Demolition Diary
Build Diary
Lessons Learned
The Team

I have been keeping this list more for my own benefit if by some amazing chance I am mad enough to do this kind of thing again. After chatting about it with a friend I have decided to put it on the site. This represents my personal views as an amateur, there are far more qualified people out there and some very good books like "The House Builders Bible" for those who are interested.

This is not an exhaustive list - I will add other thoughts as they come to me and as we reach the end of this arduous journey.


Be realistic, but build as big as you can and the site and budget can afford.

Most people build their own home once in a lifetime – don’t compromise on design, quality and features – you will regret it.


Don’t listen to those who deride traditional design styles. Its your house, if you don’t want something that looks like a white and glass architecture student’s fantasy then don’t to it.

Think about how you will use the house to live in – make sure the design accommodates your changing needs over time (teenage family? Parents living with you?)

Ensure you have made provision for access and wiring, plumbing etc. If you want to use heat recovery ventilation, make sure you can accommodate the (quite large) duct work. Avoid boxing in later. Perhaps create a service trunking running from top to bottom of the house.


Architects are there to serve you, not the other way around. Don’t be intimidated by the artistic temperament, jargon and posh offices.

Get the architect to design what you want not what they want.

Shop around for an architect based on price, knowledge of local Planning, and ability to work with “private clients”

Take up references, especially if you plan to use the Architect as project manager.

Architects are good value for the creative work, but less good value churning out standard construction and building regulation drawings from AutoCAD.


Read my section on Planning. Don’t make my mistakes.

Always check that your local Planning Department are open to your plans in principle before spending too much on designs and architects.

Check the Planning status before purchasing a plot. If it is green field or agricultural the chances of getting Planning Consent are slim. If it has an existing dwelling then there is a better chance.

Talk to your neighbours about your plan. They can throw a spanner in the works if they feel like it.

If you application is anything other than bog standard, seek the assistance of a Planning Consultant – they will save time and money.

Project Management

Think carefully before you take this on yourself, particularly if you an not a professional project manager or you cannot give it your full attention.

There is a critical path through a house build that includes Building Control Officers, NHBC (or equivalent) inspections, plant, machinery, trades, disposal etc. etc. You (or your project manager) need to be aware of this.

Estimates of time and effort need to account for a number of factors such as weather, length of daylight, travelling time, access etc.



Have enough money for the build accessible from day one. Don’t think you will make savings as you go along. If you then do, it will be a nice surprise.

Have an adequate contingency fund.

Don’t subject your budget to market forces or exchange rate issues (like I did)

Keep checking your budget; it can slip away from you.

Challenge the cost of everything. Always ask for discounts. Do your research on the Internet.

Never pay a deposit for goods or services greater than 50% - never release the whole balance until after the work is completed to your satisfaction (or professional inspection)

Become conversant with VAT regulations on new builds. This can provide significant cost savings.

Don’t stick with one merchant because they give you a trade discount. They all usually will if you ask and some will be more competitive on some materials than others. The big boys have tremendous buying power for major brands of materials and equipment.

Clean plant before taking of off hire – otherwise you will be charged for cleaning.

Insist on free delivery for any materials.

Think about seeking the help of an accountant for VAT claims.

Builders & Contracts

Try and locate a builder by personal recommendation rather than Yellow Pages.

Always, always take up references (don’t believe bits of photocopied paper) go and see the work and contact the customer independently of the builder.

Be suspicious if somebody can “start Monday” – cynical I know, but most good builders have a backlog of business and it would be a freak coincidence if they were available to start immediately.

Going fixed price with a small builder can be a false economy. Firstly they will inflate their price to create a contingency/margin. Secondly, they will be tempted to rush or cut corners if things get tight. Finally and importantly, most small builders don’t have the financial means to cover and penalty clauses or other exotic contractual features. All too often it is easier for a small builder to go bust than pay out penalties.

As a small business, most builders do have to create a pipeline of work; this may mean a slow ramp up of activity on your project and a ramp down towards the end. Be realistic about this and ensure it is reflected in your project plan.

Go to site every day (after hours) and inspect progress. Agree with your builder what is to be done every week and ensure they stick to it. But don’t bully them – there is enough work for good builders without an antagonistic client.

If you want to join in on-site, make sure you agree this with your builder. He has to pay insurances that may or may not cover you.

Keep communicating – talk every day, meet every week.

Builders are people too. The vast majority are qualified, skilled and take pride in their work. The TV programmes show up the cowboys, most aren’t, a few references, visits to other sites and a check on their trade association membership is usually helpful.


Always try and use trades on personal recommendation. Hopefully your builder or project manager will have regulars they work with.

Many trades offer fixed price – plasterers, brickies and electricians will usually offer a competitive fixed price as there aren’t too many unknowns.

The points about references and Yellow Pages apply to trades as well as builders.

Check work (or get it professionally checked) – do not accept shoddiness.

Don’t bully trades – there is plenty of work for good ones.

Tell them they have done a good job when they have! 

Ground working & foundations

Timing is important here, if you start digging between October and March, the chances are things will get disrupted by weather. This is not always avoidable but sufficient contingency should be allowed in time and money.

