Monday, October 31, 2005

Caspar: a Halloween nightmare

A flagship off-site construction project in Leeds is being evacuated because of fears it will blow down in high winds. Caspar (pictured here) was built in Leeds six years ago by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF): it was one of the first of the new wave of prefabricated housing projects which the government has been so keen to promote. Oh dear. Oh very, very, dear.

Where did it all go wrong, John?

One of the key selling points for using off-site construction methods is that the amount of snagging is minimised. The aim is to hand over the new building “defect-free.” No doubt when Japanese contractors Kajima handed over the 45 flats that make up Caspar to the JRF for them to rent out as affordable homes for swinging Leeds singletons, much was made of the advantages of all this.

But, according to a report in this week’s Building, something’s obviously been amiss there for a long time because Arup, our premier building consultants, were hired to look into things, and Arup have said “Yipes – get out of there before the next storm.” What they’ve actually said is that there is a 2% chance that the whole building will collapse in high winds. JRF have even admitted that, if the cost of repairing the fault is excessive, they will consider demolishing the whole structure.

Is this the beginning of the end for modern methods of construction, just as the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 marked the death-knell of system-build in the UK 40 years ago? It’s impossible to say. Caspar (stands for City-centre Apartments for Single People at Affordable Rents (neat or what!)) is just one of many such projects and, unlike Ronan Point, no one has been killed or even hurt. But the failure of Caspar does pose some very uncomfortable questions. Such as…

Why are so many of these schemes prototypes?

Why the curved roof? Doesn’t it look suspiciously like a wing!

Why the curved anything? I thought this was meant to be affordable housing.

Is this stuff really so very different to the 60s tower blocks?

Is it a design failure or is it, yet again, a workmanship issue?

This project was actually conceived as half-modular, half-flat pack. It was designed by Levitt Bernstein, an architects’ practice at the forefront of the new social housing, and factory-built by Volumetric in Bedfordshire. The superstructure was erected in less than three weeks. Each flat is 51m2 and cost £68.6k to build. That’s a typical outcome for these schemes. In other words, they are rather more expensive than conventional builds. They would become cheaper if we built thousands of them but we don’t. Every scheme is different. Every architect has a different spin to put on the concept of off-site construction.

And now here, in the brave new world of modular construction, we have an award-winning scheme about to be condemned.


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why timber frame isn't always quicker

One of the biggest questions every would-be selfbuilder has to address is whether to go brick and block or timber frame. For me, it’s something of a hoary old chestnut, having built using both methods and having been writing articles around this issue for many years. You’d think I’d have pretty set views by now but I don’t. Partly this reflects my tendency towards hopeless prevarication in all things, but it’s also undoubtedly because it’s a question with no easy answers.

However, a site visit this week to a timber frame house in Cambridgeshire gave me pause to think afresh about the issue. This was a site in a conservation area and that meant that there were some quite prescriptive design guidelines: basically it had to match up to the house next door, which was a detached vaguely-Georgian style brick house under a slate roof.

However the new house design was L-shaped, a stepped L-shape no less. What I mean by that is that it consisted of a main rectangular-shaped box (or aisle) of two storeys, with a single storey rear extension. My attempt at the relevant 3D house design is pictured here ( permitting). A common enough house layout, you’d think. And you’d be right.

The junction of the two parts of the house is what I wish to draw your attention to. It’s referred to as an abutment. However you do it, it causes problems because there are waterproofing details to be made between the wall of the main aisle and the roof of the extension. Lead flashings have to be fitted over the junction and the wall cavity has to have an effective barrier laid across it in order to drain any cavity water out onto the extension roof. If not, you risk the cavity draining directly down into the house below the junction. Messy.

The subject of cavity barriers can wait for another article. What I am driving at here is the disruptive effect this all has on the construction of a brick-clad timber framed house. On a simple rectangular-shaped house, or even a more complex one, as long as it has a single eaves level all the way around, the brick cladding is taken off the critical path and can be completed at leisure after the framers have departed. Indeed it can go on simultaneously with the roof covering and the fit out inside.

