Yesterday, I spoke about self build on Thinking Allowed. For those of you who have never been on the radio and want to know a bit more about the experience, what can I say? What I think you really need to know is that although I had a rough idea about what the focus of the piece was going to be, I did not know the questions until about 3 minutes before we went live. Okay, so I have been researching selfbuild for three years, and had a pretty good idea about the messages that I wanted to get across in the 9 minutes focussed on that. And of course, listening back, there are other things I wish I’d said–for example, I wish I had something about the great work that the custom build vanguard schemes are doing–and other ways of responding that might have been more sociologically insightful–including the facts that home is so much more than a financial investment, and selfbuild is not only about owning homes. But there is only so long you can dwell on these things!
So, for your listening pleasure here is the link to my appearance and it is well-worth listening to the feature on evictions: shows what a terrible state housing is in and with what consequences.
Preparing for this appearance, I am thinking once again about what a sociological approach brings to the study of self build, and the relationship of this to other forms of housing, all wrapped up in the (I hope!) catchy title: what’s sociological about selfbuild? This fits to the original ambitions of the project, where I aimed to build a sociological account that asks wider questions about the structure of the housing economy, how individuals negotiate housing and with what consequences for their social identities
To my mind, there are several ways of approaching the question; my ethnographic research on selfbuild in Britain which adopted a multi-sited approach approaches this from a range of different angles, allowing me to think through questions about what the shape of the selfbuild sector and experiences of selfbuilders tell us about the wider housing economy in Britain; how selfbuild figures in the political economy of housing; the ways in which selfbuild intersects in (individual) housing trajectories; how selfbuild provides a space for people to overcome some of the challenges that face them in relation to getting homes fit for their families; and how selfbuild projects reflect and refract the social identities of householders, the organisation of homes and what they reveal about the family relationships within them.
It has taken me some time to get to a stage where I think I have something definitive to say about selfbuild in Britain. But let’s start with the headlines. At a time when housing inequality is increasing across Britain, I am sure that a lot of people will be asking why we should care about self build? In a recent article for the Conversation, Jenny Pickerill, Professor of Environmental Geography ask Should more of us be building or own homes?She passionately argues that anyone should be able to build their own home and the self build might not only represent a way out of the housing crisis, but also a way of preventing another in the future. This brings me to the first point that I want to make, a response to the question of how we can realise the potential for self build to do this.
The answer lies precisely in working on loosening the structural constraints which mean that it is only accessible to those with significant financial backing. In the last few years, there have been a series of initiatives aimed precisely at doing this, including changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, the development of a small custom build sector, and recent changes to the budget that aid community-led development of housing. Each of these initiatives has been hard won, the result of tireless work by a small number of passionate individuals, and provides signs of some alternatives–both within and beyond the market–to the mainstream, mass production of new housing by profit-driven property development companies. Certainly, the intentions behind this are to scale up selfbuild in Britain, to move it from a niche industry and practice into a realisable alternative to the status quo. And there are many reasons, all well-rehearsed, why this would be valuable. I have written about these elsewhere on this blog, but also in the Conversation and Open Democracy.
Rather than a narrow focus on selfbuild, my approach to understanding this has been with a critical awareness of the wider housing economy and how the ways in which this structures and constrains the possibilities for selfbuilding in Britain are revealing of the deep-seated problems with housing provision. Simply put, the difficulties that many of the selfbuilders in the study faced as they tried to find land, navigate planning, finance their build, employing contractors and subcontractors, etc. were challenges not only to them but also telling of the housing industry, housing finance and land economy of which selfbuild is a small part. Interviewing a researcher from one of the major housing charities for the project brought this home very clearly; when I asked what the charity’s interest in selfbuild was, he stressed that many of the concerns that selfbuild advocates raise are actually indicative of wider problems within the housing and land economy that in turn exacerbate social problems of housing inequality and homelessness. Recognising that selfbuild is nested within these economies breaks it away from the rather idiosyncratic position it might otherwise occupy if we view if only as a form of housing provision available to the relatively affluent and asset-rich.
The development of this critical understanding is paired in the project with the detailed investigation of the everyday experience of selfbuilding. This included work with both individual households in the process of building their own homes or who had completed them, and ongoing group projects. The lens on their experiences brought an additional perspective on the social dimensions of selfbuild that is rarely examined in detail. We have all seen the episodes of Channel 4’s Grand Designs that document the spiralling of costs, the breakdown of relationships with contractors, and the resolution of these problems. While these are often added for dramatic effect, working closely with the selfbuilders through the research, it becomes clear that managing social relations is a central feature of any selfbuild; it takes time and effort and is a considerable dimension of any project management. This is particularly writ large in cases of group selfbuild, recognised in the extensive preparatory work goes into thinking through how to manage group dynamics, including training in conflict resolution and consensus decision-making.
