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The new housing sector tailor-made for architects

Hugh Pearman

Britain needs to build new homes as never before. Private volume housebuilders can only do as much as their shareholders and land holdings will allow – and their products are variable to say the least. Conventional housing associations, even operating in partnership with the private sector as most do, cannot produce the numbers to fill that gap. So where should we look for a new stream of well-designed housing?  Here there’s hope. Step forward, custom building: the professional derivative of the self-build movement.  Through both private developments and  mutual co-housing co-ops, this is a strong new market in which architects can play a key role.

The custom-build sector is entering a phase of explosive growth. We have a lot of catching up to do to reach the levels of other EU countries such as France, where 50% of new homes are custom or self built, Belgium (60%) or the Netherlands (30%).  Here in the UK the equivalent figure is just under 10%. No wonder the movement is actively encouraged by the Government. In chancellor George Osborne’s Budget last week, the headline move was the announcement that £150m of funding will be made available to help deliver up to 10,000 serviced building plots. The extended “Help to Buy” scheme, worth £6 billion, is also meant to help self builders qualify for a 20% equity loan. And finally, people will now have a “right to build”.  Councils will have to satisfy the demands of self and custom builders for places to build.

But the market was there anyway. Last summer, Kevin McCloud’s housing company Hab launched a crowdfunded custom-build initiative. The target was £1.5m, an ambitious total for crowdfunding. By the time they closed the offer, they had raised £2m.  Hab’s research had shown that up to 6 million people in the UK are interested in building their own homes – either as one-off bespoke homes or as part of a custom build initiative where they collaborate with a specialist developer. Now the company, along with others, is actively finding sites – typically as part of larger conventional volume-housing schemes.

These can take many forms. In the private sector, the developer will usually provide plots and an architect, and the customer can choose from varying levels of personal involvement. You could call this ‘semi-bespoke’ as opposed to the full-bespoke of the typical one-off house. The aim however is to provide real, resilient communities rather than isolated examples. This is helped by the fact that if 21 people join forces, you can start a mutual co-operative scheme. The ultra-eco award-winning  ‘Lilac’ (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) co-housing scheme in Leeds, completed in 2013, is an example. And there is nothing stopping architects taking the lead in this themselves.

Following the budget Ted Stevens, Chair of the National Self Build Association, said: “This is the biggest demonstration of Government support the industry had ever had. It could effectively double the sector’s output in a very short period of time, and I’m confident it will lead to a massive increase in people looking to build their own homes”.

We see this as a tremendous opportunity for architects to get involved in exemplary new housing projects.