nSBRC - Self Build and Renovation

Should Self Builders Carry On Building?


Mike Hardwick is an independent self build consultant.  Having been through the process of building the Hardwick family home, he has specialised in helping others to do the same, having previously run the self build and project management courses at the NSBRC for several years.  A regular on the self build show circuit, Mike is Build It magazine’s self build and project management expert and is currently General Manager of NaCSBA.


Should Self Builders Carry On Building?

Written by Mike Hardwick

These are unprecedented times, unlike anything we’ve seen outside of wartime, and even in wartime, at least we could get to work, meet our friends and go to the pub.  If you are about to embark on a self build project or a major refurbishment you will understandably be wondering what you should do.  Do you go ahead?  Are you allowed to go ahead? Is it best to just wait for everything to blow over? 

As a nation, we don’t tend to respond well to diktat so instructions will invariably come as ‘advice’ from government.  That means that rarest of commodities, common sense, will need to be involved and I’d ask that you take that into account when reading this piece.  These are my views, rather than formal directions from government, or the NSBRC, and all could change by the end of the day meaning that this blog may be out of date as soon as its written.  However, I shall press on!

As I write, the Corona virus topic of the day is whether construction work should go ahead at all.  All construction sites in Scotland have been closed down by order of the First Minister, but in England and Wales, the continuation of work has been left to individual companies.  This has only added to the confusion: Taylor Wimpey, Persimmon and Barratt Homes are all closing sites, while Redrow and Cairn Construction are pressing on until they are told they can’t continue.  All this leaves self-builders in a quandary.  Is construction work allowed on small sites or not? 

I think the difference is in scale.  On a massive building site, keeping 2m away from fellow workers is nigh on impossible in practice.  Building sites are busy places and it’s simply impossible not to come into close contact with someone else and if you are concentrating on social distancing, you won’t be concentrating on what is going on around you which will lead to more accidents in an already hazardous environment.  Add to this the prevalence of major projects in London and other cities and there is added pressure on reduced public transport services, which are being kept open for key workers, but is being crowded out by construction workers struggling to get to their sites.  I don’t think it’s their fault; they are only following government advice which is that if you can’t work from home, get to work to help keep the economy alive and the last time I looked, you couldn’t build Crossrail from your spare bedroom.  With that in mind, I think the calls from Ian Duncan Smith and Andy Burnham are justified – work on major sites should stop immediately and this can only happen if the government orders that to be the case. 

It’s arguably easier for us small project owners to carry on while meeting the social distancing rules that make life so hard for the big guys.  We can manage single trades so that just a single person is on the site at any one time.  You could realistically have one person working upstairs and another downstairs or perhaps at opposite ends of a single storey building.  The Federation of Mater Builders (FMB) are taking a pragmatic line that it’s OK for trades to carry on as long as it is safe to do so or it’s in response to an emergency.  I think that is sensible and is the right way forward.  It certainly sounds like common sense, as stuff in peoples’ homes is still going to break, Covid-19 pandemic or not, and will require emergency assistance or at least an expert to fix.   We take for granted that we can call on trades at any time, but this week alone I’ve had the need to call on trades to repair a leaking toilet cistern, call out a pest controller and fit a new washing machine in a rental property.  All should have been straightforward to sort out but have turned into major issues to resolve because either suppliers have shut down or the trades are in isolation.

What would I do if I were self building in this situation? Well, if the project had not yet started, I would put all plans on hold for at least 3 months.  If my project were underway, I would be liaising with trades to ensure single trade operation at any one time to ensure that adequate social distancing can take place.  It will add to the construction time, but if work can be done safely, then I’d argue that it should carry on.  If the contractors are already on site, halfway through the job and are happy that they can continue working safely, then let them continue but respect any change to that decision by the company management.  If they decide to withdraw labour from the site, respect that call as it won’t have been taken lightly.

Recognising that protecting health and lives through social distancing is paramount, I believe there’s a balance here between locking everyone away to limit the spread of the virus and keeping small businesses solvent by using common sense where it might usefully apply.  Many of the trades you will be using are sole traders and depend on a regular supply of work to survive.  If they all go bust, there’s going to be a dearth of trades once we are on the other side of this dreadful pandemic.  I would argue that one person going directly to a site to work on their own, or perhaps with one other colleague on a self build project and then going straight home again does not unduly increase the risk of spreading the virus, or at least no more than an office worker in the same situation.  Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from doing DIY work where that is practicable and as long as the distancing rules are maintained and common sense applied.  

If your plans do have to go on hold, there’s still much you can usefully do to fill the time.  Get reading.  Mark Brinkley’s House Builders’ Bible is a fantastic read and well worth taking the time to peruse.  The self build magazines all have excellent websites jammed full of really useful information.  Build It has https://www.self-build.co.uk  and SelfBuild and Design https://selfbuildanddesign.com  so you could spend a few useful hours gleaning valuable snippets of information.  Keep an eye on the NaCSBA website too, as there will be regular updates on the latest policy decisions https://nacsba.org.uk.

Sadly, the one place I would be recommending you visit, The National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon has quite rightly temporarily closed its doors to the public, but knowing what a resourceful bunch they are, keep an eye on their website for news of some innovative and useful on-line self build advice and information through social media and live platforms, perhaps even extending to running their excellent series of courses online.

When all this is over, there will be an unholy tangle of contractual issues to sort out.  Working out what payments are due, whether work has been done and who is responsible for additional costs incurred will undoubtedly cause friction.   Delayed work will have to be rescheduled but who will get priority when everyone has a claim on limited resources? There will also be legal dilemmas because, sadly, it is likely that many good firms will fold as a result of this crisis and not all will be in a position to meet their obligations or settle their debts.  We are in uncharted waters, folks.  It might be a wise move to attend the NSBRC’s one day course on Project Management once we’re through this crisis.  One thing I am sure of is that, as with all challenging events, this, too, will pass and we will come out of the other side - perhaps a little more stressed but much wiser and more determined to complete our projects than ever. 

There may be delay and frustration along the way, but the important thing is that we and our friends, family and loved ones are around to see and enjoy the finished thing and that means following the social distancing guidance we have been issued to the letter.  Stay safe.

Mike Hardwick

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