Burning waste on site is not usually permitted but is not impossible with permission from the council.

Demolition rubble (as with any waste) is usually quite expensive to dispose of because of environmental charges. See if it is possible to reuse rubble for the base of driveways and hard standing. (All of the demolition rubble from my house went into the base of the new driveway)

Skips are expensive, use them as little as possible, alternatives include using a small trailer and the local tip.

Ensure that the ground workers take responsibility for keeping the site tidy when they are working. Ensure they shore-up and make safe when site is empty over the weekend.

During planning, ensure there is sufficient access for plant and machinery.

“Measure twice, cut once” applies to setting out foundations. Best left to the professionals.

Check levels of foundations – if they are not, then the building is unlikely to be.
Timber from forming foundations, shoring up etc. should be stored for re-use. Its amazing how handy it can be.


Back in vogue now, basements are becoming common place in self-builds. Don’t build one for its own sake though – they can be expensive luxuries.

The cost of the basement will be heavily dependent on water table and soil conditions. Sand is easy to drain but unstable when drained. Clay is much harder to drain and dig. Chalk is easier to drain but harder to dig etc.

Installing a basement into a high water-table site will require either lowering the local water-table by using a well-point system or creating a dry “shaft” using sheet piling. Both of these are specialist activities and expensive.

There is a choice now of pre-formed basement walls which are more expensive but very quick to install or traditional block work, which is cheap on materials but labour intensive. Key to both methods however is waterproofing or “tanking”.

Submerged basements in anywhere that there is a water-table will never be maintenance free (unless you want it to turn into a swimming pool over time). Adequate drainage around the basement and regular inspection of the integrity of the structure is essential. If the basement forms the supporting foundations of the house, it needs to regularly checked.

Don’t forget to provide adequate ventilation for the basement.

Block work & exterior walls

The quality and style of exterior brickwork defines the house. Don’t accept shoddy brick work – it is almost impossible to change and your eye will always be drawn to the faults every time you look at the house.

Good brickies, ensure the level, perpendiculars and bond are consistent. Know what to look for and point out faults.

Consider Flemish Bond as an attractive and different alternative to standard Stretcher Bond.

Ensure that you buy sufficient quantities of sand for the whole build. Different batches of sand may lead to variation in the mortar colour leading to a patchy look.

Good brikies (and brikies’ labourers) know to mix bricks from different packs so that an ever distribution of colour and texture is built. Check to make sure they are doing that.

Hand-made bricks look fantastic but are very expensive (as with 2nd hand bricks), there are some very convincing imitation ones available now, with the added benefit that they are new and square.

Cover and protect any protrusions such as plinths and soldier courses until the building is finished.

Part of the brickies responsibility is “snagging and snotting” of brickwork. Don’t pay them the final instalment until this is done.

Brickies always bring their own hand tools. Be suspicious of anyone claiming to be a brickie that needs to borrow a trowel.

Fitting stone sills to windows is the very last job the brickies should do – these are vulnerable to chipping or marking from stuff being dropped from above.

Brick laying is dependent on the weather so be realistic. Be suspicious however if a brickie is working in the pouring rain on the last day of his contract – chances are his work will have to be re-done.

Roof Carcass & Tiling

Always use attic trusses rather than standard ones. Not opening up roof spaces is a criminal waste of space and will reduce the value of your house. Be aware however of Building Regulations covering the use of rooms in the roof (especially a third floor) with regard to fire escapes.

Check the cost of pre-fabricated roof trusses versus being formed onsite by chippies. The latter can sometimes be remarkably good value.

Any roof with dormers, valleys, hips or other features is pretty complex. Allow sufficient time for the installation of the roof.

Roof forming is not just a matter of the trusses. There are soffits and fascias, felt and batten and don’t forget guttering before the scaffolding comes down.

If you plan to plasterboard the inside of a pitched roof, get the plaster boards up there before closing off the ceiling below. It is much easier handing 8x4 sheets up between joists than a loft hatch or stairwell.

Roof tiling is nowhere near as easy as it may seem. Valleys, dormers, roof lights, ridges and hips all throw up their own challenges. These are easy for a skilled tiler but are time consuming.

Stacking-out a roof (carrying the tiles up onto the roof) is a significant job in itself, not to be underestimated in time and effort.

Working on a roof is dangerous – don’t fall off.
Windows & Doors

The windows are “the eyes of the house”. Do not compromise on the design, or materials, it is expensive to put right.

uPVC is strong and low maintenance, but so are well constructed wooden windows. And they are comparable on price (although uPVC often as not looks cheap)

Planners are interested in windows and will have an opinion on what you choose.

The amount of glass in your house will have a huge effect on the heat efficiency. Have a qualified engineer do the calculations or you may find yourself living in a poly-tunnel.

Thoughtful use of stained glass has a fantastic effect – not just on the look of the window but on the quality of light that gets into the house. Standard designs are much more economical than bespoke ones.

Be aware of the regulations regarding glass when used below a certain level (needs to be safety glass)

Internal doors leading on to a common hall/stairs/landing now need to be fire rated.

