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Can Self-build Solve the Housing Crisis?

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Planning Lecturer Iqbal Hamiduddin says it’s time the UK turned a passive interest in self-building into an active one.

Can Self-build Solve the Housing Crisis?

Self-build or ‘Baugruppen’ was a critical mode of development for new buildings in the French Quarter in Tübingen, Germany.

Credit: Iqbal Hamiduddin

In April 2019, the Channel 4 television programme Grand Designs will celebrate 20 years of feeding Britain’s fantasies. If the show is to be believed, the path to domestic grandeur is littered with pitfalls – budget and time overruns, overambitious ideas that go horribly wrong and months spent living in a caravan with your lately estranged partner.

And yet, it seems, we haven’t been put off. The National Custom & Self Build Association claims that 53% of adults in the UK aspire to build their own dream home.

Of course, Grand Designs is hardly representative of the self-build sector. Real projects are varied and diverse: ranging from modest dwellings to spectacular architectural commissions, and include options such as custom-build, where experts offer you a menu of choices but take care of the logistics to your level of preference. And, in so far as it presents an additional and different source of homes, self-build is an area that could play a part in solving Britain’s housing crisis.

As Iqbal Hamiduddin – a Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Planning and co-author with Michaela Benson of the 2017 book Self-Build Homes: Social Discourse, Experiences and Directions – explains: “We’re not building enough housing and part of the reason is that the bulk of housing is produced by less than 10 providers.”

53% of UK adults aspire to build their own dream home.

Source: National Custom & Self Build Association

Time to build momentum

The British government seems to be on the same page. Since 2016, it has obliged local authorities to keep a register of people interested in acquiring land to build a home and make it available for them within three years – the first wave of which should happen in autumn 2019. But barriers still remain in converting passive interest into active building: self-build mortgages, for example, are still harder to secure than regular ones.

In recent years, Hamiduddin’s research has centred on countries where self-build and custom-build are popular. In Germany, for example, these makes up 60% of the new housing mix, compared with less than 10% in the UK.

This could partly be a function of culture – the British have long been more fixated with traditional ownership of a single house and garden, compared with many other countries where, say, apartment living is equally acceptable, and so perhaps are more conservative about their homes in other ways.

But, as Hamiduddin points out, the model the UK is familiar with at the moment is a relatively new one. “It’s only really after industrialisation and urbanisation that housing began to be delivered at volume by private speculators and social housing providers,” he explains.

Can Self-build Solve the Housing Crisis?

Nieuw Leyden, a project in the Dutch city of Leiden. Just over 700 homes have been delivered on the site – 350 as apartments and 360 as terraced houses, around 200 of which were built by individuals working together to keep costs down.

Credit: Iqbal Hamiduddin

Home building not house building

Hamiduddin believes self-build is about more than just numbers, it can also be about wellbeing and quality of life. “Alternative forms of housing – for example, group build, community-build projects and models such as co-housing – could play a strong role in addressing issues such as loneliness and social isolation,” he says, referring to privately developed group self-build projects, such as those in the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg, Germany, as an “inspiring model”.

Most of the housing there is being produced by groups of self-builders, who have combined their finances to build apartment blocks of 12 to 20 households, he says, adding: “You get a diverse, eclectic mix of housing styles and tenures – for example, cooperative housing mixed in with private, individually commissioned homes. There is a great community spirit; it’s an intimately connected and very social environment, with a high level of trust.”

The Bartlett is playing its own part in the future of UK self-build, says Hamiduddin, with academics from different departments actively pressing for the delivery of new schemes to be included in the next generation of New Towns and Garden Cities.

The School of Planning is one of the leading research-led planning schools in Europe, offering a creative and stimulating environment to study the form, planning, design and management of cities, and to shape their future. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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