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Build it yourself: a growing housing alternative

Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes

July 25, 2017
8 min read

Self-builders discuss their plans with architects. Photo: Martyn Holmes, Bunker Housing Co-op

In the 1980s, Kareem Dayes’ father, Dave, built his own home in Honor Oak, south London – benefiting from a remarkable social housing scheme which supported several dozen people on Lewisham Council’s housing list to construct their own homes, and earn a share in them in return for their labour.

Now those simple-but-beautiful wooden homes on the snaking, hilly lanes of Walter’s Way and Segal Close are mostly in private hands through the right-to-buy policy – and far from affordable, with one recently on offer for £800,000.

But Kareem is leading a new wave of self-builders who are aiming to construct homes that will remain affordable in perpetuity, with a 33-home development in the same London borough.

In the UK, only around 10 per cent of new homes are self-built. But with the housing shortage increasingly acute, many groups and local authorities around the country are looking to community self-build as a potential solution. Can it deliver?

Sweat equity

The Church Grove project in Lewisham that Kareem is leading, as chair of the Rural-Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS), is an ambitious, partially self-built, mixed-tenure, community-led development that will provide homes for 150 people.

Residents will be able to earn up to 20 per cent of the price of their home as ‘sweat equity’ – a discount on the price in return for the labour they put towards the build. Some flats will be available at a social rent, managed by the council, or affordable rent; others will be available as shared-equity and shared-ownership units.

In April 2016, RUSS signed a land agreement with the council for a peppercorn rent. Alex Madewell, 32, was one of those selected for a three-bed shared ownership home at Church Grove. ‘This is the only way we can afford to stay in London – my partner is from Lewisham, and we really want to stay around here,’ says Alex. ‘We’re going for the maximum share of self-building.’

After a longer-than-expected participatory design process – ‘We wanted to have residents involved from the very beginning,’ says Kareem – RUSS is set to submit the planning application in the coming months.

It will maintain a stake of at least 20 per cent in all the homes as a Community Land Trust, a non-profit community-based organisation run by volunteers for community benefit, which will allow them to ensure the homes remain affordable to those in need in perpetuity.

RUSS self-builders. Photo: Warwick Sweeney
The homes will be built to Passivhaus energy standards – seen as a gold standard for energy efficiency – and there will be some shared open space. Residents are strongly encouraged to take part in the self-build, which RUSS believes will help create a sense of community and residents’ control.

‘The enabling works, ground works, foundations and ground floor level platform will be constructed by a contractor,’ says Kareem. After that contractors will work on the project together with self-builders, ‘working in teams doing jobs in batches across the site’. Self-builders will sign contractual agreements with RUSS to deliver costed packages of work.

The group has received some grants, but while they have large loans in place for the main build – estimated to cost £6.2 million, with £1 million worth of self-build labour – they still have to raise the remainder of the £840,000 pre-development costs. This will get them past the design and planning permission stage, allowing them to access the larger loans and start on site.

Kareem says that the cost of finance and access to land are the main obstacles for groups like RUSS in providing affordable housing – and one of the reasons why offering rental options is difficult. While they have got the land cheaply from the council, this is largely because the site itself is in a flood risk area and needs de-contamination, and wouldn’t have been attractive to other developers.

Hands on

Small and tricky sites are an area where self-build offers potential: self-builders can be more nimble and are less reliant on an economy of scale. Making these plots available to self-builders can be a win-win for councils – bringing unused land into use, and delivering affordable housing at little or no cost.

Like the Church Grove project, the Bunker Housing Co-op in Brighton is planning a self-build project on a local authority site considered unattractive for commercial developers – in their case it is a small infill site with tight road access. The co-op is starting to build two three-bedroom homes this year.

The houses’ superstructures will be built using pre-fabricated, structural insulated panels, making the build itself easier, and members of the co-op will help in the building of each other’s homes.

Bunker are project-managing the build, and members will have hands-on involvement in most stages of the build, in particular carrying out most of the site clearance and the ‘second fix’ – including electrics, decorating, plumbing, carpentry and external cladding – with the supervision of professionals to certify the work. It’s ‘half-way from self-build to grand designs’ says co-op member Martyn Holmes on Bunker’s mixture of self-build and project management.

Because the homes will be available for a very affordable rent rather than as part-ownership, Bunker is unable to use a ‘sweat equity’ model, but what the self-builders will get out of it ‘is a house with cheap rent for as long as we want to live in it,’ says Martyn. The initial rent will be set at £175 a week, less than half of the average market rent locally.

Members of the co-operative must be on the local authority housing list, and the build will be 80 per cent funded by mortgages taken out by the co-op, and 20 per cent by the issuing of loan stock (a process by which co-operatives can raise money, similar to a company issuing shares).

The first houses will be open for members, whilst in the allocation of future houses – ‘we’d like to build 10 houses next time,’ says Martyn – both the housing co-op and Brighton & Hove Council will put forward several families for consideration. Whoever is chosen must be willing to take part in the organisation as a member of the co-op.

There is an additional benefit to this model, as housing co-ops, like community land trusts, are not subject to national right-to-buy legislation – and therefore the homes will remain affordable for future residents.

Scaling up self-build

When Dave Dayes built his Lewisham home in the eighties, he used the Segal method, designed to make it easy for self-builders, with basic woodwork skills and standardised planking.

Now the technology has advanced considerably. ‘With pre-fabricated materials, projects getting contractors in for groundwork, essential infrastructure and so on… it’s often become project-managing your own housing, like Bunker are doing,’ says Andrea Jones, who has a background in housing project management. She believes there is potential for self-build to deliver at scale and it needs to be given a chance.

Self-build projects can also give people new skills and confidence, as well as foster a sense of community – several including Canopy in Leeds and the prototype Protohome project led by Julia Heslop in Newcastle have worked with homeless people on self-build schemes.

However, using untrained builders can have its drawbacks. Habitat for Humanity, who partially self-built a number of conventional houses in Peckham in the nineties, found that financial savings from self-build labour were balanced out by the longer build and associated costs – though the sense of community it created still made it worthwhile.

Other projects have used design methods more tailored to self-build – whether the Segal method, or increasingly, prefab materials. RUSS intend to make self-builders more efficient by training them for specific tasks over a larger site; and Bunker benefit from having a number of members who have worked in building, and have chosen a design that fits the skills of their members, using many prefabricated materials.

There are other human challenges as well: ‘How does the person who needs access to housing release the time from their lives to spend time on this?’ asks Andrea.

But overall, self-build is an affordable, cost-effective way of building: ‘developers expect upwards of 20 per cent profit from their involvement – self-build takes them out of it, and then you’ve got a huge saving,’ says Andrea. The statistics do show astounding savings: self-build houses in the UK typically cost only 59 per cent of their final value.

These innovative projects under way suggest community self-build can play a part in addressing the need for affordable housing – but also that the growth of self-build projects is being held back by a lack of access to land and financial support.

A proper national strategy and funding for affordable housing is sorely needed – and self-build could form a part of this. As Andrea suggests, there are also opportunities for innovative local councils to help self-build now – circumventing restrictions on building for social housing and using their cheaper access to finance to support community groups who can build genuinely affordable housing.

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