Self build the way forward for communities?

This is a picture of the Wintles development in Shropshire that is based on the principles set out in ‘A Pattern Language’. The houses were laid out in a master plan, but people have been involved in designing and building their own homes.

This is a set of new houses that have been built by a major house builder in the UK.

I think that it is clear that we are dealing with completely different types of development. One where there is time, thought and money investing in the home and another where most of process has been removed from the end user. In our convenience society it is no wonder that most people live in the latter type of property. However, if you talk to people about their ideal home, most would talk about building their own homes that meets their requirements, aesthetic values and standards. So why don’t we encourage self building?

The advantages of self building in Wales is especially important for the overall construction industry. Wales desire to be ahead of the game when building ‘Low’ carbon homes means that there is a need to embed skills and knowledge in companies. Major house builders cannot do this, as they only use small numbers of architects, designers and contractors, whilst more individual projects would help bring these skills to lots of smaller companies. So there is an industry argument for encouraging smaller companies to be involved more.

The major advantage, though, is that by allowing people to build their own homes, they will also build a more stable community. When there is buy-in to an area people will have more emotional and social links to the development. People will therefore look after the area as they have pride in it and also their home-for-life based in it. If a house is just another step up the property ladder there are fewer emotional ties to the building. This is probably the reason why new housing developments are seen as soul-less dormitory zones without any sense of community. Trying to create a sense of community by providing facilities like community and shopping centres is generally not very successful as there is no history of community in these newly created places. Communities are strange and mobile things that are notoriously difficult to define, but when they arise it tends to be driven by factors like: history of place and family; slow development over time; sense of belonging from residents; a level of social energy from residents to create change or maintain the status quo. So given that community is a social phenomenon, having a stable and committed population in an area are really important factors towards creating one.

The current Housing Minister is very supportive of self building, but the systems that exist in Government for disposing of land from public bodies is too restrictive. The system needs to be looked at to see if it would be possible to dispose of land in smaller plots to give people a chance to buy them. Most land sales come with some sort of master plan and / or conditions of sale, so in theory it should be possible to ensure that there is a percentage of land that is put over for self builds / co-housing projects etc. These slight changes might be a pain for the larger house builders, but it would make for better communities, more varied places and also help keep house values in the area.