However, split the roof levels like this and the brick wall of the main aisle has to be completed before the extension roof can be covered over. Indeed, on the site I was on, space had to be left for the brickies to have access to the wall, which was being built-up off a steel beam over the opening. Not even the extension roof carpentry could be completed.

Result? Weeks had been lost waiting on the brickies. The roofers had been in and finished the main aisle but had to return for another visit to cover the extension. The scaffolding was gently racking up hire charges. The house could not be effectively waterproofed, let alone secured. All the supposed speed of construction advantages, which timber frame sells itself on, had been lost. In fact it would probably have been quicker to use brick and block on this house.

Had it been such, you would not have noticed that there was a problem here because the roof carpentry wouldn’t have started on either roof until the brickies had got to eaves level all around. And had the external skin been anything other than brick (or stone), the wall above the extension roof could have been finished off at leisure off some form of adapted scaffolding. Boarding, render on mesh, hung tiles, all fine: they are hung off the timber frame and wouldn’t disrupt the critical path. But bricks? They have to sit on something, be it a steel or a foundation: they can’t be ‘hung’ off the background timber frame and they can’t be built-up off the roof cover. So bricks have to be in place before the extension roof cover can be laid.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere. To simplify it right down to basics, despite what the salespeople say, bricks really do work best with blocks behind them. And timber frame is really seen at its best when it’s clad in something other than brick or stone.


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ground source heat pumps

The ten-year payback is here

One of the things 2005 will be remembered for is oil prices. We’ve seen the biggest hike in prices since the 1970s and the signs are that it’s not about to come back down anytime soon, if ever. Oil is the key in determining all energy prices and if the oil price heads north, then sure enough, gas and electricity will follow along in due course. But how soon, and by how much?

It’s a subject I turned my attention to last week as I sought to update my now hopelessly inadequate table on comparative heating costs, on p208 of the 6th edition. This is a key table in my book, the one that is designed to be used to make that all-important decision about how a new house should be heated. The one currently in print is based on an oil cost of 19.5p/lt (equivalent to 1.9p/kWh), a mains gas cost of 1.5p/kWh and an electricity cost of 6.5p/kWh. Yet my last tank of oil cost 34p/lt, a 75% increase.

LPG, which tracks the oil price quite closely, is up by a similar percentage, so it remains about 30% more expensive than oil. But price rises in gas and electricity are much more muted. Making direct comparisons is not easy because of the opening up of the market to dozens of suppliers, each with their own tariffs and payment terms, but the basic drift is that gas is up to around 1.8p/kWh, a 20% rise, whilst electricity still seems to be widely available for under 7p/kWh. Energy analysts seem to think that significant price rises are about to come through in these markets but they haven’t happened yet.

So what effect will this have on comparative heating costs? Mains gas will continue to be a no-brainer for home heating, if you have access to it. But a large proportion of selfbuilds don’t and here the equations are changing. In my last edition, published late 2004, oil only narrowly beat electric ground source heat pumps (GSHP) over a 20-year timespan.

The equation isn’t difficult. The GSHP costs around twice as much to install as an oil boiler plus tank but is cheaper to run because it creates around three to four units of heat for every unit of electricity burned. With oil prices at 2004 levels, it took around 20 years to recover your investment in GSHP: but with current oil prices, this payback time has fallen to less than ten years. In addition to this, the installation prices of oil boilers and tanks is set to get more expensive (though admittedly more efficient) as new legislation takes effect, whilst the market for GSHP is expanding so rapidly that prices seem to be becoming keener. Plus GSHP is still eligible for the Clear Skies grant, worth £1200.

GSHP comes with a couple of other plus points. You don’t have an unsightly oil tank in your garden and the equipment is silent and has no flue. On the minus side, it works most efficiently at heating water to relatively low temperatures, such as you would use with underfloor heating (usually 55°C). It does therefore require a good-sized hot water tank to have a decent buffer of hot water on site. And it requires garden space of at least three times the heated footprint: thus if you are hoping to heat a 150m2 house, you will need 450m2 of garden in which to run the pipe.

