Drawing to a happy conclusion

Whatever romantic visions you have for your self-build home, make sure you have a professional designer on board. Jason Orme reports
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The Independent Online

Designing your own tailor-made home is the second best bit of self-building - second of course to moving in to the finished house. It's a highly exciting and dreamy process - yes, you will be living in this imaginary home in less than a couple of years and here it is at the moment, at best a sketch on A4 paper and at worst a vague mental fog.

Designing your own tailor-made home is the second best bit of self-building - second of course to moving in to the finished house. It's a highly exciting and dreamy process - yes, you will be living in this imaginary home in less than a couple of years and here it is at the moment, at best a sketch on A4 paper and at worst a vague mental fog.

It is the most important stage, too; changing plans halfway through a building project is disastrous for your budget, the schedule and the patience of your builders, so making sure you are 100 per cent happy with your design now, on paper, is essential.

It is the one time that you will be able to explore all the options for internal and exterior design heaven - from talking to hi-tech automated home specialists about whizzy multi-room audio systems, to having a jolly good think about how your new door canopy will sit against a stone wall. Time invested at this stage is critical and usually highly enjoyable.

And then reality hits. Have you got your building plot yet? If not, then you might as well forget your dreams of a cool contemporary-style home or medieval-influenced mansion - at least for now - because, as any designer of individual homes will tell you, the way your self-built home will look is as much a reaction to its unique building plot as any grand designs you may have. For any home design to work effectively, its location has to be the starting point.

There are a number of reasons why. Plots come in all shapes and sizes, from the conventional rectangular format to the frighteningly narrow (you can build a house on a site with at least 6m frontage) to the bizarre (I am currently building on a triangular site, with the long face of the triangle forming a frontage). All of this will have an obvious impact on the shape of the house, and its position on that site will have an impact on where your rooms will be situated.

Don't assume your plot will be flat, either. Sloping sites can frighten off potential buyers but offer a wealth of interesting possibilities to the astute designer, more easily enabling the introduction of partial basements and perhaps the "upside down" approach to layouts, where the first floor is taken up by living accommodation to take advantage of the views while the less exciting ground floor is devoted to sleeping and utility.

In addition to the design issues surrounding architectural styles in the neighbourhood - do you want to fit in with them or make a real statement? - the other key "local" factor in your design will be the local planning office. Planners garner pretty strong reactions from even the most conservative-spirited of self-builders who, in their ordinary lives, would never dream of even sending in their council tax a week late yet, when it comes to dealing with planning officers, turn into George Galloway on the end of some particularly hearty correspondence with George Bush.

Contrary to popular myth, planners are not the enemy and in most cases you should get them on-side as soon as possible in the process; they like to feel as though they have had a positive input into the design of a new building on their patch and if they see that you have the same intentions as they have (creating an attractive new home that provides a positive input on a local area), you shouldn't have many problems.

The best advice is to avoid confrontation where possible and only go to an expensive and time-consuming appeal where you have a realistic chance of a new argument being heard.

Local issues aside, your budget should also be nagging away at your every design decision. You simply can't have everything you want, and while this naturally applies to the consumer elements of the self-build process such as top-of-the-range kitchens, bathrooms, entertainment systems and flooring, it also applies to architectural design too. A simple rule is that if you want to build cheap, build simple. Draw the kind of boxy house a child might draw (although cutting out the chimney stack will save you money) and build this square layout if you want the cheapest form; every variation in roof shape, every valley, hip, extension, corner and ridge will cost you more from there. Successful design has to be a reaction to a constraint - indeed, some of the very best designs are the cleverest solutions to tightness of space or money - and your budget should influence your every design decision.

So, the big question - who will actually design your home for you? It certainly shouldn't be you. As a self-builder with little or no design experience of building projects or the fundamentals of design, you should know only one thing about good design - that you have to be a good designer to do it. By all means, sketch and mess around with layouts and simple ideas, and give these to your designer to ensure that he includes them in the final plan - but one of the keys to a successful self-build project is knowing when to listen to professionals.

There are three main routes open to the average self-builder. The first and most common is to engage the services of a local designer with experience in one-off housebuilding projects. They will encourage you to develop your own ideas of what a good design for your needs should involve, and analyse your lifestyle to come to a broad concensus on the accommodation required.

They will come up with plans and probably see your project through the planning process and then, if you wish, act in a supervisory role during the project. Speak to former clients to see how they viewed the relationship (and visit their finished homes) and ensure that you get a responsive, practical designer who understands your requirements budget.

As with builders, you may need to interview many to get the right designer for you. They are usually paid on a percentage of the total build cost and this can vary between 5 and 12 per cent, depending on the individual, his experience and what you want from him (although set fees can sometimes be arranged).

A visit to the RIBA website at www.architecture.com will enable you to search for a designer in your area, or a chat with the Associated Self-Build Architects ( www.asba-architects.org) will point you in the right direction.

An increasingly popular option is to use a designer who is not necessarily able to call themselves an architect. Good design comes from a wide variety of sources but architectural technicians (or technologists - it's the same thing) are often highly skilled designers who simply haven't earned the appropriate qualifications for one reason or another. They will be able to come up with perfectly useable and attractive plans and are usually just as capable of producing something very close to your needs. They are often used by self-builders with an eye for design, who understand the planning and budgetary constraints of a project and who don't necessarily want to pay someone for design ideas - all they want is a workable plan based on their own ideas. The same can be said for structural engineers and some builders.

The last option is to use a package company who will be able to tailor one of their standard designs to your individual requirements. Potton, the most popular of the timber frame suppliers, has a set of standard plans (you can get a brochure from www.potton.co.uk) and, despite having built thousands of new homes for self-builders in the UK, claims never to have built the same house twice, with clients swapping layouts around and making smaller alterations to the floorplans.

Many of these companies (covering all forms of construction) have talented in-built designers who are highly attuned to the needs of self-builders and layout trends and well worth further investigation. Some don't even use standard plans, with every house designed from scratch. With some, such as the long established masonry package specialist Design and Materials, ( www.designandmaterials.uk.com), the design comes "free" as part of the package price - worth considering for those who want to avoid excessive start-up fees.

Good design will stay with you and your house for years to come; but bad design will be even more apparent. Be realistic with your ambitions and give careful consideration to the way you hope to live in your house and how you want it to look before you have even laid a brick. It will pay great dividends.

Jason Orme is editor of 'Homebuilding & Renovating magazine