As the year changes so I come to the end of my fourth decade of involvement with self-build. In two years’ time I will have completed five decades in the world of property and building.
But there was someone who came before — Murray Armor, who was acknowledged as the father of modern self-build. He wrote the first self-build book and he helped grow what was a fledgling and fairly marginal interest into a mainstream industry. He was quite prominent, appearing on television and writing for magazines and newspapers.
I remember the last self-build show Murray attended: it was the National Homebuilding & Renovating Show in the mid ’90s. He didn’t have a badge on and was wandering around in almost total anonymity. I asked if he minded that hardly anyone manning the stands – people who probably owed their very presence there to him – recognised him. “I don’t mind at all, dear boy,” he replied. “In fact, I quite enjoy it.”
So what would Murray make of things today? He’d be pleased at how so many of the things he nurtured have grown into maturity. He’d be pleased that many of the companies he either founded or supported are still active. But I think he’d also be saddened at some aspects of the industry, although I’ve no doubt that he’d understand that they were, perhaps, inevitable.
We were a cottage industry and the change to mainstream has brought with it a loss of the sense of pioneering individuality. But I think what would sadden Murray the most is what has grieved me recently: the growing-up process seems to have resulted in a certain loss of responsibility.
At the exhibitions of the past, people came to join our club. Package companies or dedicated self-build architects held their hands and guided them through the process, advising what was and was not feasible. Magazines trumpeted the savings and the increases in equity that self-builders made.
Now it sometimes seems a rawer business — selling what it can to who it can and to hell with the consequences. I recently visited a couple who’d just finished their new home. Like kids in a sweet shop they’d bought into and purchased everything going — spending more than double the amount that the property value warrants. They’re in an area of high rainfall, yet invested in rainwater harvesting. They’ve bought a ground-source heat pump that’s totally unsuitable for their home and simply can’t cope. Their electricity bills are almost double what they were expecting and yet they’re not reaping any of the comforts. They’ve even spent what many self-builders would consider to be half of their total budget on smart home technology that they barely understand. Yet nobody seems to have cautioned them. Nobody seems to have guided them away from the feeding frenzy that their enthusiasm and purse engendered.
They now question the veracity of the information they were given. But when they complain that the equipment is not up to the task, what do they get? A slow dawning realisation that they’re yesterday’s clients.
Murray would turn in his grave. I can do no more to help them than I can another couple who’ve been ripped off with a £43,000 architect’s bill for a house of less than 150m2. But I can, with the help of this magazine, warn others not to follow such examples. I can tell future self-builders not to take the sales patter at face value. I can remind them that almost everyone they talk to has a financial axe to grind.
I’m not asking for the self-build version of the nanny state. Heavens, no. Murray of all people would have been against that. But I am asking for some sense of responsibility, if not altruism. It’s always been the case that one section of the industry can exist in almost total ignorance of the technical merits of another. But surely it’s not too much to ask that they consider their products as parts of a whole rather than in total isolation.
This community has grown with its reputation for the advancement and enhancement of people’s lives. If it betrays those principles for a quick buck, it could shrink just as fast.