Design choices

The beauty of building your own home is the opportunity to design something that suits your preferences, needs and budget. However, in very few cases do you have free rein to design what you want, as local plans and the planning department will have expectations of what is acceptable.

This can relate to host of things, such as the vernacular (local styles or materials that planners may or may not want to see – such as Cotswold stone), the size, positioning on the plot, what the surrounding homes look like – or the setting, such as rural or urban.

When making design decisions you will need to carefully consider what you want, versus what may be acceptable to planners – sometimes you can push boundaries, sometimes it is easier to play safe to make it more likely to have a smoother ride through planning. You can discuss this with a professional, once appointed.

However, planning is first and foremost about the principle of whether a house is acceptable on the land, ie is it actually a plot. So this comes first and foremost before any design elements.

Build routes and design

Choosing your build route will have an impact on the type of home you can have from a design perspective – but not as much as you might think. While it’s reasonable to expect a brick and block house to be finished in brick – it could easily be rendered, while a timber frame home can look like a conventional home once rendered or clad in brick slips.

Other routes, such as Insulated Concrete Formwork (ICF) can be harder to change once built, so it pays to be very clear about layouts of rooms and configurations of windows and doors.

Changing your plans with design choices, such as moving windows or walls, can be costly regardless of the route, and for factory fabricated systems, such as timber frame, it pays dividends to be make up your mind at the start and stick to your design.

Custom building

More and more we’re seeing multi-plot sites come to market, and these can have several approaches applied to the site. All have in common the fact that the search for land, the planning principle and infrastructure – such as roads and services – are taken care of.

On some you can follow a more traditional self build route, and commission your own design, but most use Design Codes and sometimes Plot Passports to set out what the developer has agreed with the local planning authority is acceptable on the site.

  • Design codes – a common planning tool on sites with more than one house – they set out what is acceptable, such as materials, size, positioning, garden and boundary treatments and so on
  • Plot Passports – only seen on some multi-plot self/custom build sites, these do a similar job on a plot level that the design code does on a site level. So certain plots may allow max three or five bed homes, have a choice of three bricks or two render colours, and so on.

While these may seem restrictive, they help ensure that what you do choose goes speedily through planning, as it is partially pre-approved. Some sites, like Graven Hill, have a fast track planning process, as long as you build within the parameters of such guidance.

Design options

Regardless of the route, every home is designed – but you could use an architect, a designer like an architectural technician or work with a package manufacture. The latter will normally have architects in-house or consultancies they work with, and many can adapt designs from pattern books that they have on file.

Partly the decision depends on your budget and the type of house you want – but in reality very few self builders design their own home. It’s a highly detailed suite of skills, and costly mistakes will be avoided by investing in professional help. This becomes vital if you are aiming for a highly airtight house, such as with passive house design.

When choosing an architect look at their portfolio of work – do they build the size and type of house you want, and do you feel that you could create a rapport with them, which is essential.

Research your options

Always check your chosen designer is registered member of their professional body, such as RIBA for architects in England, or RIAS in Scotland) or CIAT for architectural technicians. These organisations also offer useful guidance on choosing and working with your designer, such as RIBA’s Find an Architect service. You may also try the Association of Self Build Architects (ASBA) or check out the many self build magazines and companies on the market.

Many of these bodies can also help you establish ball park costs, and what you can expect for this – although costs will vary considerably depending on the service and practice.

Before you speak to a designer or architect, have a good idea of what you like by creating a brief or collection of ideas – this could be a scrapbook, or Pinterest or Instagram channel, and consider the price implications of what you like, if possible.

At the very least, think about your budget in relation to size, number of habitable rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms, as well as materials, styles and features.

Lifestyle choices

Consider how you want to live – not only now but in ten years time, if you plan to invest and stay put. Does open plan living suit, or do you need space for noisy teenagers to withdraw to, or flexible spaces that are more suited to grown children or dependent older parents.

What about yourself – do you need to future proof your home as you age – by having a downstairs bathroom and guest room that could become your main bed if your circumstances change.

Finally, don’t forget those extras you dream of – you might squeeze a few in, such as cinema or gaming room, dog area or live-work studio.

The more you’ve considered, the more confidently you’ll be able to pin down what is essential to your plans.

NaCSBA members

All of NaCSBA’s commercial members are signed up to our Code of Practice, meaning that there’s a form of arbitration built in when you choose them. This gives you a first stop to solve any problems should communication break down, meaning they are trusted providers.

Finnd out more on NaCSBA’s website, or find a NaCSBA member in the directory. 

Useful links

Google is a great starting point, but do evaluate the source of the advice – here’s a few articles that may help get you started:

Choosing an Architect – Build It magazine.

Self Build Guide: Finding the Right Architect – Grand Designs Magazine

Find an Architect: 6 Golden Rules for Meeting Your Perfect Match – Homebuilding & Renovating

Project Support: Find an Architect – BuildStore

Preparing an Architect’s Brief – Allan Corfield Architects