Currently domestic heating oil is around half the price of electricity in the UK market. If this ratio holds, then GSHP will be the heating system of choice for all new off-mains gas homes. Oil heating systems will only regain their competitive advantage if the price differential returns to its historical 1:3 ratio (oil:electricity). For that, we would need to see electricity prices rising to around 10p/kWh, or oil prices falling back to 2004 levels.


Friday, October 21, 2005

Importing Homes from N America

I'm looking at importing a house from America. Has anyone out there done this? Do you have any company sites or contacts that export to the UK?

You will find that many custom build companies in both continental Europe and N America are more than willing to build a house in the UK or Ireland.

Having said that, the ones that build the most are the ones that have local contacts on the ground over here. The Americans have proven rather poor at this - they build when they are asked but they don't put any effort into export or marketing. The Canadians are much more proactive - they took a large chunk of floorspace at Interbuild in 2004 for instance - and many of their custom builders are excellent. I have seen the results of two; Allouette who are building in West Malling in Kent for Sunley Homes, and Interhabs from Nova Scotia who have been building in Co Mayo and around Inverness (pictured here). Interhabs, I know for sure, are looking for individual custom builds. Find out more from Plus the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar is such that they are almost certainly going to offer better value than their neighbours to the south.

Alternatively, there are a number of UK builders who make a thing of building in the N American styles. Tim Crump of TJ Crump Oakwrights is an enthusiastic student of N American (and German) housebuilding methods and has recently completed a few N American style homes.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My wife wants an Aga - help!

Edward asks:

My wife and I have recently bought a one-acre plot near Cambridge and have just started getting quotes for the timber frame. I'm also shopping around for everything else. One of the things on the list is an Aga.

My wife would `loooooove' to have an Aga, but this would mean I will have to build another chimney, and my concern is that as we are building a small 3-bed cottage an Aga will be too hot. Our house will be extremely well insulated and have under floor heating. I wonder if having an Aga will mean we have to leave the windows and doors open!!

What are your views about Agas?

Mark replies:

The Aga stands head and shoulders above all other gender issues in selfbuild land. 95% of women aspire to owning one, 95% of men just don't get it. I have seen many an otherwise well-thought out ecologically-slim footprint completely blown out of the water by a shiny new £5,000 Aga in the kitchen. Indeed I suspect that there are many husbands who have only managed to persuade wives to go through the four years of chaos and upheaval it takes to selfbuild by using the promise of an Aga in the kitchen at the end of it all. It's a powerful, if expensive, seduction tool, the ultimate selfbuild babe magnet. If it's the price it takes to get a selfbuild off the ground, maybe it's a price worth paying.

As a man, I am one of those who just don't get it. I have cooked in houses with Agas and about the best thing you can say for them is that they are quaint. But as a man, "What do I know?" as the current saying goes. Yes, the Aga will definitely be too hot for a three-bed cottage, but what’s logic got to do with it.

However I have to hand a possible cure, sent to the selfbuild list by Roger Browne, in Feb 2001. Show it to your wife: she won’t thank you for it, but it's the only known treatment for Agaphilia and it just might make a difference. However, be warned, there are sometimes some unexpected side effects for which the best treatment is Mercury - the range cooker, that is.

One of the prime pieces of self-build techno-lust seems to be an Aga cooker. I bought a house that happened to have one, and my advice is:
• don't bother.

Let's recall the history. Back in the days when a coal stove took hours to light and get going, the Aga would have been a godsend. A slow steady burn, 24 hours per day, produced heat which was stored in the body of the oven for use at cooking time. You "only" had to fill it with coal everyday, and turn the riddling handle twice daily.

If you are stuck with coal, I can see the value of an Aga. But if you are cooking with gas, what's the point?

I've had to live with the damn thing for a year now, and have formed the opinion that an Aga is useless apart from its value as a status symbol. It does impress the visitors - but that's not something I care about.

Consider this:

• An new Aga costs around £5,000, including installation. Even an old used one is, say, £1,500. On the other hand, for under a thousand pounds you can get some really nice gas ranges.

• The Aga needs a flue; most gas ranges don't.

