Designing your dream self-build home

May 13, 2021

In our third blog on self-build projects, David Cox of David Cox Architects talks about house design and finding the right builder.

Many of us dream of designing our own home and often when we first meet a client they have already visualised the layout and style they would like. Whilst it’s important to capture this vision, we also like to understand how the client plans to spend their time so that I can design a home that works best for them.
The design process is very collaborative. We try to get everyone around a table (virtual if necessary) to discuss generate and evolve ideas. It’s a fairly free-flowing process, although we do always pose three questions which will guide the design.

  1. What should the house offer in terms of space?

To begin with, we ask what their expectations are in terms of room type and numbers. How many bedrooms and bathrooms would they like. Do they need an office, utility room or garage and do they need any flexible space that could change in future?

2. How will the house be used?

We then begin to explore how they will use that space. For me, this is the most important process. We walk through a client’s typical day to try and navigate a natural flow between spaces. 
An example would be after walking the dog, which entrance will they come through? Do they need access to a cloakroom to store muddy boots or a sink to clean the dog? Or on a weekend, will they entertain (when restrictions allow!) and does the dining kitchen need to be a sociable place but not too open to wake young children.
Often our clients haven’t considered these questions themselves and it can lead to new unexpected requirements.
Once we understand how the space will be used, we turn to the location. A site can often lend itself to particular design features. For instance, where the sun moves across it will often dictate the outdoor space or a countryside backdrop that would make a perfect view from a first-floor lounge. We consider how the design can work to the strengths of the site whilst also accommodating any access requirements or restrictions.

3. What should the house look like?

With so much content available on house design and styles, we can quickly understand a client’s vision and style preferences. We use Pinterest to share ideas and use these as inspiration and a starting point to create a bespoke design. Some clients have a very prescriptive brief while others are vaguer…both is fine. A good architect can translate your vision into a reality but can also guide you if you need ideas. 
At this point, all collaboration tends to be visual with the designers using hand-drawn sketches to illustrate their ideas. This is an exciting stage and is often the first time the client will see their vision down on paper. 
The magic happens when these three elements are combined and we develop outline designs to present to the client.

We always recommend requesting a 3D design with the option for a virtual walk-through as this gives the client a greater feel for the house and they can experience the flow of the space and how the light falls in each room. 
We always send our client away with the model to let them explore. This enriches the next stage of the design as the more time they spend ‘in the house’ now, the more likely we are to design the perfect home.
Once the client is ready, we will go through the model and capture any feedback. The opportunity to ‘experience’ their dream home often presents new ideas and at this stage, we often find that clients will have additional requirements. 

I would always encourage clients to be honest and not to apologise for this. Designing a home is a process and your architect will welcome the opportunity to create a home you love. That said, it’s important to remember that your architect may be able to use his or her experience to improve your design. Being open to their ideas and suggestions is a good idea but remember that you are the most important member of the design team. A good architect won’t impose their design views on you – they are there to help you make the most of your home architecturally and to offer some exciting designs ideas.

The feedback and revision process may take some time. Once the design is finalised, we will prepare a set of drawings ready for submission of a planning application. 

For an outline planning application, you may only require a plan showing the boundary of the site and simple house footprint and access road while others may require additional information.

Once you have secured planning, it’s time to think about the build and to make sure that your final house reflects your design.

There are three main routes to appoint a contractor:  

  1. You could directly appoint a building firm and use the drawings prepared for planning – this is rare and not something I would suggest.
  2. A more traditional route is for the architect to translate the designs into construction drawings and to procure the job. The builder will be selected based on best-value which considers price and quality of work. The architect would also represent the client until the project is complete so there is minimal input required from the client.
  3. Finally, architects can introduce clients to builders they know and trust and can work with them as part of the design team to prepare construction drawings. I find this to be the most constructive way of working and it also cuts down on architect fees.

Whichever route you choose, I would always recommend comparing quotes and asking for references and photos of previous work. Even better, if they are local, go and see their work in person. You should also check insurances and accreditations and remember that the cheapest builder may end up costing the most in the end!

How long does it take to build my own home?

The timescales can vary but typically the design stage takes 6 weeks and obtaining planning permission takes around 8 weeks.  I would usually allow 12-18 months to find a builder and for the build, depending on the size of the house and complexity of the site.  

How much will it cost?

Again, this varies but an entry-level house will start at around £1,500 per sqm up to £3,000 sqm for a higher spec family home.

Always protect yourself by performing due diligence.  Architecture is a registered and regulated profession which means architects are insured and work to industry standards and a code of ethics and are regulated.  It’s always worth checking that your Architect is on the Architects Registration Board. 

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