Could Custom Build Developments Fix the Housing Crisis?

Why is self-build housing so scary for Brits?

The UK needs lots and lots more homes to be built now. I understand the need for hundreds of thousands of homes to warmly shelter our growing population and that most of these will need to be (let’s not say affordable) at a sale price the average home dweller can afford whether they’re first-timers, a growing family or downsizers. Yet the thought of millions of identikit homes, squashed into small plots with tiny gardens and no soul doesn’t sit comfortably. I work for (not as) an architect so obviously there is an emphasis on the aesthetics here but there is also a focus on the connection between the physical spaces we live in and the impact on wellbeing. We often discuss the importance of building homes, close to open spaces and fresh air and the impact of that on wellbeing. My colleagues see the value of creating communities not just shells in which people live, disconnected from each other; an aspect of house building which is seemingly all too often overlooked even in this era of growing awareness of loneliness and depression. Mass home production is one answer but there is also a little-known alternative — custom build. With my limited layman’s knowledge on the process and having seen the benefits to the residents and to people beyond — I honestly can’t understand why all housing developments aren’t custom build.

Custom build homes are the most common way for homes to be built in many parts of the developed world yet accounts for a paltry 7–10%¹ of new homes in the UK, that’s just 12,000 per year of the required 250,000². These numbers are a bit hazy and the Architects I meet and work with think that even these estimates are wildly optimistic. Even the term “custom build” needs an explanation and in fact lacks a clear definition in the UK: what I am talking about are homes which are designed and built by individuals (as per a traditional ‘self build’) sometimes with the addition of an enabler who acts as a conduit between the homeowner and all the other individuals and organisations involved (plot owners, architects, contractors, councils, engineers etc.) usually because there is more than one home on the site. In Norway, it accounts for over 80% of the new home market and it’s easy to recognise why — the benefits are many and far-reaching; infiltrating the very communities they create rather than simply providing accommodation and fulfilling a Government housing quota.

Custom build developments by their very nature create communities because all the plot owners have the opportunity to get to know one another from the very beginning of their own individual build. Often plot owners have come together in the first instance with the primary aim of building on the same site (community land trusts etc.). This process allows relationships to be forged long before each household is able to live in their completed home. The community may need to work together to secure the site or to gain planning permission or to raise funds. Even if individuals are buying plots that are ready to build on, during the build, there is likely to be a shared interest in the building process and opportunities to pool resources and exchange skills and know-how. The bonds galvanised by these shared experiences build into supportive relationships which is important for creating sustainable, harmonious neighbourhoods. Functioning neighbourhoods are desirable areas to live with a healthier population and low crime which in turn put less pressure on council resources, policing and the NHS.

Homeowners of a custom built house will have a bespoke home that meets their needs and lifestyle now. Due to being involved in the design process and giving thought to their future lifestyle needs too, the home will be able to accommodate anticipated changes to their lifestyle too — an important consideration for a country in the midst of a housing crisis. Currently, the UK’s housing shortfall is being addressed by a few volume house builders who populate large plots of land with huge numbers of houses (designed and laid out as though with the use of algorithms) ticking off Government targets as they go and motivated primarily by profit. It’s a solution of sorts except the future occupiers or the houses aren’t typically thought about. Plot size, building orientation and room configuration which address the homeowners needs are secondary to unit numbers, bedroom quotas and financial gain. Yet, in our experience, developments which prioritise room size rather than the number of rooms, layout and outdoor space along with how the houses relate to each other, to the sun’s path and to any surrounding views, amenities, infrastructure and existing settlements are the most successful with the most satisfied occupiers and neighbours.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) is dedicated to setting building standards for the benefit of the occupiers and encouraging governments all over the world to ensure these are met. In 2015 the BRE launched the Home Quality Mark (HQM) as a certifiable measure of a quality built home awarded to those homes that are “designed and built to have very low running costs, many positive impacts upon your health and wellbeing, all with an extremely low impact upon our environment”. Brilliant. Finally, an emphasis on what is actually being built and an understanding of the impact buildings have on how we live and our well being. The criteria are forward thinking too — considering the proximity to public transport and fast broadband — showing an understanding of our evolving work/lifestyles. In short, it’s a comprehensive checklist of all the considerations a modern home should have with a clear emphasis on the end product being not just safe but genuinely satisfying the needs of those who will be living in it. It’s possibly worth noting that I couldn’t find any volume house builder with any of these awards.

Custom build homes can save significant amounts of money too. The traditional developer model roughly allocates the one-third of a home purchase price to the land cost, one-third for construction and one-third as profit. Graven Hill, currently the UK’s largest custom build development, can reputedly save self-builders 15% to 20% compared with buying a standard estate home³. There are plenty of alternative construction methods too from modular to kit homes. These often focus on more ecologically sound build techniques and sustainability so the new homes will make less carbon footprint in its making and have significantly lower running costs too. Local skilled workers and professionals are usually used on these projects so the local economy is directly impacted rather than the mass-produced sites which use centralised specialist consultants based elsewhere in the country and often ship-in construction workers.

Landowners obviously profit whichever way they sell their land however they can make a greater financial gain if they choose to provide custom build plots by selling directly to the end user which cuts out the need to also pay a developer. Combined with the benefits to the newly created community, the wider existing neighbourhood and to the local economy they can enjoy the moral comfort it can bring.

Monitoring the significance of housing design on our lives and wider society is not a new concept, choosing to ignore lessons learned from demolishing communities and forcing them to live in disconnected dwellings shouldn’t however continue. The process of custom build is an empowering experience: making a real contribution to your home’s format and deciding on how the space can relate to how you live and what your household needs is extremely rewarding, perhaps even satisfying a base instinct for nest building within us all. As a house building method, this should surely be promoted as one of the best as so many stakeholders are positively impacted. Or is it best kept under wraps? Keep it as an underground way of house building and then, like all good niche trends it’ll become mainstream and everyone will be doing it. Mission accomplished.


¹ Wallace A, Ford J and Quilgars D, Build-it-yourself? Understanding the changing landscape of the UK self-build market, Centre for Housing Policy, University of York Spring 2013, p15