Designing Your Home - Top Tips for Self-Builders

Discover the best approaches to designing your own self build house, including the thought processes behind designing for everyday life.

How to design your house

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One reason to self build is the freedom to design a home perfect for you! But this doesn’t happen by magic. To make sure the property you end up with is really the one you’ve been dreaming of you need to get the design right.

‘Good’ house design isn’t simply a drawing of a house that looks amazing on paper. It is a vision for the entire process and should set you on the path to success. Knowing what you want and what to expect from day one will help you achieve your perfect home.

How to get started?

Before you move to the design stage you will need to consider several factors. For example:

  • How big is the plot and how does that compare with the size of house you are looking to build?
  • Will the style of your dream home fit with the local surroundings and existing buildings? 
  • How likely will your design be approved by the local planning authority?
  • What can you realistically achieve within your budget?
  • Are there any access issues? This could determine what materials are used for the build.

Having a realistic understanding of design and construction will help you find the level of assistance you need.

How to choose an architect or designer for your self build

As a self-builder you need someone who is a brilliant house designer. Who understands your motivations and has experience working on self build projects. They should be able to create a plan for a home that can be built within your constraints. Architects can, of course, be brilliant house designers, however, so can almost anyone with skill, talent and experience.

Did you know, many, award-winning homes in the UK, were designed by house designers with no formal qualifications? House designers range from; architectural technologists, surveyors, engineers, or anyone with the essential skills.

A house designer provides a connector with all different elements of the construction process. From build cost, to planning consent and even construction choice. It is vital that you choose wisely.

Many self-builders go straight to an architect, who may not be able to ‘ground’ the project in the context that the self-builder has to work with. For instance, they might design a house that is inappropriate for the site, may never gain planning consent or be achievable within your budget. Some architects may bring too much of their own vision into the project, without considering your brief. This can also go the other way, by sticking to the simple sketches that the self-builders have produced.

To avoid this all-too-common scenario, doing your research is key. Look for a house designer who understands your position and can provide excellent customer service, reasonable fees and has evidence of successful projects.

What to look for in a house designer

Your choice of designer is critical to the success of your project and priorities.

If money isn't a concern and you're in search of a one-of-a-kind property with a unique design, the designer's approach to practical construction may not be the deciding factor. However, if you're looking for a house that meets your needs and remains within your budget, it's important to find a designer who shares these concerns and openly discusses costs.

But is there a way to have the best of both worlds? Ideally, you want someone who possesses the creative design flair of top architects, practical engineering skills, and a deep understanding of self-builders' priorities. At Potton, we have years of experience working with self-builders. Our design team consists of skilled professionals, including self-build consultants, architects, engineers and planning consultants.

So, how can you find a designer who can help you unlock the potential of your plot? The approach should be a combination of science and art, blending textbook rules with your own judgment and personal taste.

Tips to help you find a house designer

  1. Don’t hire a designer based on their title

The common mistake most novices make is in terminology. The term ‘architect’ is protected by the Architects Registration Board. Only a proportion of experienced house designers are qualified architects. Those looking to self-build don’t necessarily need an architect to design a house for them. They need an experienced house designer. Good house designers come with all manner of professional titles. Including: Architect, Architectural Technologist, Architectural Designer, Architectural Technician or House Designer. So keep this in mind.

  1. Always check a designer’s previous work

You should always ask to see previous projects. Look to see how the designs were developed, from drawing board to reality. Ask about how those projects ran. If possible, speak to the building contractor that carried out a previous project. Another tip is to research common difficulties on new build houses. You can use this knowledge to ask questions about potential issues.

  1. Do they understand build costs?

The design process isn’t just a question of drawing an attractive house. An experienced designer should be a project founder. They should be able to ground the project in reality. Basing any plans squarely on the build cost you provide. Can the designer show that their previous projects were built to budget? Do they understand the cost of the build prices and materials? Do they know the latest costs of local projects? Do they speak to main contractors? Can they break down the parts of the self-build costs and advise you on window prices, for instance? The best home designers can give you estimates on all of these based on experience and knowledge.

  1. Service level

It’s easy to see why house designers love the initial elements of a new relationship with a self-builder. It’s the time when they can ‘wow’ you with their house plans. However, this honeymoon period could quickly grind to a halt. Particularly if there’s a delay on promised amendments, or, they have diverted from the initial brief. You should also keep in mind the latter phases of the design. Which often involves further detailed specification and technical drawings. Try to agree a level of expectation of turnaround times with your designer. Doing this in the early stages of the process, will save any future delays that you weren’t expecting at the outset.

