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New ways: How an architect is rethinking custom-build

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The AJ talks to architect Charlie de Bono about his unusual role on a new custom-build housing scheme in Norfolk and what it might mean for the profession

Custom build is seen as one of the ways to help tackle the housing crisis, by allowing people to design and build their own homes on pre-prepared plots.

By the end of this month, England’s 336 planning authorities will have to show they have met the legislated targets (under the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015) and can provide the 18,000 permissioned plots needed to match those registering an interest in self-build on 30 October 2016. It is understood the number of people putting their name down has risen to nearly 40,000.  

Livedin Custom Build, a sister company of Gloucestershire architects Miller + Howard Workshop, has created a model it claims not only helps people to create a bespoke home but also ‘puts architects back at the centre’ of the development of housing.

Its latest project in the Norfolk coastal village of Ingoldisthorpe, the company’s fourth, provides ‘ready to build’ plots with full planning permission, design flexibility and mains services around a green.

Here, qualified architect de Bono, director of Livedin Custom Build, explains more about the scheme and the opportunities for architects to play a greater role in housing delivery. 

What are you hoping to achieve at Ingoldisthorpe?

Our housing system is overdue a reboot. We want to show that there are ways to procure housing in the UK other than the dominant speculative housing model, which tends to an all too familiar generic approach, leading to a homogenisation of our environment.

Instead, we are looking to encourage more site-specific and integrated solutions, by focusing on a design-led approach and shifting control from big developers to end users, communities and landowners.

We are looking for innovative ways of linking and improving affordability, modern methods of construction, planning system reform, excellence in design, flexibility and environmental considerations. By offering more choice to buyers, the market will force these issues up the agenda and lead to better solutions. We do not just want to give the end-users and their communities more choice; they need better options and better homes.

We are providing serviced plots and a full planning permission

Custom build is the vehicle for this at Ingoldisthorpe. In essence, custom build is the division of the housing market that is allowing self build to go mainstream. The principle is to provide facilitated solutions to the complex issues of land supply, design, planning and construction of your own home on multi-unit sites. At Ingoldisthorpe, we are providing serviced plots and a full planning permission that allows for customisation of materials, fenestration and layout.

In rural areas, there is untapped demand for customisable contemporary architecture with high standards of design. This needs the input of skilled architects so we envisage the sector forging a greater role in the future of housing.

Who is the scheme aimed at?

Anyone who wants to build their own home and, thanks to the proliferation of new build and renovation projects in magazines, and on social media and TV, this is booming. According to research by the National Custom & Self Build Association, half the adult population would like to build their own home at some point.

Yet doing this is still quite rare in UK. About 8 per cent of our homes are built by private homebuilders, whereas in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Australia it is more than 50 per cent. The disparity is down to a number of factors which act as barriers to entry, namely the lack of available land and the complexity of the planning and construction processes.

There are obviously self-builders who relish the challenge of going alone. We are aiming the project at Ingoldisthorpe at those who want a bespoke home, yet with more help along the way. The buyers will manage the build process themselves and we provide them with research into local builders and national housing manufacturers.

What is your role on the project?

We are the project co-ordinator, or ‘enabler’ as it is termed in custom build. Our role is guiding the project through feasibility, planning, infrastructure and sales phases. It is a balancing act, making sure that all the stakeholders are happy – the landowner with his or her risk and reward, the planners and neighbours with the design, and the end-users with planning permission and financial viability.

The aim is to link architects with custom-build projects

We see this as a slightly evolved role compared to that which architects normally take on when working with developers. The aim is to link architects with custom-build projects and provide them with a framework to learn this role.

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Livedin Custom Build’s proposed custom-build scheme at Ingoldisthorpe, taken through planning by Project Orange.

Livedin Custom Build’s proposed custom-build scheme at Ingoldisthorpe, taken through planning by Project Orange.

Explain your relationship with the landowner and what your future involvement will be on the scheme

On similar sites, the landowner would typically be offered an ‘option’ agreement by a speculative developer. There, a fixed sale price is agreed on condition that the developer achieves planning (at its own cost) within a certain period (usually a couple of years). The developer often then flips the land on to a commercial house-building company, all the while extracting profit and adding costs to the land, which will ultimately be borne by the end-user.

Instead, we offer the landowner a way to control the design of the site and sell directly to homeowners, cutting out the middleman. This provides savings that can be shared by the landowner and end-users.

Ben Marten, the landowner at Ingoldisthorpe has very much bought into the concept. Indeed, he is so keen that other landowners follow suit, he has recently started a company to help landowners bring forward their land.

