How to get started on your renovation

Renovating your property is a great way to add value to your home and improve your quality of life by making your space much better suited to your needs. It’s a costly and sometimes worrying process, so how can you make sure that you get the best results when embarking on your home renovation?

Kunle Barker, property expert, writer, TV presenter and compore on the Grand Theatre at Grand Designs Live takes you through his tips and tricks to getting the best out of your renovation project.

1. Take your time

Perhaps the worst thing you could do is to rush into a job. It will go against your instincts but, take your time. Most problems within a job can be avoided with good planning. In any job that I do, no matter how big or small the budget, the preconstruction stage is by far the most important.

I know it’s difficult, you have your plans, and you have your budget, you want to get started. You want to dig a hole, knock something down, you want to build something. Don’t. Take your time. This will inevitably lead to problems, and problems generally mean you will not be able to deliver the perfect project. If I’m running a 4-month job I would expect the preconstruction phase to last at least 4 months. Don’t rush this stage. I guarantee planning your works properly will save you time, money and more importable heartache in the long run.

2. Do I need an architect?

Yes, your probably do especially if you are considering a Grand Design. Every successful job I have been involved in started with a good design. A good design doesn’t only you get something that looks good, it also means you will be able to deliver the build, in terms of time, quality and budget. Architects don’t just draw pictures and can help with procurement of services, establishing your supply chain, managing contracts payments and making sure the build is delivered to the design. 

My advice is always to make sure you hire the best skills for the job. Fees can seem high but this is money well spent if it means you don’t go over budget. Make sure you choose and RIBA architect and be aware of firms offering Architectural Design Services as they may not be fully qualified architects. Go to the RIBA website as they offer a great ‘Find an Architect’ service and their client service department can help answer any questions you may have.

3. How to choose a builder

This decision, which will have the most effect on whether, deliver the perfect Grand Design. It’s vital that you choose a good, reliable, stable builder with a track record of delivering Grand Designs. They wont be the cheapest. There are a glut of cheap building firms out there offering cheap services, but as my Gran always said "you get what you pay for".

On a Grand Design Project or Self Build the stakes are much higher and so are the risks, so you need the right builder. I would always recommend speaking to your architect. They will have builders that they work with, have relationships with and would only recommend someone if they are confident they can complete the works.

The complexities of self-build can be too much for some builders. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because a builder delivered your extension they will be able to deliver your self-build. They are very different skill sets. You need the right people for the job. Start with recommendations from your architect and don’t make the decision solely on price. Think value money, rather than the cheapest. If a builder delivers your project on time and budget and quality then that is good value for money. Some builders will purposely price things low to win a job and then try to add additional costs as they go. A good builder, even if he is not the cheapest will save you money in the long run. They will be better value for money

4. Pricing

If the pricing is not completed correctly, the job will probably fail. Ask your builders to provide a fully broken down quotation, which lists every job they are going to do with a price next to it. Avoid builders who provide a long list of generic tasks with a large price at the bottom. You will have no way of knowing exactly what is or isn’t included in your price. This will cause problems. Discount any builder that says they don’t quote in that way. A good builder will insist on fully itemised quotations as this protects both them and you. Ask your Architect to produce a fully schedule of works. All good architects will do this. If you don’t have this document, its impossible to assess prices. You will also need a full specification from your architects so that you & your builder know exactly what materials and fitting have been specified.

5. The final decision

Even with recommendations from your Architect, you will still want to get prices from at least 3 builders. You will probably narrow your search to 2 builders and now its time to do some real investigating. Make sure you contact their references directly, if you can visit them, go and see the works for yourself. Good (and for that matter) bad work speaks for itself, so definitely make the effort to visit at least one of their previous jobs. Try to visit a ‘live’ site. A site that they are working on, seeing your potential builder in action is the best way to see if you want to work with them. When speaking to references ask questions like, was the project delivered on budget and on time. Was there good communication, would you use them again.

6. Contracts

It’s vital that you get the right contract. Your architect may be able to help you with this stage of the process. It will cost you an extra in terms of fees, but it’s worth it. If you want to try and do it yourself, there are many templates available online, for example One of the most important aspects of the contract is the payment terms. It is usual for builder to request deposit payment in advance (to cover the advance purchase of materials). You should only pay for works that have been completed. For example if the price for fitting the kitchen is £5000 and half of it has been fitted, then you should pay £2500. Be wary of builders who ask for too much money in advance or who suddenly request additional payments. This suggests a problem with their cash flow and may mean they are using your funds to finance other jobs – and that’s bad, very bad.

