10 Top Tips – guest blog…

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Loft conversion

Figure 1 – A full width loft conversion with the best views in Brighton

Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

Clients Rachel & Robin Goldberg appointed us to repair their roof and convert the loft into a new master bedroom with ensuite. They took on some of the work themselves, and in this second guest blog post they share 10 tips based on their self-build experience.

When the work’s all finished and you’re thrilled with the new space, it’s hard to think back to what you might have done differently. But if you’re planning to take on another building project in the future, as we hope to, it’s really helpful to remember any valuable lessons learned.

Tip #1 : Understand your builder’s quote inside and out. Be clear from the start what has and hasn’t been factored into the price.

If you aren’t sure what each line item means or includes, ask. Once our project was underway there were a number of times we wanted to clarify pricing, and it would have been better had we asked all our questions at the start. When we ran out of funds (see #6) there were some aspects of the project we couldn’t continue with, and unpicking some grouped items from the original quote (to exclude specific costs from the final invoice) was probably a bit of a headache for BGH as so many months had passed since they had put the quote together.

[editor’s note: it’s always important at the beginning of a job to get the details right so that variations can be managed properly – that’s why we try to be as detailed and as transparent as possible from the very outset]

firewall rebuilt

Figure 2 – the whole firewall was falling apart and has to be rebuilt

Tip #2 : Expect unforeseen problems and be prepared for them. With existing houses (especially older ones), you don’t always know what you’ll find until work gets underway.

In our case, the need for an extra steel – which unfortunately fell to Alex to broach with us on Day 1 – took us somewhat by surprise. And we also discovered the extent of repair needed to the firewalls once the scaffolding had gone up, which was impossible to estimate without inspecting them up close.

[editor’s note: we knew there was an issue but none of us, the client nor the architect were prepared for what we found – see the picture!? It really was in a bad state of disrepair]

Tip #3 : Factor the cost of utilities and hospitality into your budget.

We wanted to provide the BGH team with refreshments, but were a little surprised at how much tea, coffee, milk, sugar and biscuits we got through during the four-month project schedule (as we were on site during the works, it quickly became a case of ‘one for them, one for us’)! Our electricity and water bills were also significantly higher during the works. Of course, we should have expected this, but we didn’t notice until we received the bills.

[editor’s note: I said to stop feeding them biscuits! They have all been on a strict diet ever since!]

Tip #4 : Don’t forget all the extra costs not included in your builder’s quote.

Some fixtures and fittings may be included in the quote (remember #1) but you’ll need to identify what isn’t and add the associated costs to the overall build budget.

Unforeseen circumstances during the construction phase – like when we needed the extra steel – may incur additional professional fees, such as design input from your architect or revised calculations from your structural engineer. So it’s worth adding a provisional sum for this, just in case.

If you’re planning to do some of the work yourselves, be sure to add on the cost of materials for those jobs your builder won’t be doing (and any associated tools – see tip #8).

[editor’s note: without a site visit, the structural engineer’s calculations assumed there was a masonry wall to support the new loft, but this wasn’t the case – so some quick thinking and re-planning was required!]

Tip #5: Sometimes it’s worth asking your builder to supply fixtures and fittings.

Builders charge a mark up on fixtures and fittings they supply to clients, but they also get trade discounts. So if your builder’s willing to pass on some of that discount to you (as BGH did for us), the final price could still be cheaper than if you bought it directly as a retail customer. Also – importantly – builders typically offer assurance that if anything they supply goes wrong, they’ll take responsibility for fixing it (or they’ll have greater leverage as a repeat trade customer to go back to the supplier to help resolve the problem).

On the other hand, there are times when a price you find online is the lowest possible price, regardless of whether you’re a trade or retail customer. So asking your builder to supply those items (which will be priced to reflect their mark up) could end up costing you more than if you’d bought them yourself.

[editor’s note: we try and help all our customers with our trade discounts – and take responsibility if things go wrong!].