We are managing the technical design and tendering of the landscaping, infrastructure and services. We are overseeing the marketing of the plots, which will be sold with all their services in place and ready to build. We are also installing the landscaping by AREA, which has designed a new village green incorporating and enlarging the existing pond, and taking design cues from the local heathland.

Why haven’t you designed the scheme yourself?

As architects, it was very tempting to do this ourselves. We have designed our previous custom-build projects - three sites in village locations near our office in Stroud.

Project Orange is hopefully the first of many practices we’ll work with

But this model is not intended as an exercise in diversifying our practice to find more work. Our focus is on evolving better housing models, so we find our time is best spent immersing ourselves in the process of researching, building and testing the framework. Calling on the skills of different practices is evidence that architects are an under-utilised resource in housing, and that there is desire and scope for architects to contribute more to the sector.

Project Orange is hopefully the first of many practices we will work with. We are always willing to hear from interested parties.

How will you make money out of this project?

For us, it is not about short-term returns but it is more important to establish a credible alternative housing supply that can deliver tangible improvements. The services we provide are fee-based and kept as low as possible to minimise the landowners’ exposure.

We are firm believers that where creatives add value, they should be fairly compensated with a share of the added value they have created. We intend to roll out this principle on future projects, where architects have taken on the enhanced ‘enabler’ role. Landowners like this approach because their costs are minimised during the project and their enabler is incentivised to make the project a success. 

How can this model be rolled out elsewhere and why do you think architects are in a good position to assume this enabler role?

Right to Build legislation seeks to make more land available for private homebuilding. Since 2016, local authorities in England must keep registers of people looking to build their own home and ensure they have sufficient serviced plots to match this demand.

We spend lots of time talking to landowners across the country and explaining the advantages of custom build and how the planning system is supportive. More and more landowners are looking to take this route and there is a steady stream of sites coming through. They range from smaller sites with a capacity for up to 10 homes to significantly larger opportunities for hundreds and even thousands of homes, as is the case at Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, which was part of the Grand Designs: The Street series earlier this year.

Each site brings different concerns and variations to the model and this is exactly why the wise skill-set of architects puts them in a good position to assume this enabler role.

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Livedin Custom Build’s proposed custom-build scheme at Ingoldisthorpe, taken through planning by Project Orange.

Livedin Custom Build’s proposed custom-build scheme at Ingoldisthorpe, taken through planning by Project Orange.

One key component to custom build is that the process needs to allow for end-user design input and yet the plots need to have gone through a planning process before they can be sold. Architects are well placed to come up with design codes and masterplanning that satisfy the planners and give end-users some flexibility. Sensitive locations such as conservation areas will need more control, while new stand-alone communities like Graven Hill have more freedom and looser planning frameworks.

Custom build is an opportunity for architects to use and develop their core skills. But further to this they can add to their central role the added dimension of becoming ‘enablers’.

Will you be revisiting the project as it develops and how will you learn lessons for other developments?

With the homeowners responsible for the construction of the homes, once all the plots have been transferred, in theory our formal involvement ends. However, we are very keen that the construction phase is a success and that a strong community evolves out of the process, so we will certainly revisit and keep in touch with them as the site develops and the community takes shape.

We will also be hosting a forum for the homeowners to share experiences and advice. We know this has been a useful community-building tool on other sites and also see it as a valuable way for us to engage with them and the issues. While each project and community is unique, we are conscious there will be universal lessons to take forward.

What is the biggest challenge facing you at Ingoldisthorpe?

Establishing fluid links between the various participants is the overarching challenge. Technology will certainly help at each stage of the process, as will good design because great projects will encourage more and more to build their own home, and more communities to welcome this on their doorstep.

More specifically, the front and back end of the process will be principal challenges. Firstly, honing the model that allows landowners to take this route and secondly simplifying the construction process for buyers. This feels like a sector that is evolving quickly, which will hopefully make constructing your own home easier, cheaper, and undertaken with more certainty.

The project at Ingoldisthorpe signposts an innovative direction of travel for rural housing in the UK.

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Livedin Custom Build’s proposed custom-build scheme at Ingoldisthorpe, taken through planning by Project Orange.

Livedin Custom Build’s proposed custom-build scheme at Ingoldisthorpe, taken through planning by Project Orange.

Why hasn’t this been done before?

In a way it has. Self build has been around forever, and versions of custom build were employed to develop much of our Georgian and Victorian urban housing stock. The Royal Crescent in Bath, completed 1775, was sold off as plots to individual buyers who employed their own architects and builders. The purchasers had to conform to John Wood the Younger’s exterior design but were free to lay out the interiors as they wished.

What is new is the positive legislation and planning context, allied with the ever-expanding appetite to build your own home. The key for us is to link the various stakeholders in ways that suit them all and that embed good design principles into the mechanism and outcomes.

 

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