The striking similarities between building a website and building a house

Posted by on Feb 25, 2016 in Industry

A few years ago, my wife and I were fortunate enough to build our own house. A mutual friend was selling a piece of land and casually asked us if we knew anyone who might be interested in buying it. Even though we’d never considered building a house, after much consideration and procrastination, we decided to buy the plot ourselves. As twenty-somethings whose only involvement with the building trade was watching occasional episodes of Grand Designs, we had a lot to learn about exactly what’s involved with the construction of a home but, as we started to get into the swing of things I realised that building a house is actually a lot like building a website. Let me explain.

A grand idea

Although we had grand plans for our new home there were a variety of limiting factors that influenced our preliminary ideas and sketches. Things like planning restrictions, service connections and the like. Far and away though, our biggest constraint was our budget. This single factor determined and dictated the vast majority of decisions regarding the build. When you’re building a website, budget is equally important. If your competitor has a good website that is delivering results for them and outranking yours in the search engine results then it’s highly likely they invested heavily in it. If you want your business to compete with them, you will need to do likewise or risk falling further behind.

Surveying the plot

Before we could start anything to do with the actual house build, we had to employ various professional services (Solicitors, Land Registry, Planning Officer, NHBC etc) to help us get our plans in order.

When building a website, it’s essential to consult with internet professionals who can help you to plan your site and consider the most important aspects of it to ensure that the end result is all that you want (or need) it to be. When you consider that an incorrectly configured domain name could penalise your sites performance within the search engines or a poorly implemented checkout process could increase cart abandonment by 25% it becomes clear that this stage shouldn’t be something that you rush or skip over.

In the world of the web, your professional services are Search Consultants, Usability Experts and Technology Evangelists.

Also, like a house build, this stage of a website build will cost you money with nothing but print-outs or PDFs to show for it.

Designing the dream

Confident that we weren’t about to build on top of an abandoned mine shaft and that what we wanted to build was achievable (and within budget), we set out to create a detailed set of blueprints outlining how the house would be built. What would go where? Where would the sources of light be? Where would services come into the property? Wiring diagrams, joinery details, every aspect of the build went down on paper so that the brickies, chippies, sparkies and, errr, plumbers could see exactly what they were doing. Importantly, while we were doing this, we knew clearly what our priorities were for each room in the house. We wanted a big(ish) kitchen diner that could be a social space to entertain. We knew the sizes of key pieces of furniture. We (well, I) could ensure that the TV was sited for perfect 5.1 surround sound (that’s an important consideration you know).

In the world of the web, we call our blueprints ‘wireframes’ and they detail things like page layouts and navigation structures. They describe how the website will work and even discuss the technologies required to achieve specific functionality. Wireframes, like housing blueprints, are not designs. They are utilitarian, technical documents that visually communicate to everyone involved in the project, how the website will be laid out and function not how it will look. When creating wireframes, if the content that will fill the pages is known, the layouts can be optimised for it in the same way that our room layouts were optimised for our furniture and our social preferences. This is one of the major differences between a bespoke website and an ‘off-the-shelf’ site (read third-party WordPress or Joomla theme).

A bespoke website is tailored to your specific content and business requirements. An ‘off-the-shelf’ site (perhaps like a housing estate home) attempts to cater for the masses and not the individual.

With the blueprints finalised and signed-off, our Project Manager could make a start on organising the actual build and starting the first fix while we started looking into decoration and furnishings. When building a website, this is the stage where the back-end developers can start to lay their own foundations. If a website is being built on a CMS platform such as WordPress or an eCommerce framework like Magento then this stage installs that software’s base packages and starts to configure them for the website. The local, staging and production servers are commissioned and version control repositories are prepared to allow every line of source code to be tracked and accounted for. The back-end devs start to turn the wireframes into a functioning website. Meanwhile the web designer(s) can start to flesh out the wireframes with colours, imagery and fonts to create finished renderings of what the website will look like once completed. Again, these designs are much more accurate if the content (imagery, text etc) has already been supplied by the client.

A website design can look amazing with professional stock photography and lorem ipsum text but then completely fall apart once the clients actual text and images are put in place. In the same way your lounge could look very spacious with only a two-seater sofa in it but then feel very cramped once you fill it with your actual furniture.

The second fix stage of a website build is when the majority of the work is now being handled by front-end developers who are adding the styling and interactivity to the skeletal site produced by the back-end devs who, incidentally, are probably still on-site testing and checking things over (and usually swearing about Internet Explorer). As with a house build, the second fix on a website build concludes with the site looking and feeling like the designs and functioning as per the wireframes.

Moving in

At last the day arrives when the house (or website) is finished and you can step inside and start to explore. Now is when you discover if all of the planning, research and toiling over the minutiae of detail was worth it. With a website this involves testing, testing and more testing. Developers will be testing functionality, checking server logs, trying the site on devices and browsers of every type, size and brand. Project Managers will be checking content and liaising with the client and, like a house build, a snagging list is often created to refine the final details of the build.

Once all this is done you are ready to move in or, put your website live.

Some final thoughts on the similarities between building a website and building a house

There are some other similarities between building a website and building a house. When building a house, the build needs to be signed off at every stage by the local authority building control officer. This is to ensure that the house is being built to the necessary standards. With a website, there are many standards that should be adhered to although with cheap, inexperienced or slap-dash developers they are often not. The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) sets out a range of open web standards designed to standardise the implementation of web technologies. Then there are coding standards for each of the CMS platforms and frameworks. WordPress sets out coding standards for each of the technologies (PHP, HTML, CSS and JavaScript) that it utilises.

Just like a house build, changing the specification of a website once the build is underway can have serious (and expensive) repercussions. If you imagine that builders have laid the waste water pipes and then you decide you want to move the position of the toilet or sink, this is no different to changing your payment gateway once the checkout process has been built. Also, the further towards completion that a website is when a spec change occurs, the more timely and costly the change will be to implement.

In the same way that a house build requires a number of different trades people who all bring their specific skills, tools and experience to the job, so a good website build requires experts in almost as many different areas. Successful websites will likely require contributions from the following people:

  • Project Manager
  • Search Consultant
  • Content creator (although this is often the client)
  • Copywriter
  • Photographer
  • Usability Experts
  • Web Designer
  • Back-end Developers
  • Front-end Developers
  • Server Engineers

Still considering letting a single freelancer build your site? Although there are some very good freelancers out there, trying to find a single individual who could successfully take on all of the roles mentioned above (and still deliver the site on time) is a tough gig.

Building a website, like building a house, is a collaborative process. The client knows what they want (read their business) better than even the best informed builder and so they need to be central to the build. They need to be on-hand to answer questions, make suggestions, supply information and sign things off when required. Failure to do this will delay the project – everyone knows that even the most diligent builder will only sit around on site waiting for materials or instruction for so long.


Eight years after completing the build of our home, we’re still chuffed to bits with it. It has been a beautiful home for my wife and I to enjoy in the early years of our marriage and has been a solid base to extend upon as our family has grown to include two children. With the exception of the location of one light switch, there is nothing that we would change if we were starting the entire process again. I put this down to thorough planning, sound budgeting and hiring a fantastic team of house builders.

Cue Kevin McLoud and his slightly pretentious spiel about architecture, family and the meaning of life…