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Do it yourself

Luke Tozer

Custom and self build have huge potential to dent the housing shortage. So what’s stopping them?

The Acre for Hab Homes in Oxford, by John Pardey.
The Acre for Hab Homes in Oxford, by John Pardey.

Custom build is part of the self build family, where instead of an individual doing their own Grand Design (self build), a custom developer helps an individual or group through part or all of the process, giving the customer choices along the way. It’s been happening in Europe for years – custom and self build constitute up to 80% of new build homes in Austria – but in the UK it is negligible. Most such homes are done as self build and they account for less than 10% of new completions (around 10,000 new homes each year).

If it’s so popular abroad, why hasn’t it happened here? Barriers to self and custom build have been identified by the government as land supply and procurement, access to finance, the planning process and general regulation and red tape.

In short, it’s the whole process of getting something built, the way we do it, in the UK. A cultural and legislative shift is needed to reduce the barriers, and make fringe activity more mainstream. This is starting to happen through increased land supply and planning (see overleaf), but all developers agree UK custom build is taking time to mature.

However, there are two main emerging types of custom build, which address issues of affordability and consumer choice: self finish homes and those offering a significant level of choice to the homeowner.

Self finish homes

Here the developer provides a watertight, warm, external envelope with services, a shell, which the customer then fits out themselves. The shell is Building Regulations compliant and mortgageable so that the new owner can move in and fit it out over time.

Gus Zogolovitch, of custom build developer Inhabit homes, likens the difference between volume house building and custom and self finish homes to ‘the difference between buying a ready meal or cooking a meal yourself’. He sees the value for both customers and developers. From his perspective Inhabit’s model of selling homes at shell gives customers choice and potential savings while saving significant time on site, lowering the cost of the build and speeding up the development cycle, which all improves profits.

Neil Double of Naked House, a not for profit community group set up to address affordability in London, uses custom build as a model and aims to provide ‘naked’, intermediate homes for its members on incomes from 25-80k. Double estimates that self finish can save new owners 20-30% of the cost of the home. That’s a pretty significant saving in real money at London prices.

  • Poulsom Middlehurst Architects for Inhabit Homes.
    Poulsom Middlehurst Architects for Inhabit Homes.
  • Naked House,  a chance for owners to save money on the initial outlay by finishing their house themselves. Hugo McCloud.
    Naked House, a chance for owners to save money on the initial outlay by finishing their house themselves. Hugo McCloud.

Choice and involvement in design

An alternative approach is where the custom developer provides the finished house, but gives the customer options and opportunities for customisation along the way. Isabel Allen of Kevin McCloud’s HAB Housing says: ‘Consumers have come to expect increasing levels of choice and opportunities for personalisation when they buy holidays or cars. I think it’s inevitable that they will demand opportunities to customise their homes.’ She believes that a degree of custom build will inevitably become the norm for mainstream housebuilders. An approach that is adaptive to local need, is collaborative, and which blurs the boundaries between the developer and local community – where many of the eventual purchasers will already live – has advantages, says Allen.

At Heartlands in Cornwall, Igloo has pioneered an approach, more common in the Netherlands and Germany, where as developer it provides serviced plots and access to a range of house manufacturers who each provide a pattern book of customisation options for the client to choose from.

Why now?

The government is keen to encourage self and custom build, to supply much needed housing capacity alongside traditional house builders’ provision. It offers an additional rather than competing solution to the housing crisis.

The Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act proposed by Richard Bacon MP under the coalition government achieved Royal Assent on 26 March 2015 and placed a duty on local authorities to keep a register of individuals and community groups who want to acquire land for self and custom build projects. It requires them to take account of and make provision for their interests in local authority housing initiatives and local plans.

With its renewed emphasis on home ownership, the Conservative government has reiterated the desire for more custom and self build in the housing and planning bill, which is making its way through committee stage. The bill places a duty on local authorities to grant planning permission for self build homes to meet the local need as demonstrated by the local self build register.

