Self-build is the new national obsession, thanks largely to television programmes from the likes of Kevin McCloud and George Clarke.
The British Home Enhancement Trade Association reports that we will spend a massive £4.94 billion on our homes and gardens before Christmas this year — £550 million more than last year.
Yet tackling building projects can be a daunting prospect. Where to go for help?
Success: A house built thanks to the National Self Build and Renovation Centre
The answer is found in a giant warehouse-style building just off Junction 16 on the M4: The National Self Build & Renovation Centre (nsbrc.co.uk).
As well as housing a permanent exhibition illustrating the latest in home improvements — including bathrooms, kitchens, pools and a scaled-down mock-up of a house under construction — they also run courses on every aspect of home-building, from finding land to project management.
‘The lockdown has made people time-rich and fuelled a desire to sharpen up their homes or build new ones,’ says Harvey Fremlin, the managing director at the centre. ‘Through our courses, we give people the basic knowledge and confidence to oversee the tradesmen whom they hire.’
The lockdown hasn’t prevented the centre from operating. Although the building itself is shut, all their courses, which would have cost £165 a day, have been placed online at £85 a throw.
Groups use Zoom to ask their lecturers questions in real time. Later, if they run into problems, they can come back to the helpdesk where advice is offered for free.
Mr Fremlin reckons the centre attracts a wide age range of visitors, from first-time buyers with a mind to getting their feet on the property ladder for about £150,000, to fiftysomethings approaching retirement who want a home to match their needs.
‘Three things motivate self-builders,’ says Fremlin. ‘They want more space, energy-efficiency and good design. Developers build for profit. By building yourself, you take back control.’
Richard and Silvia Campbell turned to the centre when they set about building their dream house in a village outside Newbury, Berkshire, attending an all-day course and returning to the helpdesk on at least 50 occasions for advice.
The two-year project was a success. Their quarter-acre plot cost £300,000 and the build about £600,000. Now the property is worth an estimated £1.4 million.
‘The best decision I made was to heed the centre’s advice and hire tradesmen on a daily rate instead of handing over the project to a building company,’ says Silvia, a designer. ‘That alone saved us £200,000.’
Even more profitable was Mike and Audrey Webb’s transformation of a run-down house overlooking the beach in Seaton, Devon, into eight swish apartments. The site cost £500,000, the build added up to £2.9 million and the apartments sold for a total of £4.8 million.
Not all self-build projects that the centre gets involved with are so ambitious. As a result of Covid-19, many people are working from home, so the most popular exhibits are the garden offices.
‘People need to consider whether they have a sufficiently big garden, do they need planning permission, how do they plan to heat and ventilate the office?’ says Mr Fremlin.
‘But we won’t steer them towards a specific company; our income isn’t based on commission and our advice is neutral.’
N o building project is entirely risk-free and planning permission is the number one stumbling point.
Company director Edward Toomer had a nasty shock when, in 2017, he set about building an energy-efficient German prefabricated house in a semi-rural location outside Alton, Hampshire.
‘Unknown to us was Policy H16 from East Hampshire Council which stipulated that our 1920s asbestos bungalow could not be replaced by a larger house,’ says Edward.
‘At one stage, the German company demanded a payment of 10 per cent for an oversize house that could not be built.’
Fortunately, having sought the centre’s advice, their plans were later tweaked and planning was passed.
The centre isn’t the only source of advice. There are innumerable Grand Designs-style magazines and part-time courses. But how steep is the learning curve?
‘If you can arrange a wedding, a funeral, a christening or any large-scale party, then you should be able to project-manage a construction job,’ says Mr Fremlin.
‘You use exactly the same skills of organising people, times and budgets. Don’t be afraid. With the right advice, you can do it.’