Magazine

Self-build: Should people build their own homes?

  • 19 July 2011
  • From the section Magazine
  • comments
Spirit level

The government wants to double the number of people building their own homes. But is it wise to encourage the population to take up DIY housebuilding?

Programmes like Grand Designs tap into the desire to build your dream home. Now the government - keen to raise the stubbornly low housebuilding rate - wants to start "a self build revolution".

Housing Minister Grant Shapps will later this week launch an action plan to double the number of self-build homes within a decade.

In reality, few Britons follow the Grand Designs model. The show's creator Kevin McCloud argues that Britons buy houses like baked beans - as generic products from a developer's catalogue - rather than creating something that fits their lifestyle. But what exactly is self-build?

The term is something of a misnomer, admits Ted Stevens, chairman of the National Self Build Association, which drew up the action plan. "It suggests you're laying the bricks yourself. But the truth is that most self builders hire an architect and do a bit of decorating themselves."

Other countries are way ahead, he says. In Austria 80% of all homes are self-built. In Germany, France and Italy the figure is 60%. In the US and Australia it is over 40%. By contrast the figure for the UK is about 10%.

There's huge interest and growing demand, says Stevens. Over three million people watch Grand Designs, 100,000 subscribe to websites announcing available plots of land and a similar number buy self-build magazines. But only 13,860 built their own home last year. Why so few?

"It's really hard to get your hands on a plot of land," says Stevens. "The housebuilders are very nimble, always sniffing around to find a field that might one day get planning permission." The planning system also fails to take self-builders into account, he says.

Grant Shapps wants to make land and mortgage lending available to self-builders. The aim is to rebrand it from something for the wealthy over 50s and "bring the opportunity of self-building to the masses".

But this is unrealistic says Steve Turner, a spokesman for the Home Builders Federation. Self-build will never move beyond being a fringe activity for a committed few to something mainstream, he argues.

"Building a house is a very complex procedure from the planning stage, to designing the shell, to the electricity, plumbing and insulation. I wouldn't want to live in a house I'd built myself."

Because the self builder is the landowner, they are also liable for improvements to local infrastructure, a cost that would normally be borne by the housebuilder.

But overall, self-build saves money, supporters argue. The average new build home costs £189,940 compared to a self-build cost of £84,000 if you do the work yourself or £146,000 if you employ tradesmen to do it for you.

Lynda Williams was given a plot of land in mid Wales by her father. She didn't have the money to hire a project manager so ended up building it herself from a timber frame. It took eight months and meant putting it together in the evening after work.

The main motivation was getting value for money. Her mortgage was £110,000 but it is now valued at £260,000. In addition to the financial spin-off, there is an emotional payout from being connected to the design and construction of your home. "I love my home. I quite often look up and remember when we built that section."

Planners are supportive of the concept. But there's a danger that allowing people to start building their own homes en masse could leave a blot on the landscape, they warn.

"When you build a house you're creating an asset for a hundred years," says Hugh Ellis, chief planner at the Town and Country Planning Association. "The design is not just a matter of personal taste, it has an impact on the wider community."

He fears the government's deregulation of the planning service may allow self-builders to "stick two fingers up" at planning controls.

Poor design is not the real problem, says Edwin Heathcote, the Financial Times's architecture critic. "The mass housebuilders have done such an appalling job of despoiling the countryside. So from an aesthetic point of view self-builders can't do any worse and should be encouraged."

The trouble with self build is that it steers clear of city sites - where development is most sustainable - as few can afford the land prices there. Instead self-builders buy land outside cities, where they are reliant on cars, and use larger plots than necessary, encouraging suburban sprawl. "Although the idea of self-build is potentially quite hippyish, it's relatively unsustainable," Heathcote says.

The answer, he says is to do self-build on a collective level and create a new city development. One current scheme is Ashley Vale in Bristol where likeminded people came together to redevelop an inner city site.

It boils down to giving power to the individual, says Stevens. "You've found the site, specified to the architect what you want, decorated and landscaped. So it feels different to just turning up one day to the house and picking up the keys."