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Self-Build and Custom House Building: Part 2

rural self-build agricultural workers dwelling by marcus tams architects

PART TWO - the design process

1.) Creating a Brief

First thing is to create a brief. This can be formed from a long list of ‘wants’; it can be an accommodation schedule of rooms and spaces, how to capture a particular view, an image board on Instagram or Pinterest or sustainability requirements. Basically, it can take any form you want – it’s then our job to take this information and turn it into a brief that will inform the design process.

Things to consider when forming a design brief:


There are some basic features every homeowner that we work with wants:

  • A modern living space; light, airy and usually open plan

  • A heart to the home; more often than not a kitchen/diner connected to the outside

  • Functional spaces, at its most basic a storage room, expanding to a utility, boot or plant room  (somewhere to put the rags and brooms that won’t clutter the open plan areas)

  • Separate shared space(s) such as a family, games or media room

  • Separate isolated space(s) such as a library, music room or office

  • Good connectivity; a cohesive circulation space and one which meets the family’s needs

  • Bedrooms with en-suites and dressing rooms

  • A Family bathroom

  • Storage (the more the better)

Building Form

The building form is often dictated by external influences, such as the character of the area, the site it sits on or the accommodation required, yet it is one of the most undervalued aspects of a design in terms of how the spaces link, incorporating environmental measures and ultimately how the building will ‘look’.

For example, a sprawling single-storey flat roof form will have lots of external surfaces that are more susceptible to the cold and wet and could need higher levels of insulating and draining, whereas a simple two storey building with sloped roofs will be compact, well connected and may offer more opportunity for integrated PV’s.


In addition, a simple box, with one rectangle plonked on another will have limited relationship to the space around it, whereas an L-shaped building will allow internal spaces to relate to one another and create a sense of enclosure externally.


The site itself will also have a big impact on the building form – a suburban plot might have overlooking issues or a steeply sloping site may require a stepped massing approach. A rural plot may dictate a single storey building because of impact on the surrounding area or the status of the area, such as a Conservation Area or Green Belt and may require a more delicate design approach during the planning application phase.

new self-build dwelling currently under construction by marcus tams architects

Environmental considerations

Important things to think about:

  • Orientation / solar gain; ideally large areas of glass would be located on the east or west where it’s easiest to control solar gain, similarly it would be ideal to put least glass on the north, where it’s coldest or the south where it’s sunniest – but that may have too much impact on the overall design or be limited by specific site constraints.

  • Thermal; wrap your building in a warm blanket of insulation and make it very air-tight and see how little energy you need to heat it, not to mention the feeling that a comfortable internal environment creates. Current building regulations do this very well, but you might want to go that bit further to reduce your Carbon Footprint and the building’s impact on the environment.

  • Ventilation; The more air-tight the building, the more you need to think about technological ways to ventilate it – from continuous background supply to a whole house MVHR system (mechanical ventilation heat recovery).

  • Heating and hot water; Gas boilers are being used less and less in homes, so what are the alternatives? Heat pumps such as air or ground source, biomass which burns low carbon materials, Photovoltaics (PVs that create electrical energy as well as storage devices such as Tesla Powerwalls or Mixergy cylinders.)

Other considerations

  • Costs/Budget: a simple building form will be far cheaper to construct than a complicated one.

  • Planning Policies: The design will be dictated by local and national guidelines on how the building will look and it’s impact on the wider environment

  • Traditional building methods: masonry construction with ‘standard’ openings and finishing materials will be much cheaper to build with – partly because of familiarity to the builder and party because of the build techniques.

  • Aesthetics: Moden homes don’t always mean modern designs! Some people like to have mock historical buildings or traditional forms with a contemporary twist, others want nothing but uber-contemporary. And whilst there is no accounting for taste, because of fairly strict governance with regards how buildings look and their impact on neighbours and the wider environment more often than not you end up with a design that either ‘fits in’ or stands out’.

  • Aspirations: You may have always wanted to build your dream home a certain way or incorporate certain features that need specific technical solutions, these may have a big effect on the design or budget so need to be incorporated at an early stage.

  • Sustainability: a common thread through all the above is the move towards creating sustainable buildings. Additional considerations such as the method of construction as well as cladding materials and embodied energy all contribute to the sustainability of the building.

2.) Concept

At this early stage it is important to explore issues such as building orientation, layout, relationship between spaces and volumes, building materials, sustainability and importantly, costs - all of which will impact on how the finished product looks, feels and operates.


