<preform>Q&A: Designing your house</preform>

Jason Orme answers your questions
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The Independent Online

Q. Can I design my own house?

A. In theory, there is nothing to stop you taking on the role of house designer and producing elevations and layouts for submission for planning approval. The reality is somewhat different, for two reasons.

Firstly, the success of a project depends on successful design and coming up with a floorplan that enables the correct flow of rooms into each other, along with knowledge of the necessary room sizes - and making the most out of a limited floor area requires a level of skill that should not be underestimated.

In addition, experienced house designers are able to incorporate the necessary orientations to make the most of the sun and minimise heat loss, saving you money in the future. This applies to elevations; get the proportions wrong and your design stinginess will be apparent for all to see. Skilled house designers are the reason that houses work so well. Do not think that you can save money on good design.

Secondly, planning applications often hinge on the presentation of your plans - a neatly presented and coloured set of professional architectural plans is inherently more attractive than your amateurish approach.

That said, you should contribute ideas to the design. Many designers welcome sketch layouts of how you want the floorplan to work; others request a written list of requirements enabling their creativity to work unimpeded. Get involved, but know when to leave it to the professionals.

Q. Architect, designer - what's the difference?

A. The term "architect" is protected by law in order to ensure that the difference between an architect and designer is made clear. Architects can only call themselves such after a three-stage examination process recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Architects Registration Board (ARB). Unfortunately it is often misused by designers, so be sure to ask for credentials before you employ one. However, many self-builders use designers who are at least as skilled as most architects. There is a school of thought that says that designers are better attuned to the individual needs of a self-building client. As a general rule, architects are deemed to be more skilled at the creative element of design while designers and architectural technologists tend to be able to come up with plans based on an existing idea, usually the client's. Most self-builders will tell you there is little difference between the two.

Q. How much should I pay for my house design?

A. The range of fees is wide. Most self-builders will pay a fixed fee for a set of plans and building regulations drawings that would run to perhaps £1,000 to £3,000; some will do it on the cheap and get a set of plans from a local draftsman for a fixed fee of around £700; many will go to the other end of the scale and employ an architect in both a design and project supervisory role, in which case the fees will usually be based on a proportion of the total build cost (this varies but can be around 10 per cent). One recent self-builder employing a prominent individual homes architect was charged over £50,000.

Q. What about the package route?

A. While the American route of buying standard houseplans off a website or book has never taken off in the UK, there are a number of so-called "package" suppliers (primarily in the timber frame market) who have sets of standard plans. These are invariably amended by self-builders and this method is very popular. One of the big benefits is that design fees are usually built into the overall package price (don't assume that they are "free", however) and therefore big upfront fees are reduced; very handy in the early stages of a project when cheques seem to need writing on a daily basis.

Q. Should I go for traditional or modern?

A. Only in recent years have contemporary-style homes begun to be accepted into the housing mainstream. Innovative developments and schemes are gaining greater recognition and there is a growing belief that the UK's housing stock needs to embrace the same breakthroughs that have applied to other forms of construction.

That said, this view has only filtered down selectively to local planning officers and the response a cutting-edge design will get from a planner is difficult to predict. The principles of contemporary design - open-plan spaces, lots of glass and therefore light, and energy-efficient construction - are likely to find favour with future buyers and should stand any self-builder in good stead. However, traditional design is easily the most popular form of residential architecture in the UK and, from a commercial point of view, is the safest option. Many canny self-builders opt for a mix of both, with a conservative external scheme and a more contemporary interior plan.

Q. What about using a 3D CAD software package?

A. The range of home design packages is greater than ever, and the costs vary from £10 to £800 for a professional system. The more effective packages designed for the amateur designer cost between £50 and £200 and are available from most computer retailers. These are certainly worth investigation for those wanting to mess around with different ideas.

Unfortunately, some of the leading systems are American and tailored for the US market - with different styles of furniture and some only operating in imperial measurements. A weekend spent learning the system is essential as they can be incredibly frustrating to use with constant reference to the manual. However, once mastered, they are a relatively quick and easy way of coming up with workable plans and the instant rendering of 2D images to a 3D model which can be "walked through" is an appealing proposition.

In terms of using a professional model to create working floorplans, amateurs should be prepared for a steep learning curve that is unlikely to lead to satisfactory results.