House or home?

Setting out a case for mass self-build and its potential to help solve the UK housing crisis, A Right to Build was a timely practice winner of this year’s RIBA research award. It’s author Alastair Parvin sets the scene

The UK has a housing crisis. It is not just a short-term supply shortage in the aftermath of the recession, it is also a deep, long-term crisis of poor quality, un-affordability, un-sociability and un-sustainability. How was it that even at the peak of its boom-time prosperity, Britain was building the second smallest homes in Europe? Why is it that only one in four households would even consider buying a new-build home, and that fewer and fewer of us can afford to anyway?


Architecture, perhaps more than any other profession, is deeply aware of that crisis. As designers, we’re continuously frustrated by the huge gap between new housing as it is built, and new housing as it could be. But the problem it is not merely one of ‘bad design’. The roots of this crisis go deep into the economics of housing production.

One of the great assumptions behind the housing policy debates of the last decades is that basically, a house is a house.  Regardless of who builds it, or how it is procured, a house is a single type of consumer good, used under various different forms of tenure (ownership, private rental, social rental). It doesn’t matter who builds it. Within that mindset, ‘good design’, or ‘quality’ is simply a market variable which rises in proportion to cost, to be regulated, and forced.

The opposite is true. Changing who procures architecture fundamentally changes the architecture itself. A speculative housebuilder procuring a house is primarily designing not a good place to live, but a property, a good short-term financial asset: a Monopoly house. A user procuring a house is also designing a place to live. The choices and purpose behind those two products are as fundamentally different as buying a hot meal and a pension plan.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that user-built homes do tend to bear out this logic: they are often more energy efficient, larger, higher quality, and – with no promotion cost or profit margin to pay, and opportunities to invest ‘sweat equity’ – they are genuinely more affordable. Who, for example, will invest in better insulation and energy performance if not the person who will be paying the heating bills over 10 years of use?

In some ways, it reveals how strange it is that we ever became so focused on harnessing speculative property development as the only engine for housing production. In doing so, we tied ourselves to a production model which is driven primarily by inflation and debt: it sees all the forms of value we collectively and individually seek in housing – quality, generosity, affordability, community, sustainability, flexibility – simply as costs.

It is surprising how often housebuilders are blamed for this, as if bad housing is a product of their personal greed or lack of imagination. In fact the 2007 Callcutt Review of industry was unambiguously clear that ‘there is absolutely no profit to be made in more thoughtful or better quality design... quality is simply not cost effective.’ As self-build expert Stephen Hill puts it, ‘We need to stop beating housebuilders up for not doing something they are not really equipped to do.’

Self-provided homes have a different profile to other new builds. The larger average size is particularly notable
Self-provided homes have a different profile to other new builds. The larger average size is particularly notable


If we are serious about designing high quality, sustainable and affordable housing, we need to radically change who procures it: scaling-up self-build is a key project for the next decade.

In some ways, it shouldn’t be such a great challenge. Driven largely by the web, we have seen the rise of the ‘prosumer’ in almost every other sector of society. Even in housebuilding, the UK is unusual in that only 12-15% of supply is self-build. In much of Europe it makes up more than half. Our research project, A Right to Build, looked at the challenge, explored the current state of the industry, de-bunked common myths, and outlined the shape of a mass self-build industry as a way forward for the UK. Learning from experts and pioneers, it identified the barriers which hold back all but the relatively wealthy and skilled ‘grand designers’ who build today, and speculated on future models of procurement, planning, finance and construction that could unlock the long tail of users who want to buy a plot of land and procure their own house.

One of a series of diagrams on the value architecture of housebuilding. Here a self-providing group is shown with its investment in the development on the ground as opposed to housebuilders maximising value to shareholders, or housing associations maximising the number of units
One of a series of diagrams on the value architecture of housebuilding. Here a self-providing group is shown with its investment in the development on the ground as opposed to housebuilders maximising value to shareholders, or housing associations maximising the number of units

Since A Right to Build was published, the debate has come a long way. There is an increasing consensus across the political spectrum that scaling self-build is not only about luxury ‘grand designs’, but growing a housing system which is fundamentally more capable of delivering neighbourhood resilience, quality, sustainability and real affordability; in short an economy for housing that increases rather than erodes our wellbeing. Grant Shapps, when housing minister, went further than any previous government has in expressing support for self-build, albeit backed by only a few small and arguably somewhat disconnected policies.

The question now being asked of us by government, local authorities, the public, and even housebuilders is: How can we actually do it? What do the models look like? What would a British Right to Build consist of? How will we make it normal?

We believe these are questions that architecture – by looking beyond houses to the social economy that drives them – is uniquely placed to answer.

A Right to Build was the product of a research collaboration between Architecture 00:/ (‘zero zero’) and Sheffield School of Architecture. For the full report by Alastair Parvin, David Saxby, Cristina Cerulli and Tatjana Schneider go to:

Self Build: Co-Design and architects

How can groups in the self-provided sector design and develop together? How does working with 30 clients change the design process? How can design professionals adjust to this new paradigm?

A new kind of client

Most forms of participation and consultation are ultimately a brief invitation to momentarily ‘participate’ in a process that the participant is ultimately not in charge of, and to do so on professionals’ terms. A group self-provision project is different. The users may not wear suits, but they are in control, taking the financial risk and wielding ultimate authority over design decisions. This recasts the role of the professionals who serve them, and presents a number of new difficulties.

New roles for architects

This new kind of client has implications for how architects and other design professionals might adapt to meet the new market. 
> Strategic design thinking. When thinking about customisation, designers need to develop a disciplined strategic framework to consider components, materials and economy in innovative ways. Design thinking needs to be creatively applied to the complexities of process, cost, phasing and construction.
> Communicating choice. Consultants need to play a strong role in setting out choices for the group, based on clear information and data that can be understood by non professionals. For example, outlining the whole lifecycle costing implications of investment can help the group make well-informed decisions.
> Architectural entrepreneurialism. One interesting example of how professional design practice might look in an era of mass self-provision can be found at VPB Architects, a Dutch firm working in France. Recognising the difficulties and uncertainties groups face early on, VPBA adopts a highly entrepreneurial position in the process by sharing the risk as co-developer at the initial stages of the project. 

Edited excerpt from A Right to Build