Starting your grand design

All the essential information you require to get your project off the ground

Whether you’re considering a renovation, extension or architect-designed new-build, taking on any project is the most effective way to ensure a home is perfectly tailored to your needs. But making that initial step towards creating your own grand design can be a daunting process, with a seemingly never-ending list of questions, ranging from where to find a potential plot or property and the ins and outs of planning permission to how much you should allocate to your budget and who will manage the day-to-day running of the project. This essential guide is designed to get you started off on the right track.

All the essential information you require to get your project off the ground

Finding a plot
In addition to local estate agents, try websites such as and (fee applies) or (free to register). Auctions are good for council land (which by law has to be sold there) and unusual plots, although a 10 per cent deposit is required on the spot, with the rest normally due four weeks later. Essential Information Group ( provides a list of all properties up for auction in the UK.

Also try exploring an area for potential plots – a neglected garden or a gap between houses, for example. Ask a neighbour or do a Land Registry search ( to find out who owns it. Check with local authority planning departments, either for successful applications that haven’t been acted on or unsuccessful applications that you could modify. Empty homes might also prove fruitful – the Empty Homes Agency ( has useful information on buying one.

For a restoration project, the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register (available at lists all Grade I, II* and II listed buildings known to be at risk in England and Wales. For Scotland, see the Buildings at Risk office of the Scottish Civic Trust ( While these buildings are not for sale, an approach could prove luckier than you expected.

Hire an architect
It pays to employ a professional with the know-how to make your budget stretch further and add value to your home. Also think about whether you want the architect to be local to your site, and whether their style suits yours.

Architects registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) will have at least seven years’ experience. Fees are usually a percentage of the build costs. Some prefer to charge a fixed fee, based on a percentage of what the likely build cost will be. For smaller projects, the percentage is usually higher; for expensive projects, it’s usually less. Find RIBA architects at

Alternatively, you could use an architectural technologist, who will specialise in the technical and design specifications of a building, whereas an architect specialises in appearance and overall design, although the professions do overlap. The Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists (CIAT) has more than 9,000 members (searchable at Chartered surveyors (find one at are experienced in the practical aspects of building, but questions of design are beyond their remit.

The main types of planning permission are outline and full. Outline permission establishes that you can build something on the plot in principle; full permission describes exactly what can be built. If you’re working on a listed building or in a conservation area, you’ll need to make an additional application to get consent.

Find advice on what’s possible from your local planning department. Applications require detailed information and drawings, and a fee, which varies depending on your plans and the area ( has a fee calculator). It’s best to appoint a RIBA architect, CIAT architectural technologist or RICS surveyor to carry out the design, technical and legal work for you. The planning department has eight weeks to consider your application, but it can also request an extension.

If you’re refused permission for a new-build, you can alter your proposal and resubmit it within 12 months at no extra charge, or appeal to the Secretary of State within six months. For changes to existing homes, like extensions, you’ve got 12 weeks to submit an appeal and the target period for a decision is eight weeks. However, if approved, you must start building within three years, otherwise the permission becomes invalid. You must also submit a building regulations application to ensure that your home meets standards of health, safety, accessibility and energy consumption.

It’s important to work with neighbours to allay concerns about such things as privacy and overshadowing. Party (shared) walls are another big issue. You will need to hire a surveyor to advise you on how to prevent damage, and you will need to pay for your neighbours’ surveyor. Disputes are resolved by the Party Wall Act.

If you’re planning to build a new home from scratch, self-build mortgages have tracker options, just like normal mortgages, but the money is paid in stages – usually at five or six agreed milestones in the build. The Accelerator mortgage by Buildstore (0845 223 4888; is the only one to pay these stages in advance. For all others the money is paid upon completion of work, so you will need money up front. Some parts of the project, such as the frame, will cost more than others, so be clear with your lender about when payments will be made and organise yourself to avoid experiencing cash flow problems.

You should allow for a minimum 10 per cent contingency budget for new-builds, but for a renovation or conversion you’d be wise to set aside 20 per cent, as they can be fraught with more hidden issues, such as shaky foundations or structural weaknesses. You can claim back all the VAT paid in connection with a new-build, conversion of a non-residential dwelling, like a barn, and residential properties that have been vacant for 10 years or more. This does not apply to professional fees, however. You must file your application within three months of your final completion date and provide all the relevant documents, receipts and certificates required. Remember that you pay your VAT upfront and then claim it back at a later date, so allow for this in your budget.

Recent legislation changes mean that renovation work is charged at a reduced VAT of five per cent on properties that have been empty for two years or more (it was previously three years), so make sure you inform your builder and check your invoices. For properties that have been vacant for 10 years or more, no VAT is charged on building work. For more information, contact HM Revenue & Customs (0845 010 9000; consumers/new-home.htm).

Cost calculator
Providing costings for an average project can often be tricky. Issues such as ground conditions, access to the site, location and proximity of services are a huge factor in any budget. Your budget will also depend on how you choose to manage your project.

There are generally considered to be four main routes, each offering a different level of personal involvement. First, if you’re cash-rich or time-poor, employ a professional to undertake the project, and only get involved in the high-level decision making and specification.

The second option is to employ a professional project manager to help keep costs and project time to a minimum by allowing them to purchase materials, employ contractors, and oversee day-to-day management of the project.

If you want to be more involved and save money in the long run, the third option is to project-manage yourself. Bear in mind that this is a big commitment and shouldn’t be considered if you also have to hold down a full-time job. You’d be responsible for employing contractors, on-site co-ordination, supervision, and the purchase and provision of materials.

Finally, if reducing costs is your main objective, you may opt to undertake as much of the construction work as possible, plus source and buy the materials, rather than allowing contractors to supply them. This method can turn out to be incredibly rewarding, although it is very time-consuming.


Compiled by the experts at the National Self Build & Renovation Centre. For independent advice on any aspect of your project, visit the centre in Swindon. Call 0845 223 4445 or visit for further information.

Useful Tools

firsttime tradefinder mortgagecalc

Latest Press Releases

Latest Products, Services and Tradesmen from our Trade Finder

Build Archive


Transform Architects

Transform Architects is an Award-winning RIBA Chartered Practice that specialises in...

A Brooklyn town house...

You would never guess this house in Brooklyn, New York, is a renovation, let alone...

Riverside new-build

Steve Clarke and Amanda Boot's ingenious home by the Thames in Surrey rests on a...

A modern house on the Dorset...

Mike and Diane Smith thought their home of 40 years was forever, until the idea of a...

Self Build Zone: Insurance

Is your home covered? The right type of insurance is critical for your peace of...


Meisterstueck-HAUS, a 110-year-old German pre-manufacturing company which has been...

A Pre-manufactured Cotswold Build...

Located in the village of Little Oddington, Oxfordshire, this contemporary house...

Matchbox Architects shortlisted...

Matchbox Architects have been shortlisted for Best Individual New Homes in their...

Trespa Pura NFC specified for new...

Discovering Trespa’s high pressure laminate cladding provided the answer to a...

A Glaswegian kitchen refit

When Glasgow-based lawyer Marion Venman decided to improve her architect-designed...

Expert videos

expert video2 2