On Tuesday I was lucky enough to attend an excellent event on collective custom build, hosted by the University of Sheffield Home Research Group.

Professor Fionn Stevenson, Head of the Sheffield School of Architecture, anchored the discussion and introduced the three panellists after an educational and entertaining video on the merits of collective custom build.

American architect and researcher Kristien Ring was first to the floor and was given 10 minutes, the allotted time for each of the speakers, to race through ‘Provision and Affordability’. Kristien, who has lived in Berlin for a number of years, showed slides of a selection of successful projects, sending a very clear message: this can work and frequently does in Germany!

Group custom build means that WE make our own cities and not investment banks. Government support is vital though, in the form of land grants or long-term leases of public land.

It was good to hear that in Kristien’s experience small-site collective custom build has provided an incentive to produce higher quality housing.

Then Mark Westcombe, Director of Lancaster Co-housing and Non Exec Director and Trustee of the UK Co-housing Network, took to the stage to talk through the evolution of Lancaster Co-housing project. Having visited it myself last year — and been thoroughly impressed by the beautiful location, high quality houses and community atmosphere — I thought I had a pretty good knowledge.

Well I was unaware of the struggle they had had trying to secure a plot of land. Mark said, “We looked at 21 sites over four years and this was probably the most painful part of the journey.”

Many of the sites they considered would have been ideal, as they wanted a central location in Lancaster, but often the owners were first difficult to trace and then demanded twice the actual value of the land.

Mark concludes, “There’s just too much land-banking going on out there.”

It was also funny to hear that the market crash was the best thing that happened to them!

Ted Stevens, Chairman of the National Self Build Association, was then given the task of assessing ‘The Future for Collective Custom Build’. How many events does Ted attend? He must be due for some sort of award for driving custom build forward in the UK! Ted also seems to have a hotline through to the government decision-makers.

Anyway he came armed with the graphs showing how little we self build and custom build compared to the rest of Europe, and also a few figures that really demonstrated that custom build is in its infancy.

He mentioned that there were only six projects completed in the UK in the last year and 15 projected for the next 12 months (although these projects clearly involve multiple dwellings).

His conclusion, or my interpretation at least, seemed to be the need to celebrate the successful projects.

Ted Stevens said, “We have to present collective custom build as a completely mainstream way of delivering lots of houses.”

He talked about how groups should be more professional in how they approach banks for financing. They must think of themselves as the developers they are.

In order of difficulty, the key practical challenges for groups are:

1. Land
2. Planning
3. Finance

All this was followed by questions and comments from the audience, that kept coming for the full 40-minute assigned duration, again showing the passion and desire to make this happen.

To highlight the calibre of people in the room, I was sitting between Baroness Maddock and Richard Bacon MP, both of whom were bubbling with enthusiasm. In fact Richard Bacon MP even announced that Nick Boles MP had dropped into the session for a time.

Baroness Maddock also had some good points on the importance of demanding more at a local level. I suspect she knows the system inside out, so we should follow her advice and get our local politicians involved and make them realise how strong the demand is for this.

So all in all, it was a very positive evening. Yes, this is only the beginning but the future is bright. Don’t fall over when I report this, too. There was even mention of three of the big volume house-builders who were keen to enable some group custom build.

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