Beyond Grand Designs: how do we get more people building their own homes?

In an era of sky-high rents and home-ownership increasingly out of reach, could ‘self building’ somewhere to live be the answer? A new report from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that even those with social, cultural and economic capital are struggling to build their own home in a housing sector dominated by traditional models of construction and ownership.

Dr Michaela Benson (Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths) has spent three years studying self building as a form of housing provision in the UK.

Her report, The Social in Self Build, explores the changing context of housing in Britain, from supply through to regulation, and the role this plays in contemporary self build. She has conducted numerous interviews with those who have created their own homes, offering a personal, sociological, focus in contrast to most policy or industry-led research.

Dr Benson has found that while not all self builds are Grand Designs-style dream homes, it is a housing option only really open to those with social, cultural and economic capital – as well as existing skills and knowledge.

This is in contrast to the vision of Walter Segal and his self build projects in 1970s Lewisham, which saw men and women from a range of backgrounds come together to learn skills and create new communities, with dwellings that were quickly and cheaply built as well as environmentally friendly.

Dr Benson has explored a diverse range of paths into self building, from community focused projects to self builds that weren’t planned but became necessary: families whose former houses had deteriorated to the extent to which the only solution was to knock them down and start again.

She has found that while access to financial resources are a necessity in order to become a self-builder, even those with capital find that the housing sector and related industries just aren’t geared towards their needs.

Many self-builders seek new specialist materials, particularly those that reduce energy consumption for their homes, but have difficulty finding people with the expertise to install them. Self build mortgages are just as hard to procure. It’s apparent that more extensive adaptation of services and products to the needs of self-builders would be valuable if the industry is to be scaled up, Dr Benson argues.

She says that the population of self-builders can and should be more diverse:

“Although the majority of self-build projects in England today result in home ownership, the community self-build sector also promotes self-build for social or private rent, while some innovative schemes such as LILAC centre on mutual home ownership. These are an important part of the housing landscape that present real opportunities to challenge the system of house buying and tenure as it currently stands. Self building could challenge the dominant modes of housing procurement and a market oriented towards home ownership and profit making.”

Dr Benson’s report includes a number of recommendations aimed at shaking up the traditional housing sector and making self-building a more viable option for a wider range of people:

  • Promotion and support for community models of self build should be maintained and publicised, to show people how building challenges can be overcome
  • Mortgages for self builders should be more flexible and there should be more support for people to maintain cash flow throughout a project
  • There should be more training and support for self builders to manage social relations with each other, and develop their organisational and management skills

Michaela adds:

“In conclusion, this research suggests that practitioners and supporters of self build need to actively challenge the structures of the housing and land market, as well as finding innovative solutions that work within these structures – as it is only in this way that self build projects can be scaled up.”