  1. House designer fees: when, what, and how much?

Value is subjective when it comes to design fees. You can spend very little and feel ripped off or tens of thousands of pounds and get genuine value for money. It’s important to be clear what the fees are from the start. You should also agree when payments should be made for each different phase. What do these fees cover and what plans or drawings will you receive? Think about the complete build process. Will they be able to provide detailed plans or specifications for building regulations? Are these included in your initial quote?

  1. The perfect relationship

For many self-builders, the most important aspect of choosing a designer is how easy they are to work with. Do they listen to your ideas? Do they share your tastes, vision and enthusiasm? Some designers will likely have their own very strong views on house design. While you can’t be expected to share the same views on every aspect of house building, you should share a similar outlook. A common complaint from people who fall out with their designer is ‘they didn’t listen to us’. That’s a definite problem, but just as worrying is the designer who draws exactly what their client wants. You want to get their input and the value of their experience and skill. That’s what you’re paying for, after all. The perfect designer and self-builder relationship is a true collaboration. When you talk to potential house designers, it’s vital to ask them to provide examples of their projects. The sort of questions you should be asking about their former projects are:

  • How long did the design process take?
  • Did it get through planning easily?
  • Were there any revisions to the design scheme during the construction process?
  • Does the designer have preferred local builders? If so, make sure you talk to the builders about the designer. They, more than anyone, will have a view on how clear and comprehensive the drawings are
  • Did the projects overrun on time and/or cost, and if so, why?
  • What were the build costs of the projects?

How to create a design brief

Creating a quality design brief is an essential starting point for the project. This will help form a good working relationship with your designer. First, and above all else, the designer needs to be able to establish the scale and basic parameters of the house. The following items should be up front in your brief:

  1. The proposed build cost budget. How much do you want to spend on the project and what is your absolute limit?
  2. The plot: Include a site plan, photos and, ideally, a topographical survey. This will give the designer a visual indicator of what they have to work with. The size, shape and terrain of your site will have a huge effect on what you can and should design. Have you considered the aspect? For example, sunlight is a major factor and will influence your floor layouts.
  3. The planning context. Does the site already have planning consent? If so, what type or size of house is the planning for? Is the site in a specially designated area? Are there likely to be any special planning restrictions on what can be built? Find out and jot it down in the brief.
  4. Now that’s done, let’s think about those basic must-have items, you should include in your brief:
  5. The number and approximate size of bedrooms, bathrooms and en-suites.
  6. The number of garages and whether they’re detached or integrated.
  7. Practical design considerations, such as disability access requirements.

Design for day-to-day living

Now for the fun part! Take a step back and think about how you will be living in the house. The best way to do this is to try to list a handful of key “experiences” that you’re aiming for. This will be different for everyone. Some examples could include:

  • Imagining your perfect Sunday morning. How does it begin? With a relaxing morning coffee at the breakfast bar, while the kids work on their homework?
  • Could this be your forever family home? If you are planning for the long-term. You may want to consider the option to convert a downstairs room to a bedroom with ensuite.
  • Think about the design of the stairs, will they be easy to climb in the future. Do you need to allow space for a lift?

What does your dream home experience look like in your head? Put these thoughts in the brief, it’s important for designers to understand your needs.

Here are some more scenarios to start you thinking about your design:

  • Kitchen: Are you looking for open plan living, or would you prefer a separate dining area? Do you want to include a pantry or a separate utility area for laundry?
  • Entrances: Do you want to enter the house from the garden and if so, where? What about a boot or cloakroom? Is a grand hallway important?
  • Other spaces downstairs might include a home office, snug, library or a playroom. Consider whether your designer needs to find space for these.
  • Living room: Where will you sit and relax, watch television or entertain friends?
  • Bedrooms: Think about the master suite and what you want to include. How about a sitting area or walk-in wardrobe? What about the space between the bedrooms? How close to the other bedrooms do you want to be?
  • Outside: How important is a garden to you? Do you need somewhere for the children to play, or will you use it for outdoor dining? You may want to include bi-folding doors and bring the outside in! When thinking about size, a good way to work is to design from the detail up. If you want a large freestanding bath in your en-suite or a large walkaround island, put it into the brief. These will influence all other aspects of the rooms.
  • Think about these rooms in relation to the views they might have. Not only the views of your garden but also the surrounding area. 

