Thinking of extending your home. Getting builders started before important decisions have been taken can be disastrous, so what’s the best sequence of events to prepare?

People often think design is all about ideas. In fact, design is the process that takes the idea, develops it, prepares it and communicates it, ready to be made into reality. Whether you work with a professional architect or designer, or just work everything out yourself, you will need to go through a ‘design process’ to a greater or lesser extent.

The important thing to understand is that the more time, expertise and money spent developing the information you give to your contractor (drawings, schedules and so on), the more control you should have over what is builtand charged for. The art is to find the right balance between having enough information without spending too much on more than is needed.

There’s no ‘right’ way to go about getting ready for a building project – every different approach has its pros and cons – but here are some tips ffom Blair Cadell's experience with clients in this area.

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Create an outline design

While it’s a huge over-simplification of the process, there are generally four main ‘hurdles’ to clear before you are ready to build anything.

The first is ‘outline design’ – essentially, working out broadly speaking what is wanted, how the spaces will work, connect and flow, the size and shape and so on.

Try not to get too bogged down in detail at this stage. You should take on board the broad parameters of the budget and what should be permitted, but the most important part of this is to be open-minded and explore as many different possibilities and variations as you can imagine to ensure you’re aiming for the right solution for you and your home.

Get with the flow

It’s important at this early stage to really think through how you’re going to use and live in the new, modified or extended space(s). What sort of daylight will you need? How will people enter and pass through the space(s)?

A useful exercise is to draw the layout as a simple block diagram showing the circulation flows with arrows and using lots of tracing paper. Go over and over the different possibilities until you find something that feels as if it will work naturally.

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Draw up a scheme design for planning

This is where things need to get more accurate. It’s important to get true measured drawings of the building or site you’re working with and then start to translate your agreed outline design into something a bit more dimensionally precise.

Whether you need to go through full planning or not, it’s important to get a set of basic, accurate drawings to ensure that what you want to do will fit and work as intended. The drawings won’t show the detail of construction, but allow for that to be added when the time comes.

These drawings will be the basis of a planning application if required, but will also be the backbone of the information from which everyone will need to work.

Get familiar with the Building Regulations

Many people understandably confuse Planning Permission with Building Regulations, but they are two entirely separate hurdles that need to be cleared.

Where Planning Permission is all about how a building sits in its environment, how it looks and how it’s used, Building Regulations are to do with the safety and quality of the build. These regulations deal with everything from structure and fire escape to requirements for ventilation, drains and insulation.

Planning Permissions and Building Regulations are administered by the local authority.

Investigate other necessary permissions

Once you have planning approval, you may choose to take your scheme drawings straight to a contractor and let them sort out the details and regulations, but this can leave you somewhat exposed.  Best advice, unless the project is very simple, is to develop the detail of the design before you go to the contractor.

If structural works are needed, the scheme drawings will give a structural engineer the basis for a structural design and calculations, and an architect or designer can integrate this into the design, along with other important technical information, so you can get approval of the design under the Building Regulations.

Remember that even on small projects, there may be other approvals you might need, too such as neighbour consent or access to new services.

Know when to ask for a quote

A common mistake  is people asking a contractor for a price too soon, before the information they have properly spells out what it is the builder should be quoting for.

Of course, it’s quite possible for a contractor to build something from a sketch on the back of a cigarette packet, but it will be impossible for them to price such work accurately in advance and you will have very little control over what you’re going to get for your money.

You may also want to get a few different contractors to price for the work and, if so, it’s really important to be absolutely clear about exactly what they are pricing, otherwise you won’t be able to compare like for like.

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Write it down

Discuss with an architect/designer/builder exactly what’s to be included in the contract works and ask about the pros and cons.

Often, specific elements are excluded. For example, you may want a separate kitchen supplier to make and fit the kitchen. If so, this needs to be made absolutely clear.

A good set of drawings that meets the regulations is important, but pairing these drawings with a simple written document (or schedule) of the works means that you can be absolutely clear as to what you want the builders to quote for in their price.

Find a balance

You can, of course, go much further with the detail, producing a full set of construction drawings and specifying every nail and screw, but the cost of producing such information can often be disproportionate to the scale of the project. The key is to find a level of detail you’re comfortable with, both in terms of the control you have over what is to be built, and how much you are paying for that information.

Wherever you find this balance, it’s vital to be absolutely clear as to what is and is not included and where the responsibilities will lie. If you don’t want to go to the lengths of a full specification, then it’s quite possible to clarify where the builder will be responsible for decisions on detail.

Agree a price and timescale upfront

It’s amazing how often I’ve seen a conractor and customer have a great relationship and the project go wonderfully well, only to refer that contractor on to someone else who ends up feeling aggrieved and ripped-off.

Invariably, such problems occur as a result of poor information and communication up front. In such cases, the contractor will often assume one thing and the homeowner another, and it’s only a matter of time before the disparity comes to the surface and everyone falls out.

If a price and timescale is agreed on the basis of a good set of drawings and a clear schedule of the works, the opportunities for arguments, overruns, stress and budget problems while work is proceeding are much diminished.

Draw up a contract

A building contract might sound like an overly complex and unnecessary bit of legalese, but it doesn’t have to be. There are some very clear and simple forms of contract suitable for small residential projects that can be easily implemented.

Essentially, a building contract is simply an agreement between the ‘client’ – who pledges to pay an agreed amount of money – and a ‘building contractor’ – who pledges to undertake an agreed set of works.

If everything is clear, the chances are you’ll never need to refer to the contract again once it’s signed. It’s there to clarify all the ‘what happens ifs’, such as what happens if additional work is added, or the work takes longer than agreed.

As soon as you have this in place, you should be ready to start building. Good luck!


Blair Cadell Solicitors and Estate Agents are experienced property lawyers and offer advice on a wide range of subjects and services to residential and busines property owners alike.

BC blog editor

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