But the sociology doesn’t stop there. In the wider context of my research interests that track how social identities are made in and through space, my original interest in selfbuild from a sociological perspective lay in thinking about how the production of residential space through selfbuild both mirrors and refracts the identities of future residents and their relationships to one another. Thinking through the research on how people relate to domestic space, I have been fascinated by how the process of building and living in selfbuilt homes become statements about the people who have designed and live in them, interplaying, for example, with post-work identities and lives among retirees, enhancing family life. My work with some households included video methods; working with a GoPro, I would ask individual family members to make a short video about their home. This provided a whole new way of seeing the homes their eyes; their navigation of these new spaces revealed more about the structure of family relations and how these played out within the home than might otherwise have been visible. The process of building was often viscerally experienced. It framed how people, at least in the early days following completion, related to their houses, not quite viewing them as homes. In this way, it became clear that the effort of building a house does not neatly map onto the work of making a home.
These brief reflections are just the beginning of thinking about how we might think through selfbuild sociologically, enhancing understandings of the housing economy but also practices of homemaking and the relationship between homes and identity.
Given that the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (Paris) is going on as we speak, I thought that today it would be timely to think through what many of the self builders in the research had to say about energy efficiency. This sheds light on why they think that this is important, but also feeds back into what they perceive as the shortcomings of the wider housing economy.
Energy efficiency is one of the key features that many contemporary self builders seek to integrate into their projects. To a greater and lesser degree, these self builders incorporate technologies that will help them to make their properties more energy efficient. These might include, among others, the greater use of insulation, photovoltaic panels and solar water heaters, ground source heat pumps, mechanical heat ventilation. This is often driven by overlapping motivations: saving money on daily running of homes met with fears over the increasing cost of fuel, concerns about the environment and the impact of climate change for future generations. It might be a driving force behind the decision to self build or one of a range of equally valued considerations.
What is clear, though, is that this is one of the benefits of self building that most mainstream housing does not offer. At best, the housing economy only pays lip service to energy efficiency, with the result that it is not something that translates into exchange and symbolic value in the British housing economy.
One of the participants in the research was particularly passionate on this point as he described the focus of British ‘property porn’ – the daytime and evening TV focussed on buying and selling homes.
I really get pissed off with television programmes … all they ever talk about when they look at houses is how do they feel, the ambience, the location, they never talk about what the energy efficiency of it is … What doesn’t matter is what sort of wallpaper they’ve got on or whether it’s got period features in it, although those things can matter in certain things but certainly in a lot of Victorian houses they’ll look at it and they’ll talk about the cornices and the various other details and what have you, and all I can think is that house is going to cost a bloody fortune to heat … I just hate the idea of money being thrown down the drain, it’s burning fossil fuels to live in somewhere that’s got a few nice period features in it, a few sash windows or whatever, it just seems madness to me … there’s a big education programme needed …
You see what I think is that people should value the EPC (energy performance certificate). The first thing you should ask for is what is the EPC of this house that I’m looking at, and that should, that EPC should have a value that is reflected in the price of the house, and then it means that it’s worthwhile people spending the time to improve their houses because it will improve the EPC and then it will mean that they get more money for the house when they come to sell it. Now at the moment you can spend a fortune improving the insulation of your house and it’ll not alter the value of the house at all, because all people are looking at is what’s the kerb appeal, and how does it feel, what’s the ambience like of it. And to me the EPC has got to have a value that is recognised by people buying houses and then suddenly the whole thing’ll start to work … You look in any newspaper at the EPC ratings on houses that are for sale and it’s like D, E, F, G. Well mine are all A. But will anybody pay me more for the house? The right person, well they won’t no because you pay the market price. The estate agents aren’t going to value of the house higher on the basis of that.
It is a simple point, but one worth making, that one of our commitments to thinking about climate change is to encourage people to think about energy consumption in their daily lives and particularly, at home.
Time and again, I have met people who are thrilled with the energy performance of their homes. One family that I worked particularly closely with described how moving into their new home had radically changed their energy-use behaviour. Mediated by a small device on the kitchen worktop, they learned how to make the most of the energy generated by the house. They wait for the ‘tick’ on the meter to indicate that they were now running on free electricity to turn on the washing machine and other appliances. They recalled with glee, how they had cooked Christmas dinner for free. For them, the only thing that would improve this would be a system to automate this, a system that they had not been able to afford when they first built the house, but might be a future investment.
Smart meter indicating energy generated by home, featuring a ‘tick’ to let the household know when they are running on free electricity
While campaigns that encourage people to think more carefully about their energy use – switching off lights and appliances that are not being used, turning the heating down – and the feed-in-tariff – a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies – are part of this landscape, there is a bigger challenge in hand relating to getting people to value homes on the basis of their energy efficiency. This is particularly pertinent given the financial costs of making both new and old homes, energy efficient.
