11 Aug 2020

Q&As with Kevin McCloud: Is Self-building Set to Improve Homeownership?

It’s no secret that millennials across the nation are increasingly struggling to secure a foot on the UK’s housing ladder. Amidst affordability issues, lingering student debts and scarcity in loan availability; homeownership prospects for this cohort are challenging to come by.

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Of course, Government schemes have aided the current deficit with the recently announced stamp duty holiday for properties up to £500,000 as well as Help to Buy programmes and ISA saving incentives. However, could there be an alternative route to homeownership on the horizon? Here, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, talks to self-build guru Kevin McCloud about the opportunities self-building poses for first-time buyers.

RK: Do you consider self-building a solution for first-time buyers that are locked out of the property market?
KMc: Yes, I think it’s essential that we don’t see self-build purely as a domain for middle-class people with middle-class budgets. With regards to Grand Designs...I do often point out that for every big, £2m house we feature; we also have a £150,000 property. For that matter, we also made a series called The Street in 2019, which was set in Graven Hill in Bicester, Oxfordshire. Here, we followed 10 households building their own homes; three of which were couples in their 20s who were starting from scratch. This programme had a huge following; particularly among first-time buyers, so the significant demographic growth for that series was in the 20-35 age group – people who are hugely affected, of course, by issues such as affordability and housing stock availability.

RK: Can first-time buyers get a self-build mortgage? Are there alternative funding options available?
KMc: Well, there’s always the bank of mum and dad if you’re fortunate! It’s interesting actually because when we started making The Street about four or five years ago, the number of mortgage providers for self-builders was merely a handful. However, fast forward to today, and there are around 30 providers. I have to say; the self-build mortgage is the most straightforward path to take. However, you do have to shop around and, of course, you will need to demonstrate earning capacity and that you’ve got some capital. Having said that; there are different mortgage providers out there, and there are plenty now that want to deal with the self-build market. For example, Ecology is one of the big self-build mortgage companies. Furthermore, Melton Mowbray and Tipton are two building societies with staff that have direct experiences of self-building. I believe the managing director of Melton Mowbray self-built his own house – I think it’s great to have someone with knowledge of both the financial and hand-holding side of the process.

One of the couples we followed on The Street, Chris and Roxy, did an extraordinary thing. Living with their parents, Chris went to college and Roxy worked on the till in a local supermarket, and the pair essentially squirrelled money away for about five years. They were determined to self-build and the drive they had forced them to compromise for a good few years of their lives.

RK: How can first-time buyers future-proof self-build homes?
KMc: I say the same thing to every self-builder...you should spend your money on the elements that add value. And, I’m afraid that’s not the bi-fold doors! For every set of bi-folding doors, you could have a large fixed pane of glass or a vent to let the fresh air in, for example. The ‘things’ to spend money on are the bones of the structure. In essence, it’s spending money on components such as insulation, making sure it’s draught-proofed, well-ventilated and ensuring that energy consumption is going to be low – and that it’s constructed from durable materials. The Vitruvian principles of ‘commodity, firmness, and delight’ apply – meaning make your buildings sound, strong and well-built; make them useful for people and comfortable...yet make them beautiful. I think the beauty of ‘delight’ comes from making the first two elements work well.

RK: Are there any design tips you’d offer first-time buyers/builders that could increase the value of their home?
KMc: Value is an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s not just about money, and it’s certainly not just about space either. We love to ‘value’ our homes – how much it costs per square meter or how many bedrooms it has – yet, in fact, what is more interesting is how you maximise the site. Every project we followed at Graven Hill – no matter how small or modest – had an architect or designer involved to help maximise the views, the light or the way the sun hit the building, for instance. I think...these are the hidden qualities that architects take extremely seriously, but the rest of us think of as simply ‘incidental’.

I’d say a sense of space and connection to light, a garden or the sky – a view of the stars, for example – is more important than having a large lounge. It’s the experiences within a building and how well they’re organised that makes a significant impact in terms of value. You would think that making something highly personal would make it unsellable. Yet, for 20 years, I’ve been watching people create highly individual builds; yet, their homes are incredibly desirable. In a way, if you create something with conviction and it’s well-built and well-desired, then it’s value will be assured.

RK: And, are there any design elements that you believe could devalue a home?
KMc: I think it’s imperative to remember our current needs; not our needs in five years’ time when kids come along, or 10 years when they’re teenagers or even 20 years when they’re flying the nest. All these things can be planned – and if they’re not physically built, they can at least be designed into your home, which a good architect will help you with.

I think it’s very easy to be seduced by silliness in life – we all fall prey to the same temptations. The idea of a man cave...a sewing room...or even a home cinema is great, but the critical thing is to ensure that whatever you design is flexible and can serve other purposes too. You don’t need to plan things to be extraordinarily extravagant; you can design flexibility into buildings with ingenuity. You don’t need lots of money to figure it out – just some smart thinking. It somewhat starts with lots of storage and making sure you’re using space and the full height of the building.

RK: Are there any self-build schemes you’d advise first-time buyers to investigate?
KMc: I’ll let you know when I find them! At the moment, we’re looking at new projects we want to follow for a new series of The Street. There are some schemes we’re hoping to follow, but they’re in their early stages. These programmes have taken what’s happened at Graven Hill and moved it on. For example, one of the projects we’re looking at is a community self-build scheme, where people are coming together and building with their housing association. In the next round of projects emerging from local authorities’ programmes, I’d like to see opportunities for people to work with others and come together as a group. It appears to me that this is the next big thing in self-build – a community focus, which is really empowering for young people. It gives them solidarity, strength in numbers and it means when they go to talk to a mortgage company, they can go in a group – there are lots of advantages here.

RK: Have you witnessed any alternative self-build methods first-time buyers are using to get a foot on the housing ladder? E.g. Multigenerational living.
KMc: The above mentioned community-based self-builds are the kind of things we’ll undoubtedly see more of. Multigenerational living is excellent, and it’s healthy that our streets contain houses for people of all generations and backgrounds. I also like the idea of tenure-blind housing...it’s civilised. I believe the community self- and custom-build scene will become particularly interesting.

RK: Are there any tips you’d offer first-time buyers/builders on maximising their budget?
KMc: First of all, don’t rely on the architect to give you a fixed cost; they always give you an approximate value based on precedent. However, do rely on either a builder to provide you with a fixed price or even a quantity surveyor. I’ve always felt very supported on projects by quantity surveyors; they’re very good at holding your hand and telling you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. In my view, they’re always worth it, because they will tell you exactly how much things cost.

RK: Location-wise, what do you think should be top of the list for first-time buyers when searching for a plot?
KMc: In this increasingly challenging world, we have to deal with carbon resources, changes in climate, unknown weather systems and a future where we might not have all the resources we need. Therefore, I’d be thinking to myself ‘where will I go that’s going to make me feel safe?’, ‘where can I go and not have to do everything myself and have some help?’. And, I think that comes from the community; I believe it comes from other people.

If I were looking for a plot to build on, I would seriously be looking at spaces like Graven Hill and other schemes. If your local authority doesn’t have a programme like Graven Hill, ask them why. The reason we made that series is because I wanted to demonstrate that self-building can be affordable and accessible to people from different backgrounds. The reason Graven Hill themselves agreed to do the series is because they wanted to show other local authorities that a small local council could get building. It took them seven or eight years, but they’ve done it!

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