7. Project Managers

Another key decision to be made is, should I employ a project manager? In my experience it’s vital that the project is managed well. Once you get underway the project management quickly becomes the most important factor. How your project is managed will dictate if it is on budget, on time, and on quality. Good project management will end up saving you money.

Project managers can charge flat fees, day rates or a % based on the total value of the job. This can be around 5%. This may seem expensive, but consider one very simple mistake could cost you between 1-2% of the budget. It may be easier to get your architect to perform the project management task, however Design and Build firms will offer these services as part of their package. My preference is to use and independent project manager from a construction consultancy.

8. Measuring success

It sounds obvious, but it’s important that you set parameters for success. The only way you will be able to deliver success is by defining it, so how do you define success?

I define a successful project on the following:
• Quality of work
• Budget
• Timescale.

For me to deliver a project successfully, I must have met the criteria above. Once you have set your criteria (and it may be slightly different to mine) its important that this is communicated to everyone involved in the project. Your Architect, builder, project manager, and suppliers all need to understand what you are working towards

9. Quality Assurance

Quality of work is not just related to the finish. In some ways, that’s the easy part , as a poor quality finish can be seen. It’s just as important that the works you can't see are carried out to the highest standards. It’s quite common to pay less attention to the quality of the messy works. But that’s a mistake. Not only could bad quality works this stage of the project be potentially dangerous, it will also be very difficult to get the desired finish if the initial works are poor quality. Again your project manager will deal with this on your behalf and it’s also worth having your architect involved at key stages of the build. This way you can be sure you are 100% sure everything is on track. Be careful with any changes made on your build. They may well be necessary but make sure you understand the impact they may have on your design. A change in footing position may mean steal supports don’t fit or that the floor to ceiling glazing you had your heart set on is no longer possible. Be strong and don’t accept excuses for works not being based on the design. Don’t be afraid to stop all works and resolve any issues, even undoing works.

10. Program

Managing the progress of the works is really important. Use a gnat chart to schedule jobs and tasks. It’s great to have a visual representation of the works, and is sometimes the only way to see potential pinch points and problems. It’s also a great way to manage the sequence of works, which in a Grand Design is very important. Certain works can only follow other jobs so if the sequence is incorrect this can cost a lot of money and delay your job. Remember there will be prelim costs which will eat into your budget should you go over program. Costs like, interest on loans, mortgage / rent payments / managements costs will be calculated weekly. A 2-week delay due to poor programing could cost you thousands.

11. Procurement

You will be spending a lot of money, so use this buying power to make sure you delivery your grand design on budget, maybe even under budget. Leverage your buying power by placing bulk orders with suppliers. For example, try ordering all of your plasterboard and ridged insulation at the same time, rather than buying them piecemeal. Bulk ordering can present an opportunity to negotiate discounts of 10% and more. Normally the bigger your order the bigger the discount. If it’s a large order negotiate to have the materials delivered to site as and when needed, which will reduce the risk of damage, theft of materials and make your site run far more efficiently. Most suppliers will agree to this.

Price checking is also a great way to save money. Don’t forget to include sundries (screws, fixings, brackets etc.) as some suppliers will sell things like plaster board at competitive prices, but their fixings are not nearly as competitive. Don’t be afraid to split items like this from large orders and buy them separately at a better price.

12. Budget

The speed at which a budget can run out of control is amazing. Your budget needs to be linked to your program to help keep control. You need to have weekly meetings with your project management team and if you are project managing the job yourself, still have the meetings.

Don’t forget to add a contingency, as you will most likely need it and if you don’t then you can put it back into the project. 

Keep your figures up to date, updating them daily if you can. You should have 3 figures, current figure, and current target, projected end figure. These are vital to understand.

Don’t forget to add in any variations from the original plans. You should constantly forecast your final spend figure and you should always know if you are on budget.

Be brave and make changes if that’s what you need to do to get back on budget. The worst-case scenario is realising you are over budget once you have finished the job.


Head to the Grand Theatre at Grand Designs Live to hear more top tips from Kunle Barker.

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