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Leading Questions

Sam Brown

Successful collective custom builds will depend on who does the enabling

Bringing together local authority and developer stakeholders in Leicester.
Bringing together local authority and developer stakeholders in Leicester.

As it becomes largely accepted that we could do more to build a greater volume of better quality housing, the notion of ‘self-build’ is receiving evermore attention in relation to housing and planning policy across the country. In the spirit of localism, many people are now asking themselves whether, since house-builders seem unwilling to build decent houses, we couldn’t make a better job of it ourselves. About 10,000 households a year succeed in doing so, yet around 6m people would if only it were easier.

Custom Build’ is something distinct from the one-off homes of Grand Designs or the celebrated social self-builds of the 1980s and 90s

In designing the National Planning Policy Framework as one of the principal instruments of localism, the government responded to lobbying from the National Self Build Association (NaSBA) and, for the first time, placed a duty on councils in paragraph 159 to, first, ‘measure the demand of’  and secondly, ‘provide for’ those that wish to build their own homes. The Chancellor’s 2014 Budget speech in March announced that the government will consult on a new ‘right to build’, giving citizens a right to formally challenge authorities that leave this duty unaddressed, and set out what is effectively an expansion of the Custom Build Loan Fund programme. This is a £30m pot established in 2011, initially to provide short-term development finance to innovative ‘custom build’ schemes. Administered by the Greater London Authority in London and the Homes & Communities Agency nationally, the fund  is designed to cultivate pilot projects for a new mode of housing delivery in the UK; and in coining the term, set up the idea of ‘Custom Build’ as something distinct from the one-off homes of Grand Designs or the celebrated social self-builds of the 1980s and 90s.

Key definitions

Essentially, custom build has come to mean two key things: first, that some kind of ‘enabling’ role is played by a third party to smooth the road for aspiring self-builders; and secondly, that the end product is customised to better suit the needs and desires of the eventual occupants. As policy, it seeks to turn some of the frustrated aspiration of a potential nation of self-builders into completed homes on the ground. The fund, in line with the general fixation on proving ‘self-build at scale’ as a mainstream housing delivery option, prefers multi-unit sites to individual homes.

More cynically, the term has also come to mean that self-builders’ equity is captured by private developers before homes are even built, simply allowing otherwise conventional development to proceed with greater certainty and profits to be made with less risk, in return for letting occupiers choose the finishes. For every supporter of custom build there is an equally vehement detractor, protesting at the missed opportunity to involve people meaningfully in the design of their homes and neighbourhoods – and the promise of the more affordable, equitable, enjoyable and sustainable way of life that implies.

The varied needs and desires of self-builders (still from film).
The varied needs and desires of self-builders (still from film). Credit: Cany Ash

A combination of factors has led to the developer-led models of custom build developing the fastest, and shouting the loudest

Three types of custom build

The nature of the stimulus on offer and the often onerous associated pre-qualification procedures, coupled with a risk-averse housing sector and hamstrung local authorities, has resulted in the developer-led models of custom build developing the fastest, and shouting the loudest. But some local authorities, such as the London Borough of Lewisham, have a historic track record of innovation in this field, and organisations such as the Community Self Build Agency have also enabled other public bodies to deliver collective self-build models where training of the unemployed or vulnerable is part of the package. Our short, investigative research project, Motivating Collective Custom Build took the view that other parties could also play an enabling role in motivating a greater uptake of collective forms of self-provided housing.


We found three broad types: Independent Group Custom Build, where a group forms to make a site viable, but is otherwise independent of outside assistance and often led by a core group of strong individuals;  Developer-Enabled Custom Build, which includes both the ‘development manager’ type, leading development on larger sites, and a ‘home manufacturer’ type, offering a complete ‘custom’ design solution on individual sites or small groups of sites; and Supported Community Custom Build, referring to both an ‘assisted community’ model where a local authority or other organisation assists an otherwise independent group through grant, land or expertise, and an ‘enabled community’ model, where a group of people is formed and led by those same organisations. The opportunities for architects, therefore, also vary widely – and there could be a lot of business in custom build if we understand the sector.
Cornwall proves the point

Igloo Regeneration’s pilot project on HCA land at Trevenson Park, near Pool in Cornwall, for example, is regarded as ‘proof of concept’ for large-scale developer-led custom build in the UK. The developer is currently shortlisting applicants for its home manufacturer framework, a large number of which are partnerships between architects and small developers or local contractors, bidding speculatively in response to a competition call to develop customisable house types, with Igloo handling the site infrastructure. But this probably won’t pay very highly in terms of design fees in the traditional sense. Interestingly, the shortlisting focuses intently on the processes and materials that applicants will use to liaise directly with customers, as Igloo believes neither builders nor architects are particularly good at listening. Ted Stevens, chair of NaSBA, agrees, stating that although the one-off house model is perhaps a form of practice that architects identify with, they are rarely good at delivering the service that these individuals need. Instead, through ‘over-the-top’ projects that treat the brief ‘like a college exercise’ and ‘with no handle on costs’, architects often contribute to the perception of providing your own home as an onerous task, and one especially prone to the risks of budget over-run. ‘Most people in this category will have budgets of around £200,000,’ says Stevens,’ and they need to stick to them.’

