Grand Reviews Philosophy

The Philosophy

Growing a Stronger Oak

Without getting too metaphysical, a mature oak tree would not be felled by a single strike from an axe in the same way a knowledgeable self-builder is unlikely to fail to complete from a single slip in the project plan. These reviews are fundamentally about growing a mature, stronger oak that can take more axe blows without being felled.

Because I am not in the position to begin my own self-build project I want to make the most of the time I have available and help others who may be interested in the pursuit of a similar aspiration.

Through this website and the newsletter I want to develop a sort of “Play Ground” where I can review and understand what it takes to build the dream property. In the process of witnessing others build their property I am provided a financially cheap way of building core knowledge and principles by documenting their lessons learned.

This practice will provide a great way of understanding common failures and successes that can then be used in future self-build projects.

The process of each review and the methodology is laid out below. While not every episode has the same construct and some present limitations, I will try to create a common ground so that each review is comparable while avoiding analysis paralysis by getting too tied-up in the detail.

Build Reflection

Creating a lessons learned of each build project helps tell the story of how reality works. Plans are typically out of date as soon as you begin a project because it is impossible to predict every eventuality. By nature plans are a leading perspective of a project utilising experience to circumnavigate the way to the end goal whereas the lessons learned are a lagging perspective providing an opportunity to learn from past mistakes or successes so that efficiency can be improved the next time around. Adapting to the ever changing conditions is the basis of nature and how those evolutionary adaptations are handled can make all the difference.

What would I do differently in the future when the next “One of those” comes along to handle it better? The purpose of each review is to absorb the information available to develop my own views on the constituent parts of the build so that if the same or similar issues are faced again in the future there would already be examples of how to resolve.

Using a balance of objectivity and subjectivity in each review dependant on the topic I can transform an entertaining programme into a learning tool.

My material reviews will be subjective. I will share my opinion about what I think worked well together and what didn’t. To develop knowledge on the processes used, however, I will need to think objectively.

Each review follows a basic structure of capturing the when, where, what, who and how that can then be used to develop the lessons learned after reflection and critical thinking.

Critically thinking about what went well once all the information has been gathered, I can determine what went well in the project, like problems that were brilliantly handled and discuss what went badly.

Without intending to become “Captain Hindsight” and point fingers to the obvious I want to be able to learn from the lessons of others and to diagnose this requires getting to the root of the problem in their most basic form. The following is a root cause analysis process.

  • Identify how the task should have ideally gone.
  • Identify any problems or obstacles that stood in the way of a successful outcome.
  • Diagnose the root causes of the problem.
    • What was the bad outcome?
    • Who was ultimately responsible for the outcome?
    • Was the person responsible incapable or was the task design bad?
  • Did the process during the build work as it was intended to?
  • If not, why not?

Generally speaking, proximate causes are due to someone or something underperforming. They can be actions or lack of action and are often described using verbs.

Root causes are reasons for something not working and are described using adjectives.

The Lesson Learned would therefore be the action that was necessary to prevent the failure the next time around. Whether this is in the Design of the Property or the Process of Building.

Data Methodology

Inflation Indexing

The values shared on the episode are not reflective of one another due to the inflationary forces over time so therefore need to be adjusted using an index to bring them all into line.

For the Plot Purchase Price, I will search Land Registry to understand the prices paid at the start of the build. Some information is shared on the episode though occasionally it may not be possible to find any information.
For Estimated Gross Development Value/Valuations I will need to adjust according to a House Price Index. There are several sources such as the Nationwide HPI, the Halifax HPI and HM Land Registry HPI. I will be using the Nationwide HPI Calculator House price index | Nationwide so that I can incorporate regional differences by using the location or property post code.

For the Build Spend I will adjust the value using the Inflation calculator | Bank of England. I have investigated using the Purchasing Power Calculator on Measuring Worth – Purchasing Power of Pound, however the use of CPI as a generalisation will work for the time being and is kept up to date. This should roughly translate the figures quoted in the earlier episodes to a modern-day equivalent. The use of CPI contains some materials typical of a build within the “04.3 Regular Maintenance and Repair of the Dwelling” (30.3% overall weighting) & “05.1 Furniture, Furnishings and Carpets” (5.6% overall weighting) categories, but this doesn’t contain many items such as concrete or site equipment hire costs etc. A full list can be found on the following site Consumer price inflation basket of goods and services – Office for National Statistics
I am currently unaware of a better index to use that dates to the first episodes in 1999 so will use this index for now. The Construction Output Index only dates to 2012 for usable data that I can see.

I will index the data to the latest episode rather than today to give an anchor point. That’ll be close enough to be representative of today’s costs/buying power but also bring all builds into line with one another. The trend will always be inflationary, but I would hazard a guess that the price indexed could be £10,000-£20,000 exaggerated in either direction and should only be used as a rough guide. I will try to determine a more accurate method over time that gives a comparable index for building property.


It isn’t possible from just watching a television episode to capture all the information available about the build. While self-builds are inevitably full of problems it is important to remember that there is a dramatisation effect on each of the episodes.

