Jack Wooler speaks to Andrew Baddeley-Chappell, CEO of the National Custom and Self Build Association, on why England lags behind the developed world on levels of self-build, and what can be done
Self- and custom-build homes make up around 40 per cent of new homes throughout the developed world, yet in England, they count for just 5 per cent. England’s housing market has had its long-term issues in many regards, but one that is less understood than most is the lack of custom and self-build homes.
With shows like Grand Designs dominating the field for creating aspiration to get involved, many are led to believe that self and custom building is about expensive, often life-consuming feats of architectural achievement.
While of course this can often be true, the industry offers a whole range of options – which don’t always come at a premium.
Andrew Baddeley-Chappell, CEO of the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA), has been fighting to educate and support people in their journey into the sector. He explained to me that at its heart, self and custom build is nothing more than giving buyers the agency they get in any other purchase.
Andrew admits there can be confusion about the difference between self- and custom-builds, and what each method actually entails.
“Broadly,” he explains, “self build is about a home on an individual plot, and custom-build is building on a site where there are many different plots available, and typically where there’s a ‘custom build enabler’ who lays out the site, prepares the roads, gets services installed to the plot and sets out how the house must be built – but still leaving the customer with the choice of house that will reside in their plot.”
He describes a custom-build ‘home park’ in Frankfurt, Germany, as a “kind of house supermarket,” showcasing over 70 different homes in one place. Visitors can enjoy a meal, then view the options, and discuss with the manufacturers how designs can be tweaked to meet individual needs.
“At its heart,” says Andrew, “this customer choice is what custom and self build is really all about.” He adds however that trying to get people to understand this is one of the biggest challenges for the sector currently.
“It’s a problem that just doesn’t exist in every other developed country in the world, where it’s just a normal part of how houses are built.”
In most other consumer markets, it’s a given that customers are given choice and agency. Andrew uses car sales of the past as an analogy here for the current UK homebuying situation: “In many ways, building a home is like how buying a car used to be; you’d go along to a garage and choose a car that’s already there – but around 20 years ago manufacturers realised they could sell so much more by letting the customers tell them them what they wanted, and then build the exact car they need.”
He adds: “It’s what needs to happen in the housing market.” However, in the volume housebuilding sector currently, there are a small number of major suppliers with a monopoly over new homes in their area, he says, and who “only attract a limited number of people, but enough for them to sell the homes for the price they need to.
“Even their own surveys show that many people do not want to buy new build houses, and somehow in the UK we think that’s normal,” he continues. By contrast, with most other new products; phones, clothes, computers, he says, “everyone wants the latest.”
The result is that many want to use older buildings to get a creative result. “If someone wants to have an exciting home, they buy an old house and start again, or build a modern glass and steel extension,” he tells Selfbuilder + Homemaker. “If new home builders were getting it right, buyers would say they want their old home to look like the new one they’ve seen being built up the road.”
He says frankly: “We should look as a society at how we got to this point, where we accepted that this was the way things are done.”
He notes that the Government is well aware of the problems, acknowledged in its 2017 White Paper. The Conservative Party’s last manifesto even included clear commitments to do more to help people to acquire land, and extend the Help to Buy scheme to the custom and self-build sector.
So, what’s holding things up?
One of the most important barriers to greater adoption is image, says Andrew. Grand Designs paints a very different picture to the general reality, he says.
“Your typical Grand Design is inspiring, but it basically implies that if you are going to build your own home, then you have to be prepared to have a near breakdown in the middle of it and an extra baby by the time it’s finished.”
While he notes people “shouldn’t underestimate” the complexity of building a house, he says that it should be borne in mind that being a TV show, “it’s nothing without the drama.” He says that while Grand Designs can offer inspiration, “what we really need is normal, everyday people to understand that this is an option that’s available to them, just like in every other country.”
A HELPING HAND
With a UK housing market not currently geared towards self-build, it comes down to policy to drive things forward. This is where NaCSBA comes in: “We are unique in being singularly focused on growing the sector,” says Andrew, and “driving the political and policy led changes that are needed to make this happen.”
NaCSBA’s mission is to fight for the self and custom-build sector, and, according to Andrew, it has already been instrumental in moving sector-benefiting policy forwards.
One of the most prominent of these policies, he tells me, was The Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015, which led to the creation of Right to Built registers – making it a legal requirement for local authorities to maintain registers of people looking to self build, and bring forward enough plots to match that demand.
NaCSBA was integral to getting government to bring forward the legislation, says Andrew, adding that it “continues to argue strongly for greater Government support, by lobbying and challenging those in power.” He adds that magazines such as Selfbuilder + Homemaker are also crucial to progress, “acting as an interface with the public, to help people undertaking this journey to understand the best ways to go about it.”
To help local authorities, NaCSBA runs the Right to Build Taskforce, funded by the Government, which is a consultancy service that offers free briefings to every UK authority to explain what they need to be doing to fulfil their legal obligations.
Andrew holds that self and custom-build is the answer to the problems in the housing market. But in order to make it work, he says there’s “a massive job” to simply educate people and make them think about it as the market matures.
He concludes: “When people begin to believe that this is an option for them, when they join the registers and look at the options that are available to them, options without massive premiums, they’ll realise that this isn’t about cost, it’s about choice – they don’t need to compromise.”
To find out more about NaCSBA’s work, visit www.nacsba.org.uk and to find your local authority’s self build register, visit www.righttobuildportal.org