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News feature: Could going ‘naked’ help solve the UK’s housing crisis?

Visualisation of a generic Naked House living room by Hugo McCloud
  • 4 Comments

London’s mayor has lauded no-frills shell housing as a way of providing cheaper homes. But what does this model have going for it, and what are its drawbacks? Ella Braidwood investigates

Last month, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, pledged to invest £500,000 to help build 22 ultra-pared-back, low-cost homes targeted at those desperate to get on to the property ladder. 

These two-storey shell houses designed by emerging practice OMMX will – if approved – be built on three tight sites in Enfield, north-east London, using a no-frills approach: open plan, no partitions and a minimal number of appliances and fittings. In essence, the homes will be blank canvases for buyers to customise. 

They are backed by not-for-profit developer Naked House, and the minimal design of this so-called ‘shell housing’ means they will be around 15 per cent cheaper to build than standard homes, and thus more affordable for buyers. While the average home in London costs £580,000, these homes are expected to sell for between £150,000 and £340,000.

The mayor has lauded Naked House’s innovative approach as one way to tackle the capital’s housing crisis. But will these shell homes help bring more people into home ownership in London and, potentially, elsewhere in the UK? And are there any pitfalls to the model?

‘We – the people who set up Naked House – are the people that we’re trying to help,’ says Neil Double, co-director at Naked House, about his lost generation, unable to afford to buy housing.

Self-finish has previously been seen as the preserve of the wealthy … we are keen to see how it can be applied as a form of affordable housing

Double established Naked House with four friends in 2013. All in their 30s, they decided to form the community housebuilder one evening in the pub when they found themselves ‘moaning as always’ about extortionate house prices in the capital.

‘We were frustrated with the lack of affordable housing, but also the type of affordable housing that is produced – your fairly bland fully-finished, shared ownership apartment,’ explains Double. ‘So we figured, well, rather than just moan about it, let’s try and do something different.’

The friends struggled to find land for their housing model, before winning the backing of Enfield Council. The local authority will allow Naked House to build the homes on its own land, but will retain a 199-year freehold. This means the purchase price of the homes will not include the land. Instead buyers will pay the council a monthly ground rent.

Double describes Naked House’s concept as one ‘solution’ that could help fix London’s housing crisis by helping more first-time buyers on to the housing ladder. But he is also realistic about the model’s potential.

Ommx naked house 03

OMMX Architects’ proposal for an ultra-pared-back Naked House in Enfield

OMMX Architects’ proposal for an ultra-pared-back Naked House in Enfield

‘The crisis is so great that it’s going to take many different things including regulations, government policies and the mayor,’ he adds. ‘It’s very complex. I don’t think there’s any one housing model that can solve the crisis.’

OMMX won the Enfield job – envisaged as a beachhead for a wider rollout – following a competition earlier this year, where it beat dRMM, Pitman Tozer, Matheson Whiteley and Practice Architecture. 

And despite being in its early stages, the Naked House model is already proving popular both with the profession and potential buyers. 

Ben Derbyshire, managing director at HTA design and RIBA president elect, agrees there is ‘no single answer’ to London’s housing crisis, but adds that he is ‘absolutely certain there would be a market for shell housing’. 

Not everyone wants open plan or is able to put in sweat equity

Indeed Naked House already has 400 ‘members’ interested in buying its homes, which will be available to first-time buyers so long as they earn less than £90,000 a year. It is an indication of how expensive London housing has become that those earning such high salaries still need assistance buying a home.

If the developer’s 22 Enfield homes prove successful, it hopes to deliver more shell homes across seven further sites in the capital. 

Colm Lacey, director of development at Croydon Council, says the south London borough is looking at building a 10-unit scheme with Naked House, designed by Pitman Tozer Architects. Although the project is in its early stages, Lacey says discussions will conclude in the next couple of months, and hopes the homes will be completed by 2019. 

He says the council has had discussions with other developers about self-finish homes in the past, but these are the ‘most developed discussions’. 