• The Aga burns gas night and day, whether you need it to or not. In winter the "wasted" warmth is useful to heat the house; in summer it's like taking a match and burning a pound note every day (if you live in Scotland that is; in England you have to try to burn pound coins).

• In summer you can either open your kitchen windows wide, or turn off the Aga. Then you need a second stove for summer cooking (and many Aga owners do install a second stove for summer).

• If you go away for a holiday, and switch off your Aga, you can't cook with it for a day or so after you get back and switch it on, and it warms up.

• The Aga is supposed to be serviced every six months. Aga servicing costs a fortune. And you have to have the Aga cold for the service engineer. So that's another day or two without cooking every six months.

• If you buy an Aga more than a few years old, it probably has asbestos rope insulation in the lids (newer models have ceramic insulation).

• When you lift the lid, children can't see any indication that the plate is hot, and horrendous burns can result.

• For effective cooking, you need very thick solid cookware with flat machined bottoms. This is the very same criticism that gas snobs make of electric stovetops, yet the Aga has the same problem.

• The flat-bottomed cookware that comes with many used Agas is machined aluminium. Aluminium cookware is one of the suspected triggers for Alzheimer's disease.

• The cook plates have no temperature control. You have to work with what you've got. Sure, you can follow the instructions in the user manual and shuffle your pot half-on-half-off the cook plate. What a fiddle!

• The cook plates are large. Whilst you can juggle two pans on one cook plate, it’s hard to do this satisfactorily. Whether you have one or two pans on it, large amounts of heat are still wasted from the uncovered parts of the surface.

• The cook plate temperature drops during a heavy cooking session. When my wife boils up a batch or marmalade, we always end up finishing it off in the microwave because by then the Aga has lost too much heat.

• Sure, you can do other things with the Aga apart from cook. The Aga instruction manual suggests such bizarre rituals such as ironing clothes with it! It can be useful for drying clothes on top - but of course that's only if you don't want to actually use the thing for cooking at the same time.

• The ovens have no temperature control. OK, there are ways to adapt for that. "You just have to get to know your Aga" say some. Yes, there are workarounds for its quirks. The Aga cookbook is full of Aga versions of recipes. They can take a very simple conventional recipe ("Cook for two hours at 200 degrees C") and turn it into a major epic ("Put on the boiling plate for ten minutes. Cover and move to the simmering plate for 30 minutes. Transfer to a shallow pan and leave it in the simmering oven overnight. Finish off with 45 minutes in the baking oven before serving.") Gimme a break!

• The oven has no timer. You can't just set it to cook your supper in time for your arrival home. Even a £179 B&Q cheapie oven can do that kind of thing!

• There's no window on the oven door. You can't see how your cooking is browning, unless you keep opening the door to check.

• The airflow from the oven is up the flue - there are no baking smells in the kitchen to guide you to when something is "just right". Best way to cope is to go and do some gardening downwind of your chimney. You then have some chance of noticing when it is about to burn.

• Nothing is simple. You can't just "bake a cake" if you have the two-oven Aga. You either have to buy a special cake-baking accessory (I think it's an insulated container), or else you can follow some bizarre instructions to boil away three pans of water on the boiling plate so that you have reduced the temperature of the oven by enough to enable you to bake a cake. Really!

• The Aga can also heat your hot water. In summer, and in winter too, if you don't do too much cooking or use too much hot water or chant the wrong mantras (or expect to get the same efficiency as a boiler).

• Even the smaller Aga takes up much more space than a gas range. You really do have to allow for a bigger kitchen - which adds to your housebuilding costs.

• You also have to lay concrete reinforcement. You can't just put an Aga on a kitchen floor and expect to have any kitchen remaining afterwards.

Yeah, I really love my Aga!

OK, I know all of this is sacrilege to the true believers amongst you.
But when I get around to re-doing the kitchen, one thing is for sure -
the Aga will be sold to the highest bidder.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Planning revolution or planning quagmire?