The end part of the brief can feel the most difficult to approach. You will have strong ideas to how you want your home to look, both internally and externally. Try not to be too prescriptive though. You should include no more than a handful of pictures of things you like and don’t like with a few notes to clarify. Providing too much detail could mean the theme and styles start to get lost. Remember your design still needs to be practical and fit to your budget.

Finally, let the designers do their stuff. If the brief is comprehensive your designer can take your requirements and often add a huge amount of extra value on top. This is the magic that should surprise you and make you go, “wow!”

Tips for designing a house on a budget

  1. Keep the shape simple

Reduce the number of complicated building elements. More corners, valleys, hips, nooks and recesses will increase the costs. Any difficulties to the external construction will impact the interior work. For example, extra cuts on plasterboard or intricate flooring will all cost more. We’re not saying that you should build a box or strip out all the character. Remember, the closer you can stick to a conventional rectangular house, the better it will be for your budget.

  1. Don’t build too big

Every extra square metre adds cost to your build budget. It’s the same for building plots. Most of the time, the bigger it is, the more expensive it is. Some internal spaces are cheaper than others to build. For example, bedrooms are generally cheaper to build than kitchens. Although every extra bit of space can add thousands of pounds to your overall costs. Some ‘Grand Designs’ homes are over 400m² but the average 3–4 bedroom developer home is around 160m². This is something to keep in mind.

  1. You might find the temptation to keep on adding extra space

Consider the cost of this and if it can be achieved within your budget. Before finalising your plans, get the balance right between a generous living space and areas that may not get used. Think about homes you have visited to help get the balance right. The Potton Self Build Show Centre is a great place to get a sense of size and space. You can walk around five fully furnished show homes. Getting a feel for room sizes and how that might work in your new home.

  1. Minimise bespoke features

Of course, all individual homes are one of a kind and your house plans will be bespoke. Remember each time you specify materials, the costs will mount up. Any custom made items will enhance the design, but they will come at a price. For example, commissioning bespoke windows will increase the budget. Compared to standard widths and heights. Ceiling heights are another great example. 2.4m is the standard height of plasterboard. Not utilising this exact height, your plasterer will need to make a cut on every board. Or purchase more expensive non-standard boards. Whichever way your plasterer chooses to deal with it will add a cost, whether it’s to labour or materials.

  1. Be smart shopping for materials

In many self-build projects almost half the budget is spent on materials. Researching suppliers and shopping around will pay dividends. If you’re working to a strict budget, you’ll have to prioritise key items. These should be the structural elements that you can’t change later. Rather than fixtures that you’ll be able to update easily. For example it may be worth fitting a lower cost kitchen that you could easily update in the future.

  1. Use labour wisely

The other half of your project costs is going to be spent on tradespeople. Making significant savings here depends on several factors. Most importantly, there’s the amount of time you have and your general attitude towards DIY. Naturally, some jobs are beyond the bounds of even the most accomplished DIYer. Such as work relating to gas or mains electricity. Other jobs such as decorating and landscaping may be areas where savings can be made, allowing you to truly make your house your own. The way to approach DIY with a self-build is to avoid getting involved in work which is part of a critical path. This is work that must be completed by a certain date and to a certain standard for the next job to start. As a DIYer, it may not be cheaper for you to carry out any building work.

Remember you will need to factor in your time and resources. What if there are any issues along the way? They may not be covered under the warranty. Brick walls are a good example. A competent DIYer might be able to lay 150-200 bricks in a day. That is probably a third of the speed of an experienced bricklayer (and the result may well be messier too). This slower schedule will instantly affect the progress of the build, preventing you from moving onto roofing and so on. This matters less when building the brick walls for a landscaping project as this may not be integral to any other process. Your bricklayer will charge the same price regardless of the task. Choose your areas of involvement carefully, you could save a huge amount of money without affecting the smooth running of the project.

Download your own design brief

We've put together a design brief template for you to download, print and complete. In this brief we take you through some easy ways to communicate your ideas, thinking about your needs and desires of your dream home. Once its completed you can pass to your house designer, who will be able to translate your proposal, develop the plans and design a home unique to you.

Download the Brief
Potton design brief cta