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Architects-as-developer win go-ahead for Essex custom build

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A custom-build developer, set up by architects Pitman Tozer Architects and Mæ, has won planning for its first scheme: a 12-home project in Laindon, Essex

The company, Pound Lane Custom Build, is being billed as an ‘innovative equity partnership’ between the two practices and boutique developer Unboxed Homes.

The inaugural scheme includes plots for 12 customisable homes featuring three different housing types. These are the PTA S6 House by Pitman Tozer, MyHouse by Mae and the littleBIG House by AOC, which is not an equitable partner in the venture. It had previously trialled its concept at Igloo’s Heartlands development in Cornwall.

House options range in size from 125m²  to 167m² and from three to five-bedroom homes. Customers can choose a number of options, including number of bedrooms, bathrooms, finishes and fittings, and an optional garage ’designed specifically to complement each house style’.

Pound Lane Custom Build bought the land next to the Grade I-listed St Nicholas Church from Homes England, which had already won outline planning permission from Basildon Council for a custom-build development.

Homes England had worked with BNP Paribas on those early plans and will continue to have a project-management role in the development.

A spokesperson for the team said the architects had put ‘their money where their mouth is [by] commercially backing their own architecture’.

They added: ’Future inhabitants will have a say in the design and layout of their new home, as well as a shared interest in the communal landscape and ecology of the entire site.

‘While the three different house styles are different in form and design, the proposed material palette is intended to provide a common architectural language across the different typologies. The primary materials include treated black timber, warm red brickwork, and standing seam metal roofing.’

Unboxed Homes director Gus Zogolovitch said: ’If we want to solve the housing crisis, we need to do things differently. By joining forces with architects and by letting customers have a say in the design, the layout and the specification of their new homes, we will achieve that.

’This is a modest scheme but has potential to be an exemplary approach to a new way of development; one where the incentives of customers, funders, designers and builders are all aligned. This leads to a better outcome for customers, the environment and the community.’

The landscape proposals have been developed by Matthew Halsall Design Studio. A future timescale is not yet known.

Mae elevation pound lane unboxed

Elevation of Mae’s proposed MyHouse custom-build type

Elevation of Mae’s proposed MyHouse custom-build type

Architect Luke Tozer explains how he became a custom-build developer

How did you come together as a group of architects?
I bumped into Alex Ely [of Mae] on the beach in Cornwall when Gus and I were collaborating on early proposals for a custom-build house at Heartlands in Cornwall for Igloo, and where Mae are building MyHouse and AOC have built littleBIG House (see below). Geoff [Shearcroft] from AOC and I used to teach together a while ago and we shared a frantic car drive to Newquay Airport following a site visit. Further discussions between us all over a pub lunch, made it clear we all had a shared interest in trying to broaden the scope of what new-build housing can be and to advance custom-build in the UK.

Have any of you ever acted as a developer before?
Gus Zogolovitch of Unboxed Homes has done other developments and a previous custom-build project currently on site in Peckham. Mæ and AOC, in conjunction with contractors have acted as housing manufacturers at Heartlands. I developed my own home, Gap House, as a self-build. This is the first collaboration with another architect and developer.

Are there any tensions between being the architect and the developer?
Surprisingly little so far, albeit we’ve yet to actually build the homes. We are closer to the numbers and spend more time on the financials than we would be if acting only as architects.

The real test will come when needing to make financial calls that impact the design. But then that’s where we think we are better placed to do so than usual – where we are often when kept at arm’s length by the project manager. QS or contractor.

What are the biggest challenges facing you?
The fact that custom-build is a simple idea that quickly becomes complicated and is difficult to explain to stakeholders, funders and planners. That said, Basildon planners have been very supportive, as have Homes England, from whom we bought the land. Perhaps the biggest challenge now is to reach the customers who want the chance to choose the design of their homes.

How much assistance will you be giving your custom builders?
Time will tell, we’ve yet to meet them. We are offering shell, self-finish, interiors as well as fitted -out homes, so the level of hand-holding will really depend on the customer needs.

This is a testbed for tackling the practical issues of custom build

Have you thought about how this could be rolled out on other sites?
This is a testbed for tackling the practical issues of custom-build at a small scale. The idea from the beginning, aligned with Homes England’s aspirations, is that this scheme can demonstrate how custom-build can offer a different type of housing with more customer choice and additional homes than [is the case with] the housebuilders. The hope is that if we can make it work for 12 homes in Essex we could apply the same approach to larger sites or to multiple small sites elsewhere.

Have you learned from any other custom-build exemplars?
Yes, both from trips to Almere in the Netherlands and from Heartlands for Igloo in Cornwall, along with Blenheim Grove in Peckham.

Why aren’t more architects doing what you are doing?
Mainly because the entry price is high and that the opportunities to acquire land are relatively few and sought after. At Pound Lane we were fortunate to find a site where Homes England wanted to help prove the model of custom-build and which was of a scale where 12 homes could be both a small community and affordable for us as effectively a first-time developer team.

Working collaboratively with Unboxed Homes, a like-minded developer with complementary skills, has been key.

Architects have the skills to do this sort of project and frequently spend lots of speculative time, effort and money on bids, working to compete against other architects. If we as an industry spent that time, energy and creativity on developing sites instead, we’d probably deliver more homes and reap a better reward on our investment, socially and financially.

AOC with Cathedral Builders

AOC with Cathedral Builders - the littleBIGhouse model which was first revealed as part of the Igloo custon build scheme at Heartlands

AOC with Cathedral Builders - the littleBIGhouse model which was first revealed as part of the Igloo custom-build scheme at Heartlands


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