Radical changes to the process of planning were announced with great fanfares by New Labour over three years ago and they have been consistently watered down ever since. The Government initially said that it was going to speed up decision-making and overhaul the whole thing; it was billed as the Reform of the Planning System, introducing the most radical changes since 1947. The Nimby lobby were so anxious they complained that it was a sell-out to developers. They need not have worried. The System is still pretty much the same, except slower, more legalistic and bureaucratic than ever before.

The existing planning policy framework of regional policy guidance, structure plans and local plans has been swept away and replaced with something uncannily similar! Now we have a Regional spatial strategy’s, which sits above the remaining County Council planning functions, at the District or Unitary level the local plan is now called the Local Development Framework. This framework is a bunch of different documents which will include a core strategy, a document containing related site-specific housing and industrial allocations, one for development control policies and one for more short lived action plans. The idea is that these will be are loose-leaf folder so they can be taken in and out willy-nilly, thus being much faster and effective as a local planning process. Slight flaw in this logic, there will be consultation with everyone you can (or they can) think of at just about every stage. Of course local planning policies involve the same hard and unpopular decisions and raise the same controversial issues as ever. But with more public consultation and more stages in the process there is now even more scope for local politicians to prevaricate and professional objectors to object. No one that I have spoken to within the industry expects this new kind of local plan to create faster decisions or any more certainty that the old system. A crucial difference is that whereas the previous local plan system was a rolling programme every five years, the new system will just be permanently ongoing. Perhaps more importantly local authorities had the final say in their old local plans but now the government inspectors recommendations will be binding. So the net result is a centralisation of power at every point and at every level.

Meanwhile in the real world of trying to get planning permissions to build things the old local plans are frozen wherever they happen to be on the road to adoption and will steadily become more out of date and less relevant. Meanwhile government policy itself becomes the most important and influential factor. I think that the decreased influence and reduction in real power available to local authorities is being expressed by an increasing number of planning appeals. As local authorities refuse more and more proposals applicants almost routinely now just refer the decision to central government, in the form of the Independent Planning Inspectorate.

Local authority influence on real planning policy and what happens in their district is being reduced; as a result they seem to be becoming increasingly focused on the minutiae and petty details of new developments. Micromanagement in planning is becoming an art in itself, with armies of junior planning officers imposing their idea of taste on hapless homeowners and developers. English law used to be based on the principle that you are free to do what you are not specifically prohibited from doing, but this seems to be ebbing away.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office has just published more detail on some of the changes to the current planning system and they demonstrate quite well the way the wind is blowing in the world of planning.

An example is the limitation now placed on the number of refusals that can be issued before you're forced to appeal. In the past there was no limit to the number of refusals you could clock up on a site. But now if a similar proposal is refused twice within two years and no Appeal is lodged the local authority can ‘decline to determine’ any more similar applications. Although this sounds simple it could have big implications. If you try and negotiate an approval by making minor amendments (compromises) in order to satisfy the planners they can simply turn around and refuse to make a decision on the third application you submit. And there is no appeal against this other than via the courts.

Another change is to the length of time planning consent lasts for. Planning permissions have generally lasted five years, since the system was introduced in 1947. For no apparent reason this has now been reduced to three years. This means that outline planning applications will also now expire after three years if the reserved matters (detailed plans) are not agreed. The net result of this change is just to increase bureaucracy.

In an attempt to speed up the bureaucracy of planning another of the changes may do exactly the opposite. When a planning application is submitted various organisations are consulted, for example this might include the Environment Agency or English Heritage. They have always been under pressure to respond quickly, but now this has become a legal requirement within 21 days. But a response can be as simple as a standard holding objection or request for more information, it does not need to be an answer. So in the cause of meeting targets this new power will just slow the system down as more letters are sent, simply to meet the targets – rather than achieve a result.

To sum up, these changes just tinker with the existing system and make it more complicated and slower, good news for the consultants and unemployed planners but a bit of pain for everybody else!

Ken Dijksman is an independent self employed planning consultant with
extensive experience in both public and private practice. He may be contacted by email at

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Which selfbuild mag?

Dean Barrett asks:

I am considering a selfbuild having nearly completed a general overhaul of our 1960's bungalow. I want to start by reading magazines, and the three I have found on google are:

Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine
SelfBuild & Design Magazine
Build It Magazine

I assume they are all covering the same ground, but wonder which is best?

