In the August 2011 issue of HB&R one home in particular caught my attention — a bungalow (‘Community Spirit’, pictured below) built as part of a group self-build scheme. It had the redolence of the bygone era when group self-build reigned supreme and the individual self-built home was just a hope on the horizon for many.

A family bungalow

Group self-build was and, to a large extent, still is an altruistic concept whereby the individual subsumes his/her own interests – at least for a while – in order to muck in for the common good. In the ‘Community Spirit’ feature the whole scheme relied on this altruism with, first of all, a Community Land Trust (CLT) supporting the project and helping it get off the ground. Secondly, it relied on the local planning authority recognising the social good that perhaps outweighed the normal constraints of building on land that had not previously been allocated for development. Thirdly, and crucially, it relied on the willingness of the local landowner to sell at what amounted to just £10,000 a plot — barely one tenth of the possible true value with planning permission. Now you could say that the landowner still received a good deal because the land may never have otherwise received planning permission. And with 12 plots totalling £120,000, the land fetched more than its equivalent agricultural value. Perhaps I’m being churlish here.

But the last and most important altruistic gesture was by the self-builders themselves. Typical of group self-build, everyone pitched in and helped to build each house – rather than just their own – spurred on and dictated by the fact that until they were all finished, nobody could move in. That, of course, was the Achilles heel that sank previous incarnations because, without the assistance of a CLT, if one party went bust or couldn’t fulfil their end of the bargain, the whole group was in jeopardy.

It’s good to see that ‘community’ is back in fashion. But it’s that word ‘fashion’ that will always be the brake on group self-build. Individualism is the current vogue that has evolved into the bespoke self-build that most of us recognise today. The stresses and strains of group self-build were evident in the ‘Community Spirit’ feature; the Mead family chafed against the conformity that the group rules sought to impose.

The other key fact the feature highlighted for me is that we continue to allow or allocate homes that are manifestly not fit for purpose to those in need. Will those self-built bungalows contain family life? The Meads managed, after a long struggle, to make the kitchen and ‘living’ room into one open plan space that now ‘serves as the hub of family life’.

Why do we as a society persist in allowing houses to be built as ‘family homes’ when they are injurious to family life? We allow an estate of five-bed houses to be developed in return for a handful of compensatory, small ‘affordable homes’, which are the precursors to the breakdown of family life, delinquency and, perhaps, the riots we witnessed this year? Why were the Parker Morris minimum space standards – that went part way to resolving these issues – scrapped?

Individual self-builders create affordable homes to suit their needs and provide the right environment for family life. Group self-build, in order to enjoy previous success, needs to adopt the same principles. Homes don’t have to be big. When my kids were teenagers we recognised that if they couldn’t have their friends round they’d simply go out, beyond our knowledge and control. So we built a home with an upper floor that provided a lounge for them with separate access and facilities. They had their own television, sofas and games tables. We knew where our kids were at night and, what’s more, so did the parents of all of their friends. And that home was barely 100m2.

Earlier self-built homes reflected our needs and later ones have reacted to our changing circumstances. That’s what all new homes, not just individual self-builds, should be about.

If you missed ‘Community Spirit’, read it here

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