Actually, says Tim Byles, demand for self-build is already there and while there’s nothing wrong with one-off Grand Design projects, what we need now is something altogether more mainstream
You could say the attitude of the typical volume housebuilder is a little like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come”. But increasingly “they” - the home-buying public - don’t want to wait for the housebuilders to decide to roll out another estate of anonymous units. A different view is taken by another Kevin - Kevin McCloud - and the growing army of people who want to build their own home rather than hang on for the volume builders. What began as a small minority of determined people featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs worrying over alarming cost overruns, is slowly becoming something less of an oddity and more mainstream.
Mainland Europe is, however, leading the way - in France four in 10 homes are now self-build and five in 10 in Hungary. This volume is being achieved, in part, through some large-scale developments that are enabling whole communities to be self-build. The Vauban “sustainable district” in Freiberg will see around 5,000 self-build homes (not to mention 600 jobs), while Almere in Holland will see a more modest, but still impressive, 3,000 self-build homes.
We need to see more large-scale self-build development, not just the steady stream of one-off Grand Design projects. Self-build must go to scale to become truly mainstream
Here in the UK, just one in 10 homes is self-build. It is fair to say that to date, self-build has been the preserve of those who have the time and the money. And so at a time when the country is struggling to meet housing demand, all too often volume build is seen as the only way to help stop the gap.
Data from the RIBA suggests, however, that three-quarters of people do not want a home in a volume build housing estate, and research carried out by Ipsos MORI tells us that 53% of people would choose self-build. A whopping 400,000 individuals make enquiries to RightMove every month for self-build plots. Couples, young families, professionals - all of these groups want something more. This message came loud and clear a few weekends ago, when I found myself down in Plymouth running a focus group with a few dozen local people, all of whom were interested in helping shape, and then live, in a new eco-community in the South-west.
This pioneering development will create 91 homes, built to the highest levels of energy efficiency. But what was most interesting from the focus group was that although the sustainable designs of the PowerHomes are of central importance, of equal interest was the opportunity to help shape and then run a genuine community. The attractions of this lifestyle extended to the management of the surrounding woodland and village green, establishing a car club, and even setting up a community kitchen so that residents can cook and eat together should they wish to.
Those involved in developing the eco-village have the option of self-build, via a self-build kit to ensure that high levels of energy efficiency are achieved. It is early days as yet, but we expect that a significant majority of the homes at Bickleigh Down will be self-built via a kit in this way.
Demand for self-build is undoubtedly growing and the government recognises this. At the Liberal Democrat conference just last week, communities minister Don Foster announced that local people planning to build affordable homes will be eligible for the £65m Affordable Homes Guarantee Programme, and earlier this month, the coalition announced the self-build programmes would be exempt from the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 payments. In addition, the government is working to encourage local authorities to free up more parcels of land so that more developments can come forward, and is also requiring councils to establish a local register of people who want to build their own homes so that they can be prioritised for developments on their own doorstep.
We are also seeing the mortgage lenders starting to cock an ear to this emerging market. Although it is fair to say that there has been limited product choice to date, the introduction of more self-build developments, as opposed to one-off projects, means that lenders will be able to start commoditising their products. Most recently, we have seen Lloyds talk favourably about considering mortgage applications from those building kit homes.
This is all welcome news. But to make more than a token contribution to the housing needs of the nation, we need to see more large-scale self-build development, not just the steady stream of one-off Grand Design projects. Self-build must go to scale to become truly mainstream: the demand is there, the finance is there, and the political will is there. There is a real opportunity for developers and construction partners to benefit from this groundswell of support. Instead of flogging volume build anonymity, the industry could be providing the homes that people really want. When that happens, brick by brick, self-build UK will have earned its place at the table next to volume-build in helping address our housing stock needs.
Tim Byles is chief executive of Cornerstone Property Assets