Looking for guidance on your self-build? The National Self Build and Renovation Centre in Swindon is the place to go for help with any aspect of a project, as Roseanne Field reports
The National Self Build & Renovation Centre (NSBRC), located just off the M4 in Swindon, is a must-visit for any novice self-builder, providing all the advice you could need under one roof. The permanent exhibition centre is home to an array of experts and suppliers and plays hosts to a number of events throughout the year.
The NSBRC, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year, was launched by mortgage broker BuildStore in 2007. Since then it has welcomed more than 200,000 visitors, many of whom return throughout their project for help, tips and advice. It’s believed to be the only facility of its kind across the whole of Europe, spanning 67,000 ft2.
Since November 2014 the NSBRC has been owned and operated by The Homebuilding Centre, an employee- owned business. Last year alone the centre is thought to have helped over 16,000 self-builders.
The centre is dedicated to serving a growing self-build market, with more and more people choosing to build their own house every year. “Around 13,000 people will take on a self-build project this year,” explains Harvey Fremlin, NSBRC managing director. “They benefit from a huge degree of choice; from where the house is located, how it is constructed, and the energy efficiency of the building fabric through to the level of finish they will enjoy once moved in.”
Offering advice on everything from planning and finance to structural elements and design, a visit to the NSBRC is likely to prove invaluable. Alongside its regular events, the centre contains many features to guide and educate visitors towards real solutions to problems and ideas to make their projects work better. “There are several routes available to individuals wanting to design and build a bespoke, well finished, energy efficient home and the
NSBRC provides the knowledge and support people need to make an informed decision on which route is best for them,” says Harvey. “Our aim is to inspire, educate, and provide impartial advice.”
Planning & finance
The NSBRC has elements to help self- builders through every stage of their project, starting with the things that need addressing before a foundation is dug or a brick laid. Finding a plot of land is the first hurdle to contend with, and one that many aspiring self-builders find themselves falling at. BuildStore’s PlotSearch is believed to be the UK’s largest database of land available for self-build, and has its own stand at the NSBRC to help those who are struggling to find a plot.
Another obstacle people often find themselves facing is how a project will be funded. While some are lucky enough to have the cash available for a self-build, more often than not some form of mortgage or loan will be required. BuildStore also has a stand at the centre dedicated to financial planning, with a resident expert offering advice on the various types of funding available, from short-term loans to specialist mortgages.
Getting your house built
Of course the most substantial – and potentially most daunting – part of any project is the build process itself. “Please don’t feel nervous if you have never set foot on a building site!” Harvey says. “The majority of our visitors are not in the building trade, and we will help you understand the various stages involved in a building project.”
The NSBRC is laid out as an ‘educational journey’, designed to take visitors through the chronology of a self- build. The journey has been broken down into six core phases: ‘plan & site set-up’, ‘groundworks’, ‘walls & structure’, ‘roof’, ‘services’ and ‘finishes’.
The ‘plan & site set-up’ area has been created to educate self-builders on the jobs that need taking care of before work begins. A range of equipment is on display such as mixers, cranes and excavators, as well as information on how to make sure things such as water, power (and portaloos!) are ready for the contractors. Tips are also provided on how to run and manage your site.
The ‘groundworks’ zone is broken down into three sub-sections. The first section focuses on foundations – looking at which are right for your site and specifically its soil – as well as various floor systems. The next section gives the lowdown on the all-important underground services that need consideration, such as drainage. The final section gives visitors the chance to consider the design and construction challenges of building a basement.
The next stop is the ‘walls & structure’ zone – one of the centre’s most popular exhibits due to the impact it has on the overall design and look of a house. The zone displays both new and ‘tried and tested’ construction systems, with various combinations of materials chosen based on individual performance, and how they work as an overall system. Each wall also features a different type of intermediate flooring.
The ‘roof’ zone showcases four types of construction type: cut or traditional, attic truss, structural insulated panels (SIPs) and fink trusses. The displays also feature options for coverings, dormers, rainwater disposal and chimneys. The section demonstrates to visitors how roofs can be used as additional living spaces and provides information on the various choices of prefabrication that can speed up the build process.
The ‘services’ zone addresses issues such as how you can heat your home and its hot water and how you’ll light and ventilate it, with energy efficiency at the forefront. A variety of systems and options are on display, such as heat pumps and boilers, to help you decide what will work for your project as all such decisions will impact the performance rating of your self-build.
The last zone on the educational journey is the ‘finishes zone’, exhibiting a range of staircases, doors, floors and wall finishes. Every Saturday at 12 pm NSBRC staff offer a guided tour of the educational journey.
The help desk (open Wednesday to Sunday) offers visitors the chance to speak one to one with in-house experts on topics ranging from “planning to budgeting and plot finding to Building Regulations,” Harvey Fremlin explains. “A common question we get asked is ‘what materials shall I build my house with?’ We can show examples of many different building methods including oak frame, insulating concrete formwork (ICF), brick and block, structurally insulated panels (SIPs), Passivhaus and more. Crucially, we can explain the pros and cons of each.”
A permanent show home is on display at the centre, offering an example of the type of house and finish that can be achieved. The show home is a 2,300 ft2 Potton Ruskin house, part of the company’s Renaissance collection. It demonstrates how a modern interior with all the latest smart home technology can blend with the type of traditional-looking exterior that’s likely to satisfy planning authorities. It also allows you to see what kit home providers like Potton can offer, beyond the frame and its construction.