The German Baugruppe, or building group model, sees multiple households come together, usually to build custom-designed, private apartment blocks, but commonly with egalitarian features

Architects’ role

Beyond the de-risked developer-led model, the most interesting opportunity will present itself to architects that initiate collective custom build projects themselves. In Europe, where self-provision of housing has largely remained part of popular culture, architects have played critical roles in bringing about user-led schemes, developing new business models to best serve the market. Some architects in the UK are showing is a great deal of interest in ideas such as the German Baugruppe, or building group model, where multiple households come together, usually to build custom-designed, private apartment blocks, but commonly with egalitarian features – such as providing communal spaces at the top of buildings where ordinarily the most lucrative penthouse apartments would be located.

At LILAC in Leeds the co-housing group acted as client appointing both contractors and a design team.
At LILAC in Leeds the co-housing group acted as client appointing both contractors and a design team.

But as Stevens points out, such models will need adapting for the UK. We will have to work out where and how we make our money, or what other value can be derived from the process, perhaps as part of the mix of work that a practice does. UK versions of Baugruppen are likely to be slow-burning, and will require leadership in the ‘community architecture’ vein. Those that embrace the challenge will need time to learn the different techniques needed – facilitation, negotiation, project-management, finance – and they’ll have to become mini developers in their own right, working directly with tricky individuals. But as far as finding land goes, if the HCA can sell land to the likes of Barratts or even to some of the smaller custom build developers selling ‘custom-lite’ off-plan, why can’t they sell it to architect-led partnerships that can get their head around development economics? Architects are also well-placed to work on behalf of grass-roots groups and orchestrate applications for some of the £17.5m ‘Community Right-To-Build’ fund, recently re-designed to give community groups support in developing proposals pre-planning, rather than just executing them post-approval.

Designing partnerships

But why is it that we feel the need to find and protect a role for architects in custom build? Do we have the right skills, or even aptitude? Baugruppen are often supported by secondary-level, inter-disciplinary organisation organisations such as Stattbau, that can connect groups with a design team, land, finance and other tools to help manage the process, and it is difficult to think of organisations that have this capacity in the UK. As architects, we are often the ‘inter-locaters’ in development, tasked with speaking multiple languages at a range of scales, and what we do is as much about learning and teaching, and taking others along with us on a journey, as it is about creative flair or technical expertise. As ever, it comes down to design. But rather than becoming fixated on the formal or aesthetic qualities of a scheme, we may be better placed to design development partnerships that pull together the capacity to mitigate the perceived risks of self-build with the ability to construct a shared vision around the aspirations of a complex set of stakeholders. I believe that providing we continue to learn from our own British experience as a profession, as well as from contemporary international examples, we certainly have a place at the table as part of a team that enables the procurement of good housing through collective forms of custom build.


Sam Brown of Sheffield School of Architecture helped deliver the Motivating Collective Custom Build practice-based research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council:

He also works with Jon Broome Architects


London’s Lewisham Council is offering residents a rare opportunity to work together to build their own homes on a site in Ladywell, seeking to re-establish the innovative track-record of supporting group self-build in the borough in the 70s and 80s.

Kareem Dayes is a 26 year old whose father built a house for his family nearly 30 years ago in one such project, Walters Way. As a musician, Dayes cannot afford to live locally, and so set up a community organisation, RUSS, to promote the idea of building affordable, sustainable homes. RUSS – the Rural-Urban Synthesis Society – lobbied Lewisham Council which designated a self-build site last May.

RUSS is also an established Community Land Trust (CLT), and wants to establish a delivery partnership as part of the plan. The CLT is a membership organisation governed by a board of directors, including a seat for the council. By ‘designing the developer’ in this way, RUSS seeks to access council-owned land to build on and borrow against; as well as ‘sweat equity’ from its members to cultivate a much wider range of benefits – not least by setting up a more holistic route to affordability and appraising development goals beyond the financial ‘bottom line’. Expertise from RUSS’s experienced board, which includes architects, will mitigate the perceived risks of resident-led development, and by giving existing residents a voice through membership representation, it is hoped that a positive approach to development can be propagated.

RUSS has a draft plan to create a sustainable neighbourhood based on significantly reducing costs, first by incorporating a high level of self-help labour, and secondly by providing a mix of homes to rent, buy or part own/part buy. 

Local residents support this approach in principle and RUSS has put it to the council, which will decide shortly how to proceed with the site.