He adds: ‘Self-finish and custom-build have previously been seen as the preserve of the wealthy or the middle classes. We are keen on seeing how it can be applied as a much more urban product; as a genuine form of affordable housing for people who would otherwise be in housing need.’

Interior final

Interior final

Inhabit Homes’ shell housing in Peckham, by Poulsom Middlehurst

Luke Tozer of Pitman Tozer says affordable housing is an ‘essential component in addressing the UK’s housing crisis’, and believes the model used by Naked House could be replicated successfully across the UK. 

‘Almost every council has small sites of leftover land that need new approaches to unlock and realise long-term value for the benefit of the community,’ he says.

But Tozer admits self-finish housing isn’t suitable for all. ‘Not everyone wants open plan or is able to put in sweat equity, so they aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and shouldn’t be forced upon those who aren’t appropriate,’ he says.

Jonas Lencer, a director at dRMM, which with Arup recently published a research project on wooden shell housing, Wood Blocks: The Future of Housing, says shell homes give buyers the advantage of choosing how to finish their properties. 

‘We are trying to combine the idea of reducing the cost for housing and giving people more influence on their environment, by making it more flexible,’ he says.

Lencer, whose practice completed its own wooden shell house prototype in 2006, adds: ‘The idea of having a “naked” shell would help people to engage back in their environment – that could include more involvement in community functions.’

While Naked House is at the forefront of shell housing in London, there are at least three other examples of it being used elsewhere in the UK. These include a successful scheme of four homes in Pointers Field, Norwich, designed by Barefoot & Gilles. Completed in 2015, land was gifted by the council to Orwell Housing Association to build the homes.

Buyers were offered a 6 per cent discount in exchange for completing a clear set of tasks to finish their homes – including wall finishes and kitchen fittings –  to be carried out within a three-month period. All the homes were sold and the works carried out to a high standard on time. 

Sam 0855

Sam 0855

Shell housing at Pointers Field, Norwich, by Barefoot & Gilles

Orwell Housing Association went on to complete four more homes in 2015, designed by Rees Pryer Architects, in Felixstowe, Suffolk. 

But is shell housing a sustainable model and is it always executed effectively? 

Gus Zogolovitch is managing director of custom-build developer Inhabit Homes, which is developing its first shell housing scheme. He argues that Naked House does not use a viable model that could be used on a large scale because ‘it relies on the council or the Greater London Authority to effectively subsidise the model’.

Inhabit Homes’ shell housing scheme is in Peckham, south London, designed by local architect Poulsom Middlehurst. It is made up of five three-storey houses, ranging from two to five bedrooms. Four homes are already under offer. 

With prices ranging from £650,000 to £925,995, the houses are far more expensive than those built by Naked House. But they are also much bigger; ranging from 92m2 to 170m2. The Naked House homes will be 50m2 – or 87m2 if fully extended. 

Inhabit Homes’ scheme will generate a ‘modest’ profit, says Zogolovitch – vital for allowing his model to grow and be self-sufficient.

‘We’re trying to create a social enterprise around housing that is sustainable, so we can grow and scale,’ he says. ‘If you have a model that fundamentally relies on a council giving you cheap land then how long will that happen for? There’s a limit to the amount of cheap land you’re going to get.

‘When you have models that are not commercial, the danger is you can’t scale them.’

dRMM's proposal for a Naked House concept at Enfield

dRMM’s proposal for a Naked House concept at Enfield

dRMM’s proposal for a Naked House concept at Enfield

Whereas with the Naked House system, buyers don’t purchase the land but pay a monthly ground rent, Inhabit Homes’ model involves purchasing private land outright, which adds to the cost for buyers. But Zogolovitch argues that, in the Naked House model, the monthly ground rent could be considerable – around £6,000 to £7,000 a year – and add up over time.

The cost of the ground rent is certainly sketchy – both Enfield Council and Naked House declined to tell the AJ how much this fee would be per house, with the council citing ‘commercial sensitivity’. However, both say they want to make sure it is affordable. 

Double says he wants the monthly ground rent, when combined with monthly mortgage repayments and service charge fees, to be no more than a third of the buyers monthly income. He compares Naked House’s model of purchasing the house, but not the land it is built on, to that used by the City of Amsterdam. There, homeowners pay a monthly ground lease to the council.