In some ways this is a good thing for this study as problems tend to make good drama so the big ones are typically recorded in the show. There are going to be some omissions from the program on all the times the camera crew aren’t visiting the site. Some good points are therefore typically missed out and others wont be included as they may not be dramatic enough or suit the narrative of show.

From my time working in property I am aware of various public datasets which may be able to help pad out episodes where key information may be missing. For example there are Price Paid Datasets for all land transactions in the UK on the Land Registry website that I can use to confirm the historic transactions on a particular build. I will gather additional data to enhance each review where possible and necessary.

Floor Area

A common metric used in the self-build community to assess costs is the cost per square meter value. To derive this information I will need to couple to overall spend amount with the area of the development which isn’t typically given. I have a couple of options available for this.

If I can determine the address of the property I can search for an Energy Performance Certificate that captures this data. However where a certificate may not have been commissioned this sometimes doesn’t exist. In these instances if I am able to locate the property on a map I can measure an approximate area coupled with any prior knowledge gained about the build such as if it is a single or multi-storied property.

If the floor area is from an EPC I will enter the data in each review, however if it is an approximate then I will suffix the value with an Asterix.

If I am unable to locate the property on a map then I will put “Unknown” in the field.

For the overall cost per square meter I will use the overall build spend divided by the area of the property.

Planning Application

The planning application is typically available on the local planning office website. If an address can be identified then it should be possible to obtain a more informed picture of the proposed development. Using the website to then locate the local planning office of that area.

Time Spent

I thought that this would be an interesting metric initially, however after a bit of thought I think it is a bit superficial. Houses are typically never finished. They are always in need of some sort of work, whether it is redecoration or an renovation most houses are in a constant state of dilapidation until one day the price of the house equals the price of the land it sits on and all economic value has vanished to time. The fact that some builds take longer than others doesn’t seem to make much of an impact, in my opinion, to the nature of success. Unless you are building a lighthouse in North Devon…

Build Spend

How much do these builds typically cost? I need to be able to gauge what restrictions my budget places on my specification. What are the type of builds I am targeting in my “Dream Home” and therefore what would the limitations be?

The How?

In the UK Governments Self and Custom Build Action Plan they discuss the three main barriers of growth in the sector. Access to finance, access to land, and lack of expertise/knowledge gap.

Access to finance to fund a self-build is one of the largest hurdles most people will have difficulty with. The “How” has always been of particular interest to me to keep things grounded in reality. While we all like to dream, there is often foreshadowing of privilege in many television programmes and my current mindset makes me ask the question of whether this sort of thing is actually achievable for someone of any background or if it an exclusive club where only the top 0.1% are granted access and it is 99% luck.

If there wasn’t a limit on the funding side of the triad then the other two could be overcome. Any level of ignorance can be delegated to an experienced project manager for the right price. And any parcel of land can be purchased with enough financial persuasion. I’d go as far as saying that certain planning officers could also be lobbied if there are significant economical benefits at play assuming the concept still fits into the National Planning Policy Framework. Money, to a lot of extents, equals freedom.

For me, and most others, the financial side of the triad is where I fall over. Focussing on weaknesses rather than strengths can help rebalance the equation a bit and from my perspective a particular bias needs to be placed on the funding.

When I watch a property programme where a 25 year old couple are looking to buy their first house with a budget of £1.2 Million I find it impossible to relate. It’s frustrating and my emotional competitive chimp brain assumes that the couple have received a sizeable inheritance – a cheat code in life. But rationally I know that this isn’t always true. For example I can remember one episode of Grand Designs where the couple built a significant property and it was funded through the hard work of creating a successful business first. Or one of the earliest episodes has a co-operative build where sweat equity is used rather than financial equity. Both realised their visions but in completely different approaches that warranted full merit.

Diving into how each build overcomes the three barriers can also help strengthen the knowledge gap that I currently have and perhaps bridge an opportunity to cross the other two barriers of access to finance and land. It will help dilute the imposter syndrome that prevents so many people of feeling good enough so that they even consider self-build as an option.

The Who?

Character Profiling

When training to become a pilot the Human Factors module teaches the limitations of the Human. At first it seemed like a pretty nonsensical unit, I was there to learn to fly an aircraft not to learn how long it takes for the eye to adjust to darkness (up to about 30 minutes), but it quickly became apparent that it was one of the most important factors. Basic Physiology, Basic Psychology, Stress and Managing Stress, Personalities and Cockpit Resource Management. I now believe that it is the same for most aspects of life and is foundational to everything.

What, therefore, are the Human Factors which most impact the success of a self-build project? Are there particular traits that can be learned or failing that can they be easily outsourced to someone else? From the first few episodes it is clear that highly skilled jobs, localised project management and childcare have been issues for the self-builders which comes down to lack of time or skill.

It seems obvious that self-builders have to be hard working and tenacious. It requires a form of obsession to get to the end of the project. But they come from all different types of vocations and career paths and from different backgrounds.

Understanding these aspects may help identify key strengths and weaknesses required allowing myself and others to improve in those particular areas.