Self Build vs Developer Housing

Posted on June 6, 2014 by Martin Stuart There have been 0 comments

This is my first post for Benfield ATT, and as a relative newcomer to the company in my role as Design and Technical manager, I thought I’d start with something a little controversial…

Two events caused me pause for thought this week.

First was news of the Queen’s speech, setting out the Government’s legislative agenda for the next parliament.

Secondly, I attended a meeting of a local group of self-builders, in the pretty city of Bath.

Amongst the fine detail of the former is a proposal that self-builders should be exempt from the carbon offsetting ‘allowable solutions’ provisions of the Building Regulations as they progress toward ‘zero carbon’ in 2016. This will be a further ‘perk’ for self-builders on top of their VAT exemption and exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy payable by commercial developers (which in turn supersedes a system of often very substantial Section 106 requirements for affordable housing and other infrastructure, for which self-builders were substantially ‘exempt’ in practice, as single dwellings tended to fall below the trigger thresholds).

Now anything that encourages homebuilding in any shape or form is to be welcomed, and I certainly wouldn’t be so churlish as to suggest that these incentives to self-building are undeserved: self-builders face enormous hurdles and contribute importantly both to the nation’s housing stock and to the pool of knowledge on innovative and sustainable building technologies.

But then I attended the self-build association’s meeting in Bath. A lovely, sensible and generally well-informed bunch of people they were, too. From some participants, however, I sensed nothing less than outright hostility toward major housebuilders, with the usual tired and bitter accusations of profiteering, low build quality and unimaginative architecture. As someone who has spent the majority of his career working in the design and Planning delivery of commercial residential development, both in private practice Architects and directly for developers (and having introduced myself as such at the start of the meeting!) this did feel rather a personal attack.

So I don’t feel entirely unjustified in being a little confrontational in putting the other side of the story…

For most self-builders, building their own home is an once-in-a-lifetime project that occupies several years from initial planning to finished product. It absorbs an amount of their time, effort and often money that would be wholly unacceptable in a commercial context.

In the last major developer I worked for, I was part of a small team (of about 15 people) who managed the delivery of 300+ new homes per year, every year. Divided by the number of people in the team, you might say that my personal contribution to the nation’s housing stock amounted to 20+ homes per year, every year (and my career so far extends to over a quarter of a century in the industry).

How many self-builders can claim to have made such a contribution toward resolving the massive shortfall in housing numbers?

Through Section 106 agreements (and now CIL contributions), major developers are responsible for building a very substantial proportion of ‘affordable’ housing (30-50% of the homes on any given development is typical) for those people who are not fortunate enough to be able to afford their own home, self-built or not.  These agreements and contributions often also pay for a substantial element of the additional infrastructure to support the new housing. As part of the commercial residential developments I’ve worked on, I’ve also been responsible for creating any number of new schools, healthcare facilities, play areas and community buildings over the years, not to mention financial contributions for everything from offsite highways improvements to burial facilities to cope with the additional corpses that our developments would, apparently and in the fullness of time, generate!

How many self-builders can claim to have made such a contribution toward the provision of homes for those on lower incomes, or to have contributed toward the infrastructure that makes their development sustainable?

There was scathing criticism of build quality and specification amongst the offerings of typical major housebuilders. We’re in a market where affordability of homes for purchase has already gone beyond critical levels. Read the glossy homebuilding magazines, and it’s not at all uncommon to see build costs for finished self-build projects being quoted in excess of £1,800 per square metre (and that’s not accounting for the time spent by the self-builder in managing the project). Major housebuilders are commonly delivering houses at half that cost. Certainly, like any viable business, they’re making a profit margin on top (though it’s not the unrestricted licence to print money that many internet forum pundits would have you believe – you only have to look at the financial returns for the major housebuilding companies, if you don’t believe me). But then don’t most self-builders also expect a handsome return on their investment in the fullness of time?

How much do you think the average new house would cost if every major developer built to the specifications, standards, site densities and coverage that self-builders routinely aspire to? And how much less affordable still would that make owning a home for first time buyers and young families?

Then there’s the criticism of low architectural quality. Now I’ll leave the question of national versus local vernacular (and contemporary versus traditional design) for another time, because it’s an interesting discussion in its own right – suffice it to say that providing a local sense of place has come to the forefront of the Planning agenda in recent years and developers are doing their best to respond within sensible commercial constraints.

But it’s easy to be individual when you are building on an individual plot – all you’ve got to do is design something that’s different to its immediate context. When you’re developing sites on a scale big enough to make some meaningful impact on housing numbers, the game is a little different.

How many truly individual architectural styles do you think are available, and how many of them do you think you can incorporate onto one development before it ends up looking a complete visual shambles, with no continuity of character?

I can tell you that you won’t find the hostility amongst major developers toward self-builders that there is in the opposite direction. As often as not, the discussion over the morning tea-break is on what an interesting project it was on Grand Designs the other night, and my former colleagues had nothing but genuine interest, respect and admiration for, in particular, those people brave enough to push the boundaries of design and building technology with their self-builds. Even if their approaches are not viable to adopt on a commercial basis, they continually challenge and provide food for thought on possible future directions.

But we recognised, without intending any criticism in the fact, that the circa 10K self-builds per year are not going to make any significant impression on the desperate need for housing numbers, compared to the circa 130K per annum new-builds delivered by commercial developers (a figure itself wholly inadequate to meet latent demand). In terms of its impact on UK housing stock, self-building is likely to remain little more than an interesting curiosity, unless there are fundamental changes in attitudes and approach to both housebuilding and Planning land supply.

Put bluntly, whilst each and every new home is valuable, self-building is primarily a hobby, not a serious prospect for addressing the UK’s housing shortfall, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Let’s all be thankful that the Government continues to see fit to encourage it with financial, technical and Planning incentives, because in purely pragmatic terms it would be much better directing those incentives to the major developers who can deliver housing in meaningful quantities, at much greater levels of efficiency.

Here at Benfield ATT, we’re equally happy working with self-builders or developers, and my job is to bring the same level of technical, Planning, design and commercial acumen to both. Which is why, when I mentioned my past background in introducing myself and was asked by one of those in attendance at the Self-Builder’s group meeting ‘which side are you on now?’ my answer was to say that I’m neutral!

There’s no conflict between self-building and commercial housing development, and lots of common interest where self-builders and developers could work together for mutual advantage, so why the animosity?

Better to recognise each other’s strengths (and weaknesses), whilst acknowledging that there are some fundamental differences in constraints, aims and objectives.

But ‘different’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’?


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