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Building a website is like building a house

A few years ago, my wife and I were fortunate enough to build our own house.

As naïve twenty-somethings whose only experience was watching occasional episodes of Grand Designs, we had a lot to learn.

I soon realised that building a house is actually a lot like building a website. For the finished product to live up to expectations, both need careful planning and design, a strong foundation and structure, and thorough attention to detail.

Budgets dictate outcomes

We had grand plans for our new home. A variety of constraints – planning restrictions and service connections – influenced our initial sketches.

By far the biggest constraint was our budget. This dictated the vast majority of decisions about the build.

Budget is just as important when building a website. If your key competitor has a good website that is outranking yours, it’s likely they’ve invested heavily in it. If you want to compete, you’ll need to do the same or fall further behind.

Time to call in the professionals

Before our build could start, we had to use various professionals (solicitors, Land Registry, Planning Officer, NHBC etc.) to get our plans in order.

When building your website you also need professional advice. Web development professionals can help you plan your site. They’ll make sure you don’t overlook key considerations that may affect the quality of the end result.

For example:

  • A poor user journey will frustrate users
  • An incorrectly configured domain name could penalise your site’s search engine rankings.
  • A poorly implemented checkout process could increase cart abandonment by 25%.

You can’t afford to rush or skip this step.

In the world of the web, your professional services are Search Consultants, Usability Experts, Web Developers and Web Designers.

Like a house build, this stage of website building will cost you money with only print-outs or PDFs to show for it.

Blueprints and wireframes design the dream

Having established our plot wasn’t on top of an abandoned mine shaft and what we wanted was achievable (and within budget), we set out to create a detailed set of blueprints.

  • What should go where?
  • Where would the light come in?
  • How and 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 plumbers could see exactly what they needed to do. 

In doing this, we were clear about our priorities for each room.

  • A big(ish) kitchen diner that could be a social space to entertain.
  • The sizes of key pieces of furniture.
  • A TV sited for perfect 5.1 surround sound (a vital consideration).

When it comes to your website, these blueprints are called ‘wireframes’.

  • They detail things like page layouts and navigation structures.
  • They describe how the website will work.
  • They discuss the technologies required for specific functions.

Wireframes, like housing blueprints, are not designs. They are utilitarian, technical documents that communicate how the website will be laid out and function. Not how it will look.

Wireframe layouts can be optimised for your desired content, as our room layouts were optimised for our furniture and our social preferences. This is a crucial distinction between a bespoke website and an ‘off-the-shelf’ one (e.g. a third-party WordPress or Joomla theme).

A bespoke website is tailored to your specific content and business requirements. An ‘off-the-shelf’ site (like a housing estate home) caters for the average inhabitant, not the individual.

Getting on with the build

With blueprints finalised and signed-off, our Project Manager started organising the actual build. We started looking into decoration and furnishings.

With a website build, this is when the back-end developers start to lay their own foundations. With a CMS platform such as WordPress, or an E-commerce framework like Magento, this stage installs and starts to configure that software’s base packages.

The local, staging and production servers are commissioned. 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) start to flesh out the wireframes. Colours, imagery and fonts create finished renderings of what the finished website will look like. These designs are much more accurate if the client has already supplied the content (imagery, text etc).

A website design can look amazing with professional stock photography and lorem ipsum text. But it can fall apart once the actual text and images are in place. Likewise, your lounge may look spacious with only a two-seater sofa in it. But it’ll feel cramped with your actual furniture.

The second stage of a website build is mainly handled by front-end developers. They add the styling and interactivity to the skeletal site produced by their back-end counterparts. The latter are probably still on-site testing and checking things over. And usually swearing about Internet Explorer.

As with a house build, this second stage finishes with the site looking and feeling like the designs. And functioning as per the wireframes.

Finishing touches

Finally, your house or website is finished. You can step inside and start to explore. Now you discover if all that planning, research and toiling over the details were worth it.

With a website this means testing, testing and more testing. Developers test functionality, check server logs, try the site on devices and browsers of every type, size and brand. Project Managers check content and liaise with the client. Like a house build, they create a snagging list to refine the final details.

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

Final thoughts

When building a house, the build needs to be signed off at every stage by the local authority building control officer. This ensures the house is built to the necessary standards.

Similar standards apply to website builds. Cheap, inexperienced or slapdash developers often overlook or ignore these. 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 technology (PHP, HTML, CSS and JavaScript) it uses.

Just like a house build, changing the specification of a website once your website is underway can have serious (and expensive) repercussions.

Imagine your builders have laid the waste water pipes. Then you decide to move the toilet or sink. This is like changing your payment gateway once the checkout process has been built. The closer to completion a website is when a spec change occurs, the more time consuming and costly the change will be to implement.

It pays to ensure your build is done by professionals.

Just as a house build needs different trades people to bring their specific skills, tools and experience to the job, so a good website build requires experts in many different areas. Successful websites will likely require contributions from the following:

  • Project Manager
  • Search Consultant
  • Content creator (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? Finding one person to do all of the 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 their business better than anyone else. They need to be central to the build. On-hand to answer questions, make suggestions, supply information and sign things off on time. Failure to do this will delay the project. Even the most diligent builder will only sit around for so long waiting for materials or instruction.


Eight years on from our house build, we’re still chuffed to bits with it.

It has been a beautiful home for my wife and I to enjoy and for our two children to grow up in. Other than one light switch, there is nothing that we would change. I put this down to thorough planning, sound budgeting and hiring a fantastic team of builders.

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

If you want your dream website, you’ll need to take the same thorough approach with no shortcuts.

We’re here to help.

let’s work together