Self-build: Should people build their own homes?

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%.

House-building graphic

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?

A community self-build


Ashley Vale is a self-build neighbourhood in Bristol made up of around 40 homes built on a former scaffolding yard.

In the late 1990s the site was about to be sold to a volume housebuilder. But a group of likeminded local people persuaded the council to sell them the site instead, to develop as a self-build neighbourhood.

It now has 40 environmentally-sustainable homes, some of them built entirely by the residents, others put together by builders.

"For people to work around each other on the houses is an amazing way to create a community," says Jackson Moulding, a director of the Ashley Vale Action Group.

"There are conflicts but in the end it worked out well." The reward is getting the house you want at an affordable price, he says.

"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.

Start Quote

I love my home. I quite often look up and remember when we built that section”

End Quote Lynda Williams, self-builder

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."

Self-build action plan

  • Planners address self-build
  • Government land made available
  • Mortgage lending increased
  • £10m land fund

Source: NaSBA

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."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    80% of houses are self-build in Austria? Not as idyllic as it sounds!! In the countryside in Austria, young couples are given land on the family farm, they build with the help of neighbours (mainly through "cash in hand" payments) and it can take 10yrs to finish! Everyone else rents, for 20+yrs! When they can finally afford to, they build a house in their 40s and stay there until they die!

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Self builds could never solve the house shortage, but it is true that other countries do much better. An example is the town of Almere in the Netherlands where there are currently over 600 plots available from the council. Building/Eco controls are just as strict as in Britain.

    The difference is that there are plots available and within very broad boundaries almost any design is allowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    France has double the land mass of the UK and goodness only knows what the ratio is with Australia. Land is the biggest reason that we do not have as many self builders in the UK. Land owners want to achieve best value for their asset and they sell to the highest deliverable bid. Self build does not contribute to infrastructure and urban spaces either so who is responsible for place making?

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    The harsh reality is that significant cost and time overruns, not to mention stress, can occur often due to a lack of knowledge or information and on brownfield sites where ground conditions can be much more complex, or contamination is present, this can be prohibitive for a self build. I think this will always remain a niche market even for collective build projects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The answer is hinted at in the article. Local Authorites in urban areas need to develop zonal polcies which will require a percentage of all houses to be for self builders. These areas should be entirely self build, there should also be a mix of socailly rented accomidation & new build by a lead developer. There's loads of brownfield land avaliable , our housing densities are the lowest in Europe


Comments 5 of 10



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