Peter White reckons:
My favourite (and I think the most popular) is HomeBuilding & Renovating; that said, they repeat the same old stuff every 12 months, so I mainly use it as a source for adverts these days.

Of course, book-wise you must read the Housebuilder's Bible, of all the books that I read on self-building (and there's a lot of them) this was by far the most practical, and therefore useful.

Housebuilder's Bible author Mark Brinkley adds:

Thanks for that Pete. Little bit of background on the magazines. Let me first declare an interest. I have been a regular contributor to HomeBuilding & Renovating since 1997 so my comments are perhaps not as impartial as they might be. Nevertheless…

Build It was the original selfbuild mag, started in the late 80s and was for many years the undisputed No 1. It organised a major exhibition each year at Ally Pally and had dozens of little regional shows. HomeBuilding & Renovating was originally called Individual Homes and started shortly after Build It. It took a dozen years, but gradually HomeBuilding & Renovating overhauled Build It in terms of sales, content, photography and advertising. Whilst Build It's exhibitions dried up after 2001, HomeBuilding & Renovating has become undisputed selfbuild exhibition kingpin: it now puts on six exhibitions each year, the next being at Harrogate Nov 4-6, the largest being in March at the NEC. Build It in contrast has rather lost its way since being sold to Mirror Group in the late 90s. In contrast, HomeBuilding & Renovating has pretty much the same crew running it since inception and it shows - many of the staff have selfbuilt and most of the writers know at least something of what they are writing about.

Which leaves Selfbuild & Design, which is a latecomer, having been going since 1998. It's usually a pretty good read, not quite so polished as HomeBuilding & Renovating, but frequently something of interest in each issue, although it has a lot less advertising which, as Pete notes, is often one of the more useful resources in a magazine.

In fact for such a relatively small segment of the market, selfbuild is well served with magazines. Professional housebuilders have just one, the NHBC's house mag Housebuilder; jobbing builders have the freebie Professional Builder, given away at the counter in Jewsons and Travis, architects have a few like the AJ and Building Design, and "serious construction professionals" have Building. You might also look at the magazine from the AECB called Building for a Future, which has some interesting stuff on environmental issues related to construction and often features an eco-home or two.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

How to organise groundworks

Darren Livesey asks:

I have a simple question, I think?

At the groundworks stage of a build, how do people decide where everything is going? I have an overall plot drawing to scale, which was needed for outline planning permission. Is it now up to me to tell the groundworker where to lay the services, drains etc and can he simply just work from my instructions and the overall plot drawing?

What will he need for the foundations - does this come in the form of a building regs drawing? It is all very confusing and seems rather daunting. We also need a pumping station installing as the house is lower than the private foulwater sewer. Who designs this? Can I just tell the groundworker to put it "there" for instance? I think I am getting confused with what the architect requires for submitting to building control and what the groundworker "works" off.

Housebuilder's Bible author Mark Brinkley reckons:

A few brave souls decide to build off planning permission drawings, but it's really not to be recommended, esp. if you have never done it before. It would be a bit like setting out to drive from Aberystwyth to Hunstanton with nothing but postcard of Hunstanton pier to guide you. You need a map.

The groundworker will do what you tell him to: he may get it right, he may not. If it's wrong, it will be up to you, not him, to rectify it. What you need is a load more drawings and a few specifications. Normally these form part of a building regs application. In the vernacular of the building trade, "the job needs to be specked up." First the house needs to be detailed so you at least know the dimensions and locations of the walls, and you need to decide which ones will be load bearing. Someone, usually the architect, has to do this work: it's absolutely standard practice. Only then can you proceed to a foundation/floor design, also usually carried out as part of the specking up. The drains and services should also be detailed
with reference to the house layout (where are the bathrooms?) and the site levels. You may find that the drainage suppliers will do this work for you for free, if you supply them with levels and a detailed floor plan.

