There’s not much that stops dedicated builders in their tracks, but bad weather can do its best to slow them down.
Freezing weather means mortar might not set properly, while heavy rain can waterlog the ground and make digging foundations difficult. That’s why so many people look to start their big building projects at this time of year, when the bulk of the work will take place over spring and summer months with more settled weather.
Steve Fraser, a builder with 18 years of experience, certainly sees the trend of big jobs - extensions, loft conversions, renovations and so on - starting now. “Builders are like anyone else,” he said, “we want to work all year round but the weather in winter can really slow you down, especially when it comes to those key jobs like digging the footings and laying bricks. We’ll do our best to work through it but you can sometimes be held up weeks, and all those delays add costs. That’s why you see a lot of people looking to book their work in now - it’s the best time to get it started.”
Steve, who has more than 18 years experience in the building industry, is definitely happy to work all year round - his Kent-based company is called All Seasons Home Improvements - and as if to prove it, when we caught up with him he’d been working on the same massive project for the best part of a year. Starting early last summer, the magnificent barn conversion has been a huge undertaking that’s almost at its end, but most jobs Steve takes on are more like 10 weeks than 10 months.
When you’re working with the same homeowners for so long, the best tradespeople have to be more than good builders, Steve said. “It sounds a bit silly, but I like to think that you become like one of the family. It’s all about the little things you do to keep everything running smoothly. On this project, the family has young children - the other day I saw one had fallen asleep at the table so I went and carried them through to the sofa. On some sites, builders won’t take in packages or deliveries because they don’t want to be responsible for them - but we do it every day. You have to go that extra mile.”
The key thing for big projects, according to Steve, is communication. “Communication is the number one thing. You have to be absolutely clear in everything you do - from your quote, your work and payment schedule, through to your day-to-day interactions. If something’s delayed, you don’t mess around with excuses, you have to be up front and lay everything out clearly. It’s the only way to get along when you’re taking on a job like this.”
Steve left school at 15 to go and help with his grandfather’s building firm, before moving into doubleglazing installation. That lead to a career building conservatories, which then lead on to bigger projects like extensions and conversions. His firm now has four fulltime labourers along with Steve, while he regularly works with other trades like electricians to contribute to his projects. But despite his businesses’ growth, he still likes to get his hands dirty.
“I’m definitely still on the tools, I love being able to play with all my toys and get in there and build something. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, building homes that people will love.”
Steve’s advice for taking on big projects:
- Find a tradesperson you’re comfortable with: “I make sure I’m the point of contact for my jobs, from going to quote to being there on the first day and throughout the project. I want people to be comfortable with me and know I’m there to speak to throughout. The other thing is making people comfortable at the beginning of the job - I’ll take people to see past projects so they know the kind of work we do. I don’t want people to have any doubts, I know it’s a big investment so they have to be happy.”
- Be wary of project managing: “A lot of people want to be very involved, which is great, but sometimes they can get fixated on sourcing a particular material or something, which I can usually handle, and probably get cheaper because of trade discounts. Keep communicating with your builder and you can work out what’s best for you.”
- Make sure you’re comfortable with costs: “I don’t price any job to make myself rich overnight. I want to keep working and earn a living, and my work is priced fairly. I take a deposit, then have a clear payment structure for when certain stages of the build are completed. I know some people who charge a deposit then another payment on the first day - and people are handing over 40% or more of the total money before a shovel’s even gone in the ground. It makes homeowners uneasy, especially if they’ve watched some cowboy builder programme. Homeowners should get everything laid out in advance and make sure they’re happy with it.”