Having built the house of your dreams, don’t skimp on a front door from the local DIY Shed – splash out and have a bespoke one made for you – this is a real personal stamp on the house.

Heating, Plumbing & Ventilation

Think seriously about the use of a geo-thermal heat pump before diving in. They are very eco-friendly but because of high capital and installation costs, can have a very long payback time compared to piped natural gas.

Many heat pumps need 3 phase electricity to run the pump. Check on the cost of running 3 phase to your house from the nearest access point (can be extortionate)

If you use shallow or “slinky” heat collector pipes for your heat pump, make sure you have a large enough plot of land to accommodate the pipe (in my case, over 1km).

Under floor heating is terrific but must be designed and should be installed professionally. It must also be thoroughly tested before covering up.

Under floor heating and normal carpet makes for an inefficient combination. Resign yourself to wood laminate or stone floors.

If you plan to use a heat pump with under floor heating, expect the UFH system to require roughly double the amount of pipe than boiler heated system. This is because a heat pump operates at a lower temperature. Expect double the cost too.

It is dangerous to rely on the heat pump as the sole source of heat. Have a back up such as a boiler of immersion heater.

If, like me, you are unfortunate enough to have an Aga-loving SWMBO, then make sure to capture the heat that thing creates to supplement the heat pump.

Use poly-pipe or similar to plumb your house (except perhaps for the large bore stuff). It is flexible, easier to joint and maintenance free. It doesn’t look as good as copper, but nobody is going to see it. Poly-pipe still needs insulation.

Use a mega-flow system for hot water – it’s almost as easy to run a flow and return, so do it while you are building the place. Eliminate the need to wait 5 minutes to get hot water.

Consider rain water harvesting for toilet flushing and washing machine use. It is pretty economic to install, you save on water meter bills and can feel smug that you are doing your bit for the environment.

If you are going for heat recovery ventilation, ensure the pipe runs and positioning for the heat exchanger is allowed for in the plan. Have the system professionally designed.

You are nuts if you don’t install a central vacuum cleaner. 


Don’t do it yourself – this is now subject to Part P of building regulations.

More rather than less 13amp twin switched socket outlets.

Be careful when using flush fitting wall plates – then can bow inwards and create untidy edges.

Ensure you have sufficient ring mains – do not have your home cinema on the same one as the kitchen,

Consider a lighting control system – most offer a much better capability than standard multi-gang mains switching, and are simpler to wire. These are also a great selling point for the house.

Lighting design can make or break a house. Avoid glare-bomb pendant fittings in the middle of the ceiling, or grids of halogen down lighters looking like runway 2 at Heathrow. Mix and match – use 2 amp remote switched wall and floor sockets for table and floor lamps.

Uplighters and wall washers will pick out imperfect wall finishes.

Use embedded LED lights in the floor or on stair risers if possible, the effect is great.

Consider professional lighting design.

Don’t expect to screw a 20kg chandelier into a plaster board ceiling and to stand under it in safety.

Worry about fire safety when embedding 100 halogen mini-spots in a pasterboard ceiling below a wooden first floor. 

Audio-visual, telephony and networks

Wireless is not a viable alternative to hard wired (yet). Wire with Cat5e shielded twisted pair.

Don’t go to the expense and hassle of Cat6 or Cat7 – by the time you would need the speed that these bring above Cat5e, wireless would have caught up.

Cat5e is not just for data, it can be used for telephony and audio visual applications.

It is safer to run at least 1 bundle of 4 Cat5e cables to each room (terminating in a 4 way data plate) even if you don’t think you would ever use them. In rooms where you know you will, run 2 or 3 bundles.

If you have to run coax for aerial or satellite – run Cat5e to terminate next to it because a) Cate5e will obsolete coax very soon for wideband applications. And b) the devices you will have in the rooms will use both wideband and data links.

Think about HDMI and high definition TV – the screens are extortionate at the moment but build in the infrastructure. (HDMI will be able to be transmitted over Cat5e with adaptors).

Use ceiling speakers everywhere – including the kitchen and bathrooms. They are unobtrusive and remarkably good quality. Make provision however for sound “leakage” around roof spaces.

Wire the main room for 7.1 surround sound. Even if you haven’t got the equipment, it is cheap to put the cable in.

Consider a central “Node 0” room or area. Somewhere where all the data cabling comes together. This should be a secure place with good access to power and telecoms.

What to do with the family

Try not to live on site – it can be dangerous for children and provides no respite.

Never underestimate how strenuous this kind of undertaking is, on everyone.

If you can afford it, still have holidays – a break away from the project can help regain your perspective.

Take up offers from family to help – even those who are just able to tidy up.

Celebrate milestones.

Get your kids to design their own bedroom layouts and colours.

Take a weekend off occasionally and go out walking or cycling with the family.

You may like “Grand Designs” but not everyone does.

Everything else

While it probably is the responsibility of the builder to keep the site clean, spending weekend time cleaning and tidying the site is a great use of time.

Make sure the site is secure – especially if it is empty overnight and you start putting expensive kitchen appliances etc. in. Consider moving in and “camping” at this point.

Make sure the burglar and smoke alarms get cabled in as part of the electrical first fix.