Then you proceed to the setting out stage where you, in effect, transfer the details from the drawings onto the ground. Then when the groundworker comes to do his stuff, it's all a bit like painting by numbers. He has not so much a map as a paper trail guiding him where to go. It's also much faster, and much less prone to error. Believe me, when the excavators start moving earth around, you really don't want to be guessing where the wall should be or where the pumping station should be going.

• We also need a pumping station installing as the
• house is lower than the private foulwater sewer. Who designs this -
• can I just tell the groundworker to put it "there" for instance?

The position of the pumping station will be partly governed by building regs - Part H covers this in England & Wales - and partly by common sense. There will be a minimum distance you will have to place it from the house (I seem to remember it's 4.5 m min): after that it's up to you and your designer/groundworker. The building inspector will advise.

Don't rush. Remember that every hour spent in preparation saves at least three spent snagging at completion.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Selfbuild at a crossroads

Whilst selfbuild is now fated on TV and in the press and has become an aspiration for hundreds of thousands of people, the supply of land needed to keep the ball rolling is in danger of drying up because government policy is set against low density housing.

As recently as 1997, 47% of all new homes were detached. By 2004, it was just 19%. This startling turnaround has been entirely due to changes in planning policies, resulting in hundreds of Poundbury-style high density housing sites springing up across the country. Whilst the demand for these new homes remains reasonably strong, nobody is complaining too loudly.

But in killing off the sterile and little loved “executive housing” estates, the new planning policies also threaten to stop the flow of innovative and experimental homes being built by today’s selfbuilders.

One of the side-effects of the new planning regime is to increase demand for single building plots. This, in turn, makes the whole process of homebuilding more expensive and results in the build budgets being cut. You already have to be fairly well-off to afford to buy building land: soon only the very rich will be able to build interesting houses on these plots.

Contrast this with the situation in the rest of Europe where land is often set aside specifically for selfbuild schemes, which most people regard as a sensible use of rural resources. Even in the more densely populated areas like Germany and the Benelux countries, you will regularly come across building plots for sale for the same price as a large car. In stark contrast, building plots fetch rather more than the cost of an average house in SE England. The painful truth is that the more we spend on the land, the less we have to spend on the building and as a result most of our designs and our building methods are decades behind what has been happening elsewhere. Whilst we seem to be collectively mesmerised by the gleaming efficiency of German-import Huf Haus, who have now built around 50 houses in Britain, the reality is that is how 30% of all houses are built in Germany.

The nearest we come to factory-made houses is our native timber-frame industry, which supplies just the skeleton of the house. In Scotland, where land is relatively cheap, it’s taken off in a big way and accounts for nearly two thirds of all new homes and an even higher percentage of selfbuilds. Scotland also has an extremely well-developed selfbuild infrastructure with hundreds of businesses competing to design, finance, insure selfbuilds, besides actually building them.

South of the border, the situation is rather more piecemeal. In areas where land is less expensive, selfbuild flourishes as a viable alternative route onto or up the housing ladder for people on ordinary incomes. But as you get nearer to London and land prices escalate, “normal” selfbuild, as practiced in the rest of the world becomes impossible. Virgin plots with road frontage are now very rare and what we are now seeing is that the majority of single plots coming to market have been formed by the subdivision of large gardens.

Whether this on-going densification of our villages and suburbs is something future generations will thanks us for is doubtful. This process is a direct consequence of the pressure, coming from amenity groups such as the Council for Preservation of Rural England, not to release greenfield sites around villages. But the side-effect of this policy is to destroy the siting and integrity of much of our most cherished housing stock by cutting swathes through long-established gardens and erecting fenced off entrances to backland development. Currently, this is only way that the huge pent-up demand for single building plots can be met.

Selfbuild should form part of the very backbone of rural life, enabling communities to grow organically from within rather than by having alien estates grafted onto them by master planners and national developers. But today planning matters are all dealt with by remote local authority offices whose wishes are, in any event, increasingly being overruled by central government. Selfbuild as an aspiration has taken root with the British public: but for that aspiration to become reality for more than a few, government needs to recognise that it has the potential to become a significant contributor to our future housing stock, as it is in most western countries.

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