to establish the type of foundation necessary.

Estate agents: you will need to register with these when seeking your plot, and if possible encourage them to give you advance information on sites coming up.

Groundworkers: these build the foundations and may be involved in installing drainage too.

Insurers: you may need to insure your site against contamination or vandalism during the build; your craftsmen against injury, and your completed property with one of the traditional new-home warranty operators, such as the National House Building Council.

Joiners: these will be required for floor and roof timbers, doors, staircases and outbuildings.

Lenders: establish an overall agreement and the total mortgage, then liaise at intervals, providing evidence of satisfactory completion to trigger threshold payments.

Neighbours: courtesy and ensuring you do not get off on the wrong foot requires you to introduce yourself to future neighbours and keep them up to date with your plans.

Planners: on a virgin site you may need separate outline and detailed planning permission, and to consult before the first design is drawn and several times during building.

Plasterers: ensure they can render, bond and skim, and in some cases dry line basements or rooms near damp ground.

Plumbers: these are expensive, so provide clear instructions and appropriate monitoring

Roofers: general craftsmen can lay modern interlocking tiles; use skilled roofers for clay or thatch.

Scaffolders: these are also expensive, and work under strict health and safety regulations, so you will need to select a skilled company.

Suppliers: you will need to speak to at least one builders' merchant (possibly many more) and use your charm and customer skills to seek bulk-order reductions and prompt delivery.

Utility firms: gas, electricity, telephone and cable companies will all require contact and coordination.