To convey these ideas architects will produce sketch drawings as well as computer generated 3D models, mood boards and precedent images. They will also help you to bring on board relevant consultants as required, such as a quantity surveyor, structural and services engineer, ecologists and energy assessor and then they will co-ordinate their work with the overall site/building design.


At this stage the process needs to be both fluid and inspirational, a loose framework of ideas and structured in a way to both inform and challenge you about how the design will develop and ultimately steer the design into a cohesive approach that will combine all the above and more.

3.) Design Development & Planning

This stage is where those initial thoughts are developed into a crystalised scheme. Taking the concept ideas and turning them into a building.

Relationships between rooms start to govern the layout whilst site specific views or external levels dictate where doors and windows go. Aesthetic choices are honed down from a wide variety of styles and materials to a singular, defining style and a considered palette of materials.


Technical issues such as structures, waterproofing, heating and hot water, lighting, drainage and security are also added to the mix. They may not be finalised at this stage, but their impact needs to be known and understood as they may influence how the building goes together, works and even looks.


The architect will build on the concept work they have done to bring the many ideas into focus and hone down the design to a couple of options and then finally to a single design that achieves most if not all of the client objectives.


Whilst it’s good to get everything bottomed out the most important aspect at this stage is gaining planning consent – getting ‘the golden ticket’ as Charlie Bucket would say!

Planning Permission

All new homes will need planning permission in some form and the site, its location and the amount of development will determine how likely you are to gain support from the Local Planning Authority.


In the simplest terms you are asking for permission to build something with a certain look and for somebody in authority to determine whether it is appropriate based on a set of laws and guidelines set at both local and national level.


Nationally the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) sets out Government policies and how they should be applied.

The Local Plan sets out local planning policies and identifies how land is used, determining what will be built within a local authority area. Adopted local plans provide the framework for an area's development.

And finally there are the Planning Policies which put the meat on the bones of both the NPPF and Local Plan.

Planning applications for new homes should take eight weeks to determine for minor applications (so one-off houses etc.) and twelve weeks for major applications (so big housing or regeneration projects). More often than not they take longer, depending on the location of the site, what policies it relates to and whether it is appropriate or not to build there – an infill suburban site will have few relatively minor issues to overcome - such as overlooking, density or amenity, whilst a rural site could be in Open Countryside or Green Belt, and then the proposal not only affects the immediate area but the wider context too.


During the application period the public and specialists are consulted on the proposal. If all goes well then the application is determined by the planning case officer under ‘delegated powers’. For more complex or controversial applications, the application may go to planning committee to be decided upon. Planning committees are public meetings where elected councillors will debate and then vote on whether an application should be approved or rejected.

If the application is rejected there is always the Appeal process to consider – where Planning Inspectors on behalf of the Secretary of State, determine the application, making judgement based on their experience of applications on a national, rather than local level of understanding.


Above all it’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter how good a design you have, if it is not in accordance with planning policy it isn’t going to get approval!

recently approved extensive remodel and extension of a 1970's bungalow by marcus tams architects

4.) Construction package

So you’ve got planning permission, what next? Well if you’re lucky you’ve already got a builder in mind.


They may be an old friend or one that comes highly recommended, they may be great at building or great with costs, or dab hands on tricky sites or dealing with problematic neighbours and if you’re lucky - all the above, but one thing the builder is not, is a mind reader!


For a builder to give an accurate cost they will need a detailed set of documents, which can be tendered to one or a multiple of builders to get a competitive price.


The package will start with a set of co-ordinated General Arrangement architectural drawings accompanied by a building regulations specification and structural engineer’s drawings and calcs. This can be expanded upon with large scale architectural and engineer’s details as well as a detailed specification, finishes schedule and services schematics. It’s also ideal to have a set of costs produced by an independent advisor (Quantity Surveyor) to work against – these range from a simple cost plan (essentially taking your budget and putting it into individual pots – sub-structure, superstructure, etc.) to a line-by-line detailed schedule called a Bill of Quantities.


On larger projects you will also want a services engineer who can, as a minimum, set-out a performance specification (to sit alongside a schematic design) or better still a detailed layout and design.


Other information may also be needed for an accurate cost to be established - such as a landscaping design, tree-protection plan or external drainage scheme – it all depends on the site and the specifics of the design (as well as constraints that may have been put upon the scheme by the planning permission).


The bottom line is that the more information you can provide the builder and the more detailed it is, the more accurate their costs will be.

If you want to discuss a project, a potential plot of land or require further information about self-builds before you take the plunge, please give us a call on 0115 8700454.


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