However, the project of valuing energy efficiency in houses needs to move beyond the individual household. In part, this is a project that relates to how energy efficiency is valued within the wider economy of housing, in relation to the construction of new homes, but also at the level of housing market intermediaries – estate agents, mortgage providers, insurance companies. But also within the representation of property in the mainstream media, recognising the power of these outlets to influence taste and consumption. In other words, work needs to be done to demonstrate to translate the benefits of energy efficiency into a value that is not peripheral to the housing economy, but central.
What I am advocating here, echoing the self builders in the study, is an urgent revaluation of energy efficiency. Rather than an add-on, an optional extra, making sure that this is embedded in the wider structures of the housing economy, should be a more sustained focus in the wider housing economy.
For too long “building your own home” in the UK has been a privilege reserved for those who already own property. Expensive land, tough planning rules and the time and expertise required have meant that most people self-build homes were more architectural vanity projects – like you might see in Grand Designs and less a practical housing solution. While design-led homes might be the dream for architects, TV producers and the restless urban middle classes, they tend to be an unaffordable luxury for almost everyone else.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Why shouldn’t those who most need housing also get to build it themselves? The huge demand for new homes in the UK has lead to a resurgence in collectively owned self-built developments, featuring many first time owners. This opens the property market up to a new demographic and may even help overcome the housing crisis.
You don’t have to go far back to find the more egalitarian roots of self-built housing. Until the end of World War II, self build offered a way for working class people to become home owners. However, over time building your own home became increasingly more restricted to the middle-class who already owned property.
Yet even within this landscape a small number of schemes aimed specifically at those in housing need have succeeded.
Build your home – and your neighbour’s
My own research has focused on understanding how self build fits into the wider housing economy. I’ve worked closely with self builders to understand their motivations and experiences, and have documented several group projects.
Two particularly stand out: one, a group of nine families in north-east London who helped build their own secure social housing; the other, a scheme in Liverpool that combines self build with shared ownership.
The London project was started by a local council tenant, John Struthers, whose only motivation was to provide housing stability for his children. Faced with overcrowded homes and a ten-year wait for larger properties, Struthers and other families instead formed the Headway Selfbuild Group and worked together to fit out the inside of ten new houses in exchange for tenancy.
Struthers pushed the council and the housing association Circle Housing Circle 33 to provide support (the council still owns the new homes). He identified available land and demonstrated the scheme was viable. He approached the Community Self Build Agency, all the while encouraging other council tenants to join the group.
They worked evenings and weekends for 18 months fitting out the insides of the houses, attending evening college classes to learn more about construction and carpentry. No one could move in until all the homes were completed and they had successfully worked on each others’ houses – a truly collective endeavour. After they completed the kitchen fitting and carpentry training in March 2015 the group moved on site.
The award-winning project in Toxteth, Liverpool, focused on giving people in housing need access to shared ownership, while also building up relationships between future residents and the wider community.
Future residents had to already live or work in the city, or otherwise have strong links. These “home partners” worked with volunteers to construct 32 houses. In exchange for 500 hours of work on site, future residents received “sweat equity”: a £10,000 reduction on the cost of their home. A model of shared ownership, potential residents also had to have an income that would permit them to take out a mortgage to cover at least 50% of the value of the property.
The schemes that have succeeded are to be commended and celebrated. Often championed by one or two individuals determined to see the projects through against the odds, these schemes are hard work, requiring specialist training in construction, group processes and conflict resolution. They have to be carefully managed. Finding land and investment partners, bringing on board housing associations and councils, and maintaining peace between the various groups, all require significant time and energy. At the same time, this is set within a housing economy that favours large house builders and profit-driven developments.
The significant barriers to self build in the UK that have resulted in a sector dominated by middle-class homeowners reflect the state of the wider housing economy. Widespread adoption of group self build schemes faces serious challenges from rising land and property values and profit-driven housing developments. Nonetheless, with some hard work and organisation, they can offer alternatives to mainstream housing both for those people who can’t afford to buy a property and those who need a decent roof over their head full stop.
Thanks to Ben Adam-Smith at House Planning Help for coming along to the exhibition and for the opportunity to talk about selfbuild research. We focussed on the 5 characteristics of self builders. Listen again here!
This week marked the end of the project and was jammed full of events, including the launch of the end of project report. It draws on the empirical research conducted with self builders privileging this in-depth research. In this way it provides a nuanced understanding of their experiences, valuable in demonstrating the limitations and challenges of the self building as a practice, the social relationships that sustain it, and its financial constraints. I have uploaded it here for you to download. You can also download the earlier report – Creating a nation of self builders – from the project that provides a little more context to understanding self build in England.
Yesterday was an exciting day as I prepared and installed the exhibition at 310NX Road. It is all up and running and now I am waiting for my first visitors. The exhibition features visual materials produced with and by many of the self builders who I have worked with over the course of the last three years, and tells their stories through a selection of narratives intended to highlight the diversity of their experiences. Come along, draw your dream house and see the exhibition! We are open this week, Tuesday to Saturday 9.30-5.30pm, with a late opening on Thursday.