Is self-build an answer to the housing crisis?

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For some time, the government has often fallen short of its target of 300,000 new homes per year and we are now in a housing crisis where there are not enough homes to go around, thus driving prices up. So what can be done differently?

One of the advantages of being a university student is that I get to hear about some of the latest innovations being tossed around in different sectors. One such sector is architecture and some are asking what the future of housing may, or perhaps should, look like. An example of an innovation is the idea of self-building. This is where the person, family or community take control of the design, materials and labour of the houses they want and this can come in a variety of different ways. For instance, someone could order prefabricated panels or even rooms and have them transported to their site whilst someone else could follow the ‘Segal Method’ and build their home using panels of plywood you would buy from B&Q. But how does this different approach help in the current crisis?

An alternative to the ‘cookie-cutter’ developer model, this approach primarily promotes houses for people, not for profit. This helps consumers in the current crisis as the houses they would be building, or buying from the community, would be remarkably cheaper than the average. Another advantage of this method is that the house that one builds can suit one’s needs at any given time. For example, a family living in a self-build home could, when needed, extend their home, at no great relative cost or disruption, to accommodate the elderly members of their family. This is needed as the cost of social care is rising and people are living longer, thus this form of multi-generational housing could be a solution to both high social care costs and a housing crisis. Furthermore, this approach allows for a circular housing economy, whereby materials themselves can be deconstructed and reused at the end of the building’s life or use, allowing for the next person or family to use the land for their own home whilst the previous materials move on to where they are now needed.

However, there could be some problems on this new horizon. There will be the usual issues regarding planning permission, whether or not there is room, questions about whether or not they can be built on greenfield sites provided the materials are sustainable and so on. But there will also be practical issues around things like expertise, as there aren’t enough people in the UK that are ‘experts’ on this for it to be a national project, and the question of political will. The house building market is huge in the UK and I feel the market will lobby hard against the idea of self-building, which would potentially hurt their profits, and delay or even block any potential progress on this front.

In conclusion, this approach could be the answer to sustainability, affordability and family ambition when it comes to the topic of housing. But it will take time to get to the ideal outcome. Time, effort and a lot of debate. But I am for this. The green, clean housing machine that is self-build.

* Jack Lee-Brown is a student and a member of the Liberal Democrats

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  • I grew up in a self-build house in Newcastle between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s -part of an innovative scheme with many of the advantages that Jack Lee-Brown alludes to. It involved 32 men (16 tradesmen and 16 labourers) building 32 houses over three and a half years. My father was responsible for decorating and glazing every house. the story is told in “The self-build houses of Tudor Wynd” by Heaton History Group (try googling it!).
    The group paid for an architect and a tutorial from a scaffolder. Otherwise they did everything themselves in their spare time. Newcastle City Council provided fixed rate mortgages at 4% because they took 32 families off the Council House waiting list. And after completion when anyone wanted a job doing there was always someone obvious to turn to. I later came to regard “the scheme” as a co-operative Liberal alternative to private and public house building

  • Mick Taylor 20th Feb '24 - 1:13pm

    I built a house between 1977 and 1980 and did much of the work myself. Self build is extremely stressful and takes longer than you think. Some of the work I did, most notably electrical work, now must be done by a qualified person. Changes to insulation, solar panels, air or ground source heating and so on make the self-build concept much more difficult. The standards of insulation that I put into my house were way above the government’s standards of the time but are now inadequate. Jack is right. There have been many developments in house building since 1980, but nevertheless my warnings still stand. A self-build project near where I lived, was not completed by the original self-builders but finished by professional builders when the venture failed.
    New build is not always the answer. Town and city centres have flats above shops and empty offices that could become housing and there are factories and former industrial buildings that could be converted. We don’t need to encroach further into the green belt. The post war bulge (baby boomers like me) are now in their 70s and 80s and when we are gone houses, apartments and flats will be available
    Self build if you want to. Good luck. It almost destroyed my marriage, because working full time, being a district councillor, (and successfully fighting for re-election in 1980) raising my children and building a house, left me with no time apart from some brief hours of sleep.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Feb '24 - 3:41pm

    “Some of the work I did, most notably electrical work, now must be done by a qualified person.”
    If this refers to Part P electrical work a DIY person can do the work but must get it certified by someone qualified to do so.

  • Steve Trevethan 20th Feb '24 - 3:41pm

    Thank you for an innovative article!

    I too have worked on a self – build which was very successful. As neither of us had any expertise, part of a self-build day was driving around to find a building site which was at one stage further on than ours, taking notes and sketches, going back to site and replicating what we had seen/learned. All fruitful, hard work fun!

    However, might the causes of lack of housing, especially for the young and insufficiently paid, mainly be in the fields of finance?

    A currently dominant societal ethos is one of accepting the extraction of maximal money for rentiers and banks, to the cost of having everyone decently housed, heated and fed.

    Might our party loudly promote prosocial socio-economic practices and policies instead of reacting like a rabbit staring into the metaphorical headlights of the austerity/neoliberal ethos so energetically promoted by a largely callous main stream media?

  • Martin Gray 20th Feb '24 - 7:26pm

    ‘Is self build an answer to the housing crisis’…
    With over 1 million on the social housing register – not many would ever be in a position to undertake a self build project…Only state intervention not seen since the 50’s can make a dent in that register …Self build has it’s place – but as an answer to a crisis it obviously has significant limitations. Low pay & insecure work , stagnant wages , insecure private tenancies , unsustainable immigration, have all put huge pressure on the availability affordable rented accommodation…

  • Mick Taylor 20th Feb '24 - 8:02pm

    Nonconformistradical. In my building days all that was needed was for the electricity board to test the system before they connected it. In fact, the inspector put a very long security wire in the main board fuse so that I could remove it to do more work on the system!

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Feb '24 - 8:17pm

    @Mohammed Amin

    Believe it or not some local objections might actually be valid. Such as a proposal to build in an area which might increase flood risk. Do you propose to indemnify owners of existing or new properties in such an area if they are flooded? Potentially very expensive exercise.

  • I live in a house I designed and had built – the commonest way to achieve something much better than the market offers. It is very energy efficient and over the year a net exporter of electricity even though I have a EV charged at home. Every part of the system is against individuals doing this. Potential plots are rare and often don’t come to open market. LibDem and Tory councillors were campaigning against ‘garden-grabbing’ and infill sites, the planning officer didn’t like modern insulated render so it had to brick of her choosing, builders and various trades didn’t turn up so disrupting those booked to follow etc. The build ran over time and budget. It was extremely time consuming and stressful. I’m proud of the eventual result, but would never do it again.
    My local council is going to build a modest estate of ‘affordable’ houses and have budgeted £300,000 per unit just for the build costs. I don’t know where all that money is going, but two bedroom townhouses cost the builder under £100,000 each. We can surely do better.

  • The short answer is ‘no’. Self-build has a small place in the overall ‘landscape’ of housing supply, but it can never make a significant impact on the current housing shortage. It is limited to people with considerable enthusiasm, time, and probably capital – perhaps for a bespoke house, or for people already in the building trade.

  • Helen Dudden 21st Feb '24 - 11:20am

    Modular and sectional builds. It happened after the war very successfully.
    Economic migrants are part of the issues. I want the NHS back.

  • Jack Lee-Brown 21st Feb '24 - 2:30pm

    Thanks all for the comments and debate!
    It is clear that there is a split on the idea of self-build itself, one I completely understand so thank you for those insights.
    I do still feel, however, there is a place for it in the housing picture in the context of modular building.

    Thanks again 🙂

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