The self build association NaCSBA launched a toolkit for local authorities in December 2015 to help them meet these new obligations, which sets out examples of best practice. NaCSBA estimates that due to this new legislation, approximately 10,000 additional building plots will be available over the next 2-3 years. Ted Stevens, of NaCSBA, says ‘Community groups are springing up all the time, clambering to get custom build schemes off the ground.’ So moves are afoot to address the land supply and planning barriers. It remains to be seen whether local authorities, already stretched by budget cuts, will have the skills necessary to adequately meet these additional demands, even with NaCSBA’s help.

Opportunities for architects

Judging from the experiences from Europe such as the successful Baugruppen-model in Berlin, there seem to be two main, alternative, roles for architects in this fledgling sector, either as designers or as project enablers/facilitators. These two roles are mutually exclusive to avoid conflicts of interest. Some early group custom build schemes in Europe struggled when these roles were combined in an individual architect.

Baugruppen Berlin by Zanderroth Architekten.
Baugruppen Berlin by Zanderroth Architekten.

Design opportunities

Designing a flexible envelope that can be configured in a variety of layouts and then designing a suite of components from which the customer can select is one possibility. There is the opportunity of working closely with a developer to design an adaptable model, a prototype, with potential for reproduction and scalability, combined with the more familiar process of working with the individual clients to make that into a ­specific home.

If concentrating on designing the shell and leaving the internal finish and fit out to owners seems to move away from the architectural desire of producing a Gesamtkunstwerk, it could also remove a lot of the pain and speed up the delivery of homes. It could significantly broaden the built impact of well designed, adaptable homes. It seems potentially closer to the Georgian pattern book model than anything the volume house builders have come up with. Perhaps it’s that happy middle ground between over-precious private clients and the anonymous lack of end user input of larger housing schemes.

Acting as an enabler

To facilitate a custom build scheme you need an understanding of project development, finance, contracts, procurement, planning, and community consultation and a love of spreadsheets – skills much like those of an RIBA client adviser, but with some specific knowledge and specialism in custom and self build projects. These may not be at the core of most architects’ training, but they are skills that architects often develop as they move out of daily design work into a more client side role. Most commonly an enabler is a surveyor, project manager or developer offering development management services.

There is potential and, according to NaCSBA, a willing market, for architects to establish a new model and combine forces with an external enabler to offer customers both designer and enabler services, so long as they are provided by different people with defined roles with clear Chinese walls between them.

What can you do?

First, you could apply to be on the self build register, and encourage others, for example clients etc, to do so too.

Join a community group such as Naked House, get in touch to see if they need help, or even start one yourself to address your own housing need (many small housing associations were started by architects).

Contact the head your local authority planning department and ask how they anticipate meeting their obligations under the new legislation and how many custom and self build schemes they have given consent.

Luke Tozer is co-founder of Pitman Tozer Architects and a member of the RIBA’s housing group


Custom build at scale, Baugruppen Liebigstrasse Berlin by Zanderroth Architekten.
Custom build at scale, Baugruppen Liebigstrasse Berlin by Zanderroth Architekten. Credit: Simon Menges


Berlin’s Baugruppen typically consist of 10-15 units and work predominantly in an urban context. Architects can now deliver schemes of up to 200 units using this custom build route. These Baugruppen have been around only for 15 years or so, with home ownership in Berlin on the rise.

Many valuable lessons can be learned from this custom build model. Architects’ services vary greatly pending on the focus of each Baugruppe, most notably whether the emphasis is on high customization or on affordability.

The Baugruppen model, which built up Zanderroth Architekten’s reputation as architects and its commercial success, focuses on affordability for the customer at highest possible construction quality within tight construction programmes. The urban design and design of the building’s envelope are thus tightly controlled by the architects. Customization is offered through the amount of space that can be purchased and through choice of layout and spec of finishes within the actual flat only.

As the practice’s Sascha Zander explains, the firm started with a much greater offer of (interior) customization, but this led to direct additional costs for the customer and to time delays. As the architect move to larger projects (eg Liebigstrasse 1 consists of 190 units), it ensures that customization is limited and follows a strict process. Traditionally procured new build flats in Berlin cost £3700/m2 upwards. It is hardly surprising that Zanderroth’s ability to deliver high quality flats for its custom build clients within unique buildings at a cost of £2700/m2  has proved highly popular.

Silvia Ullmayer is director of Ullmayer Sylvester Architects and a member of the RIBA's Housing Group



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