July 19, 2011

More on self-build, Tesco and kit homes

Strangely, the last post on our blog was on self-build, and now it is followed by a further one. The piece below was written for the Building Design magazine blog, on response to the announcement by the government and the Self-Build Association that they would be working with Tesco and other big retailers on a new approach to selling self-build plots and kit houses.

Self-build occupies a paradoxical place in today’s house-building market. Harking back to the outsider architecture of the plotlands, the vision of a self-made home is both utopian and ultimately capitalist; a threat to traditional planning and the dominance of the professional architect.

At its best, self-build is a fount of surprising and wonderful design, yet the reality of present-day self-build is almost always a barren Barratt estate built one plot at a time by small-scale builders from their pattern books.

Pattern book building isn’t a bad thing – from the flat-packed Sears houses sent by train to colonise the American mid-west, to 1970s Scandinavian kit-houses or the Muji homes, pattern book designs have been robust, innovative and an excellent low-cost method of building. So why does fear strike at the announcement that the government is to work with Tesco to create new self-build kits which can be placed on newly freed-up plots of land, with infrastructure provided by the supermarket itself?

Sears house from 1908-1914

Perhaps it is the continuation of the oppositional stance the current government has taken towards architects. There is no evidence that the opportunity for architects to be a partner in this process is even considered, let alone welcomed. It’s cheapness above all else - “the benefit to mankind of providing cheap housing is more important than having a RIBA-registered architect designing each one” - as if we were in a disaster zone, where the need for shelter trumps all else. The statement ‘if architects can match Tesco, great’ is a taunt rather than an invitation.

Architects can’t and shouldn’t have a monopoly over building. But to deny that we have the skills to contribute is to deny the evidence from countless projects across the world – from Architecture for Humanity to the extreme low-cost pattern book designs on which the Rural Studio in Alabama has been working for several years (and with I was involved with) - houses for only $20,000. Closer to the mainstream, Rural Design in Scotland has worked up a well-designed, low-cost pattern book rural house, and in the USA several architect-designed kit homes are on the market at a variety of price points.

The fear also stems from big retail strengthening its grip yet further on our urban landscapes. Tesco already builds large town-centre housing schemes along with its supermarkets, of undeniably low quality. Tesco doesn’t have the best interests of consumers, let alone communities, at heart. A Tesco house bought with a Tesco mortgage on a Tesco plot in a Tesco-managed estate, no doubt with a Tesco Metro on the corner, is a wonderful business model but not a way to make a community.

Tesco development proposed for Streatham

Tesco’s aim will be to maximize profit out of the new venture, not to create homes that have long-term social or economic value. There is a salutary lesson from the American trailer home – where, by the time the purchase loan has been paid off, the structure is so dilapidated as to be valueless, meaning that a new trailer has to be bought. A new pattern-book would be a wonderful thing – but a home value-engineered by Tesco? Hardly the self-build dream.

[There was a lot that couldn't be fitted into the 400-600 words BD asked for. Such as: what is different about this from any of the other kit homes that already exist in the UK market? Most of these kit homes look the same and cost the same (if not more) as an off-plan developer-built home, but they are built in areas where even small-scale developers won't go, i.e. deep rural. And it's unlikely that Tesco are going to start building serviced plots in these areas either.

Shapps's idea of self-build isn't about providing affordable homes, or a way of upscaling housing supply, it's a way out of having a proper housing or planning policy, another way of ducking the dilemma that the coalition faces of on the one hand, having to placate their NIMBY voters and on the other, the housebuilding lobby. If you can make bad volume housebuilding look like it's actually all about the little man building his castle, then that's OK, right? And the reason self-build isn't currently affordable is mainly because of land prices, so what is Shapps going to do about that?

Expect more when Shapps's main statement on self-build comes out later this week...]

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