As I have started to raise awareness about the project, I have found that quite a few people are interested to know why I am interested in selfbuild as a research topic. This is not an unusual enquiry – I found with my past research that people who are thinking about getting involved in research projects, or people who are already involved are always intrigued by the motivations of the researcher. What I can say upfront is that I am not researching selfbuild because I am a wannabe selfbuilder. The reasons for this are simple: I am tied to living in a particular area (because I work in a university), I am quite a lot younger than your average selfbuilder, I don’t have the time or energy I would need to plan a selfbuild (most of the time it is quite hard to think about how and when I will do the decorating in my house). In fact, it is not actually something that I have ever considered, probably because it is not yet considered as a mainstream housing option in the UK. What that doesn’t mean is that I won’t ever consider it. So these are all reasons why selfbuild is not on my personal agenda right now. But in terms of my sociological agenda, selfbuild is fascinating.
I came to the study of selfbuild through a research career focussed on relocation and relationships to place of residence. My journey first took me to rural France in 2004, where I studied the British who had chosen to move there between the 1980s and early 2000s. You might think that this is a far cry from selfbuild but a central theme of this research was to do with how these affluent migrants imagined rural France – as a form of rural idyll – and in term how these imaginings shaped their everyday lives in rural France. You can read all about this in my book The British in Rural France. I also conducted similar research with North Americans living in Panama (2008-10), examining their migration stories and exploring their relationships to people and place within the destination. More recently (2010-12), I worked on the project The Middle Classes in the City. This was an examination of how the middle classes living in London and Paris variously related to their place of residence and the other people living in their locations. Beyond the discussion of how these research participants engage in relationships to place, in each of my previous projects, I have (accidentally) done research with people who have undertaken massive renovation work on their properties and also people who have selfbuilt their homes, and it is the insights from these that initially inspired my idea for this project.
What struck me was that while I had been looking at relationships to place, I had not really considered the role of individual homes within this. Looking back at my research with selfbuilders in each of these sites, I came to the realisation that selfbuild was a very interesting way of looking again at the role of the home within these relationships to place and in locating people within the local community. But as I started to look at what we already knew about selfbuild, it struck me that our current knowledge is only partial; there was much bigger project to be undertaken than the one I had originally envisioned. This led to the development of a project that examined not only the experience of selfbuilders, their motivations and ambitions, but also looked more widely at the state of the selfbuild industry in Britain today, and also at how the selfbuild community is constituted – who are the people who build their own homes.
From a sociological perspective the project allows for insights into how people relate to their homes, but also uniquely reflects on how these are produced as well as consumed. It allows for the recognition of a wider social and political context that facilitates and/or hinders selfbuild in Britain today. It recognises the potential for diversity among selfbuilders. It looks at how the selfbuild market is constructed, and what that might in turn say about selfbuild in Britain today. All this and more.
So, why am I interested in selfbuild? My interest lies in viewing selfbuild as a case for examining how people, place and homes intersect and what structures and informs these relationships. Each of the stages in the research is set up to examine a different dimension of this relationship, from the details collected through the survey, the interviews I will be conducting with industry experts and other stakeholders, the analysis of how selfbuild is promoted, the visits to selfbuild exhibitions and the case studies I plan to do with individual households.