Tip #6 : Don’t just set aside a contingency budget; plan what you’ll do if that gets used up and you need to find more funds.

We needed a tin hat (costing an extra £4k +VAT) because the entire roof had to come off. If we’d been starting the work in late spring or summer, we might have chanced our luck with the weather. But our project got underway in late December, so we just couldn’t take that chance. This increased the overall cost of the project and immediately reduced our contingency budget. Then the extra steel and firewall repairs used up what was left, meaning very early on in the project we had no contingency budget left. We had both taken a work sabbatical to get hands-on with the building work, so there was no way to secure extra funds when further costs added to the overall price. This left us with no choice but to cut back on the scope of the project.

[editor’s note: contingency is always recommended – Robin & Rachel were unlucky that several items couldn’t be quantified in the planning stages, or they (and us) would have known in more detail what was required from the very outset]

Tip #7 : Keep your architect on board throughout the construction phase. With existing houses, it’s not always possible to realise designs exactly as they’re specified on paper.

Your builder can come up with solutions to problems uncovered on site, but these will require compromises and may have knock on effects. When these flare ups happen, it’s helpful to include your architect in discussions about the original design vs. proposed solutions, so there’s a team approach to getting the very best outcome design-wise.

[editor’s note: if you have never undertaken construction work before an architect’s input is amazingly helpful as they will help to explain the “language” of building]

Protective Equipment

Figure 3 – All set up to tackle the PIR Insulation

Tip #8 : Use the right equipment for each job. It can save time and discomfort!

We ended up hiring, borrowing and buying various tools for the jobs we undertook ourselves. For example, hiring the impact driver from BGH made plaster boarding much quicker. Buying a HardieBacker knife (which has a carbide-tipped blade) made scoring and snapping the board much easier when we were building out the shower cubicle. Likewise, it was well worth buying disposable coveralls with hoods, gloves, masks and goggles to use when working with Celotex insulation – they minimised irritation to our skin/eyes and prevented inhalation of Celotex dust.

[editor’s note: proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is essential with all construction work – but especially important when working with some man made products]

Velux windows

Figure 4 – Discussing the exact location of Velux windows & bathroom doors in situ

Tip #9 : Although it’s good to specify as much as possible before construction begins, some interior design decisions may benefit from waiting.

Standing in a space can influence final decisions on internal layout and choice of fixtures and fittings. To maximise the width of our master bedroom, the width of the ensuite was restricted so that it would only accommodate a standard square 800mm shower tray. This deviated from the designs on paper. If we’d bought the basin we really liked early on in the project (450mm deep), it would have been very awkward squeezing past the basin every time to reach the toilet at the end of the room! Fortunately we decided to wait and measure up in situ.

Likewise we held off specifying the Velux window for the bedroom until the timber frame was in place. As it provides a means of escape, the bottom of the openable area had to be no more than 1100mm above the floor area. We realised that if we went ahead with the size of window detailed on the drawings, Robin would have to stoop to look out of the window or stand under it when opened. That informed our decision to order a much bigger Velux.

On the other hand, some interior design decisions really should be made pre-construction, for example to inform electrical plans or to build out stud walls with the studs in the right places to support wall-hanging radiators.

[editor’s note: It has made for amazing opportunities for both sides of the loft to be used to look outside – on the east for a morning coffee and the west for an evening beer!]

Tip #10 : Ask about guarantees.

As part of the tender process we asked all the builders to include supplying and fitting windows. We didn’t realise there was an alternative. As it turns out (at least, with the reversible dormer windows we went with), we discovered at the end of our project we could have got a 10-year guarantee from the manufacturer if they had fitted the windows themselves (whereas it’s just a standard 12 months if a builder fits them) although their installation cost would have been 4 times higher.

[editor’s note: the manufacturer’s guarantee on the product still remains for 10 years, they’ll probably just try and blame the installer to get out of honouring their promise  – call me cynical!]

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