Kevin McCloud: How to build your dream home

imageThe path to creating your dream home can be fraught with peril. Kevin McCloud, king of self-build, shows Christopher Middleton how to ensure your project is successful.

People who appear on Grand Designs are always running out of things: time, or money, mostly. But however bad things look, they never seem to lack confidence.

“On the whole, people who opt for self-build don’t suffer from self-doubt,” observes Kevin McCloud, the programme’s long-standing presenter, with a wry smile. “In the 15 years we’ve been doing the programme, I can’t recall a single self-builder who has ever turned to me and asked, ‘Do you think I’m doing the right thing?’ It just doesn’t go with the territory.”

That said, given the continuing growth in self-building, and the likely relaxation in planning laws, there will be plenty of people willing to pick McCloud’s brains when he speaks at Grand Designs Live in Birmingham next week. Before the ground is broken, they’re all ears. It’s only once the project is under way, he says, that self-builders put the earplugs in and the blinkers on.

“Of course without a certain amount of self-belief, nay arrogance, none of these projects would ever be built. If people approached the construction of their own home in a spirit of fear and dithering, worrying about all the things that could go wrong, then the majority of these projects would be killed stone dead at birth.

“That doesn’t mean, of course, that some of those difficulties couldn’t be anticipated and avoided. Almost all the problems that arise on this kind of project are due entirely to the frailties and defects of the human beings involved.”

The most common failing, he says, is the self-builder’s exaggerated faith in his or her own powers.

“I see it all the time,” says McCloud. “People who can put up a shelf, so think they can

put up a house. People who run their own IT business, so think they can run a construction project. And people who go it alone, instead of paying for professional help.”

It is this, more than any other mistake, he believes, that puts a self-build project on shaky foundations from the start. “It’s a recurring source of downfall,” he says. “People’s insistence on being in charge of the project themselves, instead of hiring an experienced project manager, is often misguided in the extreme.

“A seasoned project manager, for example, knows that if you are going to dig a trench for the pipes and cabling, you need to start negotiating with the utility companies at least a year in advance. And you need to order the pipes and cables at least eight weeks in advance.”

McCloud concedes that the unexpected should always be expected. “Sometimes, of course, you get hold-ups that no one could have anticipated,” he says. “Even so, a manager who is skilled in the use of flow charts can work around those delays, so that they don’t mess up the whole schedule.

“I can’t stress the importance of long-term planning too strongly. Every self-builder should spend three years on planning, and just six months on the really expensive bit, the building.”

Having persuaded the self-builder that a project manager is a good idea, McCloud has definite ideas about managing the manager – and the budget. He recommends that, instead of feeding the project manager little cash morsels every now and then, self-builders should give serious consideration to paying them a fixed wage.

“If the project’s going to take a year, then employ your project manager on a salary of £50,000 for that year,” he suggests. “And make sure that he not only shows you the bills submitted by the contractors working on your building, but that you pay those bills direct.

“This gives you so much more control than handing a management contractor £100,000 not just to manage the project, but to hire and pay the contractors. In that situation, you, the client, find yourself becoming more and more removed from the decision-making.

“Little by little, you find quality and design values going downhill, until you end up with so many compromises that instead of being excited and inspired by the finished building, you are left disappointed.”

It’s a subject on which he can speak with some feeling, as his own firm, HAB (which stands for Happiness, Architecture, Beauty), has recently been involved in putting up a 42-home development called The Triangle in Swindon. Eco-friendly specifications abound, such as triple glazing, low-energy heat and ventilation systems and cycle racks in the front porch.

However, it hasn’t all gone exactly to plan. As well as facing criticism for everything from a lack of parking spaces to the proximity of neighbours, McCloud has had his work cut out trying to keep the scheme true to his original vision.

“That’s the trouble with a design-and-build contract,” he sighs. “You give your drawing to the builder, who agrees to produce that scheme for a certain price, only along the way modifications are constantly made, as a result of which everything gets blander and cheaper. Every day, I have to push for quality, every day I have to jump up and down, which I don’t like doing one bit.”

At which point, he breaks off to read out his latest angry email to the construction team, talking about aspects of the work being “a poor reflection” on HAB, and “urging” them to “action it now”.

“Unless you make this kind of fuss, everything just reverts to the default position, which is, ‘We’ll change this, but no one will notice.’ That phrase is the elephant in the room on any project. And it means that when the building is complete, it won’t be special and heart-lifting with all the things you dreamt of. It’ll just be everyday and average.”

As to the degree of cardiovascular uplift that the Swindon scheme achieves, the nation will be able to decide for itself in late autumn, when Channel 4 will show a special three-part fly-on-the-bulldozer documentary following the course of the project.

In the meantime, the latest Grand Designs series is back on Channel 4, with yet more pioneers setting out across the prairies of self-build in the hope of ending up with their ideal home. For those of us without that dream to follow, of course, the show provides a comfortable vantage point from which to watch the muddy trench warfare such undertakings often turn into. But for those viewers who already have a self-build twinkle in their eye, the sight of couples fighting the combined elements of wind, rain and council planning departments serves to inspire, rather than deter.

“Let’s face it,” says McCloud, “What real challenges are we set today? We are not plagued by poverty, or required to dig around the clock for victory. So what more life-enhancing challenge could there be, in this consumer age, than to build our own home? For once, this isn’t about buying, it’s about making.”

In order to make that making less stressful, here are McCloud’s 10 maxims of self-build. Essential reading – and warning – for anyone with the build-your-own dream.

Let the show commence

Kevin McCloud will be at the NEC, in Birmingham, from October 7-9, hosting Grand Designs Live, the home improvement, self-build and design show. There are opportunities for homeowners and aspiring self-builders to have free 30-minute consultations about their own potential Grand Design (0844 854 1348; Tickets cost £14 per adult in advance. Children under 15 are free.

The search is on

The final judging is currently taking place on this year’s Daily Telegraph Homebuilding & Renovating Awards, which are given for Britain’s best new self-builds and renovated homes. Judges have spent the past two weeks visiting houses and assessing entries. These ranged from astonishing handcrafted oak frame homes to sharp, modernist-style remodelling schemes. The winners will be announced in the Property section in mid-November.

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