Blog: Seven steps to self build heaven, by Ted Stevens.

Ted Stevens. Credit - Ted Stevens.
Ted Stevens. Credit - Ted Stevens.

Ted Stevens is a former journalist. He trained on Building Design, was editor of Planning and he launched Energy in Buildings. During his journalistic career he was voted RIBA Architectural Writer of the Year and RICS Specialist Property Journalist of the Year. He built his own home in 2003-2004, and shortly afterwards he set up and chaired the National Custom and Self Build Association. He was awarded an OBE in 2014 for his work promoting the self build sector. In the following blog, ted offers up his top tips to self builders.

Anyone who has seen the range and scale of innovative self build housing across other countries is usually inspired. And baffled. Inspired by what they routinely achieve (they construct four to five times as many self built homes as we do.) Baffled by our inability to do the anything similar at scale here. So what’s the answer? What do we need to do if we really want to make a quantum leap forward for self build housing in the UK?

In Hamburg there are many examples of collective self build projects. Credit - Ted Stevens.
In Hamburg there are many examples of collective self build projects. Credit – Ted Stevens.

Political vision, bravery and leadership are vital. Many of the most impressive European self build developments only happened because they were championed by the local Mayor, or a senior politician (eg Almere, Strasbourg). There is evidence that similar champions are having a real impact in the UK too (eg Bicester, Teignbridge). We need hundreds of council leaders to make a leap of faith and back the growth of the sector.

 This development in Hamburg was commissioned by three groups – one for young families, one for single elderly women and one for people with dementia. Credit - Ted Stevens.
This development in Hamburg was commissioned by three groups – one for young families, one for single elderly women and one for people with dementia. Credit – Ted Stevens.

Demand is God. The new Registers that are now being set up will make or break the sector. If council leaders see thousands of people registering they will have to take action (as their chances of re-election could be threatened). If only a handful of people register politicians will ignore self build. If the polls are to be believed millions should register; it’s vital that the sector encourages as many people as possible to put their names down.

The Nieuw Leyden project in Holland has created around 700 new homes. Compact building plots here cost about £75,000 each. Credit - Ted Stevens.
The Nieuw Leyden project in Holland has created around 700 new homes. Compact building plots here cost about £75,000 each. Credit – Ted Stevens.

Seeing is believing. Its easy to flick-read a glossy self build magazine, or a website and admire images of wonderful projects from overseas. And it’s just as easy to dismiss this as something that wouldn’t work here. There is no substitute for taking people to see innovative self build projects, and to meet the families who have made them happen; people then recognise that they can do something similar here. The sector needs to organise regular trips to Almere, Leiden, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Tubingen, Strasbourg and other innovative locations for politicians, the media, community organisations, planners, housing associations, and developers – to convince them that we can do it in the UK too.

The Alte Weberei project in Tubingen provides a wide mix of self build opportunities at scale – for groups, individuals, medium earners and those on lower incomes. Here around 25 groups have built hundreds of wonderful new homes. Credit - Ted Stevens.
The Alte Weberei project in Tubingen provides a wide mix of self build opportunities at scale – for groups, individuals, medium earners and those on lower incomes. Here around 25 groups have built hundreds of wonderful new homes. Credit – Ted Stevens.

Don’t re-invent the wheel; use the proven processes that work in Europe. Most other countries are twenty years ahead of us and, over the decades, they’ve tried numerous approaches and refined them, so the processes they use now really work. We just need to import the same processes and apply them here. A good example is the way they allocate land for group self builds; a portion of all major housing sites is often reserved for groups, it is sold at a fixed price (usually the going market rate), groups are given time to work out what they want to build, and they are selected based on the best concepts that are submitted (not the highest price, or the whizziest design). The result is much better place making and stronger community cohesiveness, real innovation and – usually – incredibly good eco standards. What’s not to like?

 The Vinderhoute cohousing project in Belgium – scores of similar collective housing projects are underway across Belgium. Credit - Ted Stevens.

The Vinderhoute cohousing project in Belgium – scores of similar collective housing projects are underway across Belgium. Credit – Ted Stevens.

Trust people. In the UK we have a tendency to micro-manage everything. In Europe they produce simple design codes that clearly explain the rules on two sides of A4; here we prefer to produce a document the size of War and Peace, that only seasoned property professionals can decipher. We need to stop over-complicating the process of building a home. Of course the home needs to comply with building regulations and some key planning principles – but we have to make the process simple and easy; not scary and torturous.

A condemned block of apartments in Amsterdam has been remodelled by a local comment group to create more than 500 low cost ‘shell’ that self builders can finish off themselves. Credit - Ted Stevens.
A condemned block of apartments in Amsterdam has been remodelled by a local comment group to create more than 500 low cost ‘shell’ that self builders can finish off themselves. Credit – Ted Stevens.

Remember, land is the key. Only one in a hundred would-be self builders currently manages to construct a home – mainly because they can’t get their hands on a plot of land that they can afford. So everything councils do should be geared to releasing land that is reserved for self build and/or facilitating ready-to-go serviced plots. A reasonably priced serviced plot makes self build easy.

Almere has provided thousands of opportunities for individuals and groups to build. Credit - Ted Stevens.
Almere has provided thousands of opportunities for individuals and groups to build. Credit – Ted Stevens.

The financial world needs to step up to the plate. At present most self builders have to source their mortgage from one of a handful of local building societies. The interest rates they pay, and the arrangement fees mean they are often more expensive. And currently there’s not really much competition. The big banks and building societies are now circling, and showing genuine interest in developing new products to meet the needs of the sector. This interest needs to be built upon so that more affordable/appropriate financial products are available in the near future. And new products are urgently needed to serve those self builders who want to build collectively.

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