The NSBRC features a zone dedicated entirely to the restoration and refurbishment of older properties, as opposed to new builds. The zone is designed to help those working on any kind of renovation project – be it completely overhauling a house that’s seen better days or simply modernising a dated property.
The main attraction here, and one of the highlights of the whole centre, is the Renovation House, which is a recreation of an old and dilapidated property that transforms into a dream home. “With careful planning, renovating a house can be one of your best investments, or your motivation may be to turn an ancient wreck into a family home,” Harvey says. “In either case, a tour of the Renovation House is a must.”
The house – which is typical of a property built during the interwar period – features problems such as damp, damaged brick/stonework, leaky guttering, broken window frames and rotten timbers. “The house shows the four main stages you will need to follow,” Harvey explains. “Assessment and design, strip out/build down, renovation first fix and final finishes.”
A 30-minute audio tour – with commentary provided via a hard hat with built in speakers – guides visitors through the renovation process, highlighting common problems, recommending solutions and explaining step-by-step how to refurbish such a property. “While not a complete blank canvas, major renovation projects will throw up similar choices to new builds and many of the options available in a new build can be applied,” says Harvey.
The centre also offers midday guided tours of the house every Friday and Sunday with its resident technical expert.
Here is where you’ll find the centre’s permanent exhibitors, divided into categories such as Professional Services & Associations, Foundations & Groundworks, and Roofing & Roofing Structures. Over 220 suppliers and manufacturers have stands in the centre, showcasing up-to-date products and technologies in the self-build market. The NSBRC is claimed to be the only place in the UK where customers have access to these products all year round.
Many of the exhibitors’ products are also showcased in various exhibitions throughout the centre, allowing you to view them in-situ, as they would appear in your home, as well as on the stand. Visitors are also issued with scanners, allowing you to request further information from the specific exhibitors’ products that you’re interested in.
One of the NSBRC’s biggest selling points is the variety of events that take place within it through the year. These range from workshops and courses to exhibitions, covering everything budding self-builders need to know.
The National Self Build & Renovation Show and The Big Green Home Show each take place over a three-day period. Along with the regular features of the centre, the shows include live demonstrations and seminars as well as the chance to network with and learn from fellow self-builders. “The shows are the ideal opportunity to discover how the concept of self-building works or simply to explore the options for injecting new life into your existing home,” explains Harvey.
Free workshops are also on offer on key topics that combined together cover everything you need to know, says the NSBRC. Four eco workshops are available, covering matters from sustainability-oriented design and planning to heat and energy. A design and build workshop also runs four times a year, teaching you how to take full control of your project, including the undertaking of all or part of the construction.
Held in association with RIBA, an Ask an Architect programme runs five times a year, offering a 25-minute consultation during which you can talk through any ideas or aspects you might need advice on. These sessions must be booked in advance.
In addition to the free workshops three in-depth, paid-for courses are run by the NSBRC for those who “want to be more involved in their project,” explains Harvey. The one-day project management course, costing £150, covers everything from budgeting and insurance to site management and health and safety. The heat and energy course (also a one-day session costing £150) aims to simplify what can be a complex and confusing topic, explaining the basics and solutions available.
The most comprehensive offering is the three-day self build course, which costs £375 and covers a total of 11 topics. These include design and specification, Building Regulations and eco legislation, providing an all-in-one introduction to the world of self-build. “All our courses are packed with useful hints and tips from the experts to help you save money and stay on budget,” Harvey says.
For more information on the centre visit www.nsbrc.co.uk
The courses held at the NSBRC are some of the centre’s most popular and useful offerings, covering everything you need to know to successfully complete your project on time and on budget. Here are the views of two satisfied attendees:
“It’s been the best value for money I’ve spent in a long time, the course paid for itself on day one, mostly through lots of good advice that will help us to save significant money on our self-build project as well as ensuring we make better informed decisions.”
“I attended the Self Build course with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever and was worried that I would look a bit of a fool among others on the course. It was reassuring to find out that, despite our varied projects, we were all beginners with a similar level of understanding. I now feel I am well informed and can confidently talk to architects, planners, builders and contractors with a good depth of knowledge and understanding behind me. I left feeling very positive and excited.”
“Brilliant in every way. Drove down from North Wales and was there for about three hours. It’s a must do for people considering self-build as you will learn a lot. My wife and I both left there excited about a potential self-build!”
Wesley Jones, via Facebook
“BuildStore, the National Self Build & Renovation Centre and its various partners have been invaluable – I cannot fault their expertise and advice – they have really made this project much easier, and cheaper, for us!”
Paul Vaughan, via BuildStore
“On the recommendation of a friend who knows our interest in starting out on renovation projects and hopefully, new build, my wife and I visited the NSBRC. From the outset, the welcome was warm and the information available was very impressive and extremely useful.”
Peter Cornthwaite, via BuildStore
“Whether you are a self-builder planning a whole house, or thinking of extending, NSBRC is worth a visit either with your architect or on your own to understand how bespoke you can be.”
Richard Bowman, via Facebook
“Blown away, this place really does have everything you need for new builds and extensions”
Shane Reeve, via Facebook