More new homes? Let’s look at some radical alternative options.

John Palmer| Enhabit Ltd

John Palmer MD of low-energy buildings consultancy, Enhabit Ltd, summarises The Good Homes Alliance's recent Alternative Housing Model Seminar. 

Just about everybody agrees that the UK is not building enough new homes. There have been a number of legislative attempts to up the numbers, but with government finances likely to remain stretched, perhaps now is the time for some radical alternative options

The Good Homes Alliance (GHA) recently hosted a seminar which looked at how some of these alternative models might be achieved.

Tom Chance from the National Community Land Trust Network kicked the day off by describing what is meant by Community Led Housing – it includes co-housing (people building collaboratively and sharing some facilities), Community Land Trusts (CLTs), co-operatives, self or custom build, self help or any combination thereof. His point was that there are many models and variations, but they are all valid and a useful contribution to the construction sector … so they need to be encouraged.

In order to see more of these projects, Tom outlined the actions that the government could take. Some interesting ones included: define, and start using the term ‘Community Led Housing’ (CLH), provide seedcorn funding for new community groups, councils considering CLH as a separate source of supply, public land disposals at fixed prices and bids considered for their ‘social value’, exempt CLH from Right to Buy and publish guidance on rural exception sites.

Chris Brown from Igloo then expanded on the custom build model. There were some interesting figures here. In parts of Europe and the USA, more than 50% of new homes are custom built, whereas in the UK it’s less than 5%. However, a survey in the UK has shown that 53% of people want to custom build at some stage, 30% in the next 5 years and 12% are ready now – that’s over 7 million people.

The Igloo model brings forward a site as a number of serviced plots and then they connect potential buyers with a select group of custom-build companies who offer a wide range of house types and styles which can be adapted to the customer’s individual requirements.

Sue Riddlestone from Bioregional then spoke about their OPAL initiative – One Planet Affordable Living. This is a scheme which wants to generate truly affordable and sustainable homes and is aimed at people who don’t necessary qualify for housing benefit, but who are still unable to afford to buy or rent decent homes. Sue is working with investors, landowners and funders to make this vision a reality and bring about secure and affordable mutual home ownership.

Next up was Neil Stephens from MDR Architects who spoke in his capacity as a member of the UK co-housing network. Co-housing tends to have a bit of a ‘tree-hugger’ image. However, Neil painted a picture of healthy, happy integrated communities offering mutual support in times of need, sustainable living, control over your living environment, security and diversity. It was an inspiring and compelling vision and with over 60 co-housing groups developing and more than 6000 hits on the co-housing website per month, it looks like it’s a concept which could really take off.

Steve Hale from Keepmoat then provided a change of direction back to bricks and mortar (well, timber frame and render) as he introduced Keepmoat’s new modular housing solution. This uses innovative construction methods and off-site manufacture to enable new dwellings to be put in place in weeks – saving up to 6 months build time on a typical 50 unit scheme. Dwellings are tenure blind, highly energy efficient (I can say this as Enhabit did the energy modelling!) and cost about the same as a traditional build.

Then it was my turn. I wore my non-Enhabit hat as I spoke about my personal experiences supporting my local Neighbourhood Plan in Petersfield and how that has led to the formation of a local Community Land Trust. Our plan took a bit of a risk in designating a number of sites for self and custom build plots only – 112 in total. We were told many times that we couldn’t do it, but we stuck to our guns and, eventually, the examiner agreed with us. We’re now in the process of working out how to deliver the plots, but our experience has shown that Neighbourhood Plans can be a valuable tool to encourage different methods of housing delivery.

To close the day, a double-act of two architects – Philip Graham and Zohra Chiheb from Cullinan Studio and Levitt Bernstein respectively – spoke on behalf of Appropriate Housing. With hundreds of speculative homes under their belts, their cross-practice research project emerged from a shared frustration with their detachment as designers from the interests of the ultimate occupiers of their homes. They recast speculative homes as debt vehicles, the housing shortage as a credit over-supply and a policy-obsession with home ownership as a failed, productivity-sapping ideology. Instead Appropriate Housing seek just that – “appropriateness” rather than “luxury”; and “homes” rather than “units”.

Their presentation proposed two missing ingredients if end users – or rather “settlers” – were to achieve any influence over new house-building: Firstly, they described a widening of the architect’s skill set to include a risk-sharing, enabling role. This would turn home-occupiers into stakeholders and landowners into land stewards. Secondly, they have grown the business-planning component of this enabler role into a new, design-led development finance model. They see fractional ownership of land and homes as the key to participation, agency, stability and ultimately design appropriateness. In their model, patient capital unlocks affordability by stretching repayment periods to fit local incomes rather than house prices, thereby bringing forward projects where the landowner has an interest in an income rather than land disposal at the least appropriate price.

So, an interesting and varied day, but there were some common themes. There is a genuine desire to find some innovative ways to ‘fix’ our housing problems. Some people are working at the supply end – better, cheaper, faster delivery. Others, are working at the demand end – trying to encourage communities to come together and put together housing schemes which work for a range of needs – from an aspiring Grand Designs self-builder to an inner city key worker who just wants somewhere decent to live. Throughout the whole day, there was also a golden thread of sustainability and energy efficiency which was almost, but not quite, taken for granted.

I was really encouraged and inspired by what I learned during the day and look forward to see some of these ideas and initiatives coming to fruition over the coming years.

If you want to find out more, the day’s presentations can be found on the Good Homes Alliance website at http://www.goodhomes.org.uk/events/200

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