It is not just the ground rent providing a stumbling block however; the visuals used by Naked House have also come under fire. 

David Birkbeck, chief executive at Design for Homes, a not-for-profit that champions good residential design, claims that such ‘terrible’ housing drawings will not win over councillors, upon whom the model is so reliant. 

They really should have done something less for the architects and more for the purchaser

‘They really should have done something less for the architects and more for the purchaser,’ he says. ‘It looks like the kind of drawing you see in the second year of an architecture school … bizarre-drawings of prison-like interiors. I don’t think it’s clever marketing.’ 

Birkbeck does, however, support the concept of shell housing, arguing it will ‘help people buy homes with less debt’. 

Although few shell housing schemes have been built in the UK, there is already at least one example where the project was not executed as smoothly as planned. 

Ted Stevens, former chair of the National Self Build Association, points to a 21-home self-finish scheme in Bicester, Oxfordshire, designed by Terence O’Rourke, and completed in 2015. 

Stevens says that, although all the homes were sold, the scheme’s backer, Cherwell District Council, did not provide buyers with clear enough instructions on how to finish the homes to a high standard, nor did it impose a strict time frame.

Naked house at enfield  also one of winners at nla new ideas for housing competition

Naked house at enfield also one of winners at nla new ideas for housing competition

Pitman Tozer’s proposal for a naked house at Enfield

Some of the buyers who put up the plasterboard, he says, ‘didn’t do it very well and it had to be redone’, and some ‘took a month of Sundays to do it’. 

In response Cherwell Council insists it held regular meetings with the individual self-builders ‘to assess their progress’ and provided them ‘with basic training before construction commenced, facilitated by an accredited training agency’. 

Double says Naked House will produce an ‘extensive’ manual for buyers on how to self-finish the homes, and that this will include ‘some loose timescales for completion of certain works.’

He adds: ‘We want to set some rules but to also allow maximum flexibility and choice for [the] end user.’

While Naked House presents an innovative approach that could make homes more affordable, there are clearly aspects of its model that still need to be developed – particularly if it is to make real strides in helping to tackle the housing crisis.

This article was published in the Workplace issue – click here to buy a copy

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • Given that the pressures that relentlessly force up the cost of housing in London seem more to do with supply shortage rather than construction cost inflation, it's really surprising to see quite how much empty land there is.
    WW2 has long finished, so it's surely no longer anything to do with catching up with all the bomb sites (or shouldn't be) and the current perception is that some land owners are doing what Harry Hyams infamously did with Centrepoint to maximise profit by sitting on unused assets in an inflationary market, A perception reinforced by the revelation that some of the large house builders are price-gouging their customers with avaricious leasehold scams.
    A substantial amount of land is in the hands of the likes of TfL - official bodies who often seem blind to the part they could play in releasing land that they really don't need.
    So is it really beyond the pale to suggest that long neglected urban land should be classified as valueless, compulsorily purchased and used for really affordable housing, with tough measures to ensure that it can't be resold for a fortune - and if leasehold really is necessary to ensure that that future resale values remain affordable then there could be only a peppercorn annual ground rent.

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  • This must have more potential outside of London where land values are much lower and construction costs make up a bigger proportion of final value. The other thing to note is that the glass roof in the image shown of the OMMX house, would probably push the shell costs above that of complete houses of the same size in a more standard 'spec'. This isn't a problem per se as this is really offering high quality bespoke housing more affordably, but not more affordable housing.

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  • Chris Rogers

    Struggling to see the point of this. Yes some will not have a problem with the concept aesthetically and practically (though why is it anyone's concern how long it takes an occupier to finish the job?) but leasehold houses are a mistake, as the Guardian has been saying lately. And anyway it's land cost that drives house prices not construction cost.

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  • No. Not naked buildings , not prefab, none of it really matters. Architecture unfortunately has little role to play in resolving a government thought-up housing crisis that is created with the absence of renters rights and the reliance of existing money (foreign and national) in investing and milking property.

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