Graven Hill is the largest self-build and custom build site in the UK, with 1,900 plot opportunities, of which 30% are expected to be affordable. Custom Build Strategy caught up with Karen Curtin, Managing Director, Graven Hill Village Development Company (GHVDC) about the latest initiatives to come out of Graven Hill, and the lessons that can be borrowed by other councils bringing on custom build homes.
While most local authorities won’t be bringing on developments of the size of Graven Hill, the principles of creating a medium or large custom homes site are the same. Incoporating a blend of house sizes will help create a dynamic neighbourhood that will nurture a community.
“We’ve got a mixture of apartments, terraces, mews, semi-detached, detached and live/work homes across a whole range of property sizes – from 1-bed all the way up to 6-bed homes,” says Curtin.
Rather than put numerous individual homes through planning simultaneously, GHVDC chose to obtain permission through a Local Development Order.
This applies to the first 198 units on the first phase of the site, including both the Golden Brick and other products.
Master Plans, Design Codes and Plot Passports all help create the parameters for both the whole site and individual builds – reassuring both the local authority and prospective purchasers that the scheme will work together and be homogenous.
Under the terms of the LDO, as long as you follow the Plot Passport checklist you can get fast-track planning permission in as little as 28 days. This ensures the scheme is reactive and can get built out relatively quickly.
A Local Development Order offers the distinct advantage of speeding up the process – key to any custom build site, and a watchword for Government, which is highly focussed on speed of delivery for new homes.
There’s a wide choice of homes on offer at Graven Hill, including Golden Brick opportunities. These are forecast at 45% of sales, with an estimated 14% delivered at shell and 11% turnkey. “However, given the project is rolled out over 10 years this could change according to customer demand.”
In addition to the design code and plot passports, which help shape the design vision, Graven Hill is zoned to create areas with varying degrees of freedom in terms of planning permission. This helps shape distinct areas within a larger scheme.
“As you would imagine, we want to have greater control over the build in the central areas, while the other nine character areas become increasingly more flexible for people to be more creative with their designs,” she adds.
New this summer is the range of tailored products for the central areas of the development that offer an alternative route to the more Self-Build feel that dominates the outer areas.
The Tailored Finish products offer a range of houses – rows of 4-bed, 3-bed or 2-bed homes that can be customised by the purchasers. These give customers the opportunity to customise their homes from a menu of internal layouts and a choice of three ‘style packs’ to reflect personal tastes: Contemporary, Traditional or Alternative.
In addition, the 1- and 2-bed Coach House products (lead image) offer an alternative route to a tailored home with a focus on live-work. Again, these products have a choice of two floor plans and three style packs.
Both options provide an alternative and potentially more affordable option to the Golden Brick route. They also have the benefit of being far simpler for those people who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, get involved with the contracting involved in the more Self-Build approach of the larger Golden Brick plots.
“We’re looking to provide an element of genuine choice and a range of ownership options, while trying to ensure that these routes are manageable,” says Curtin.
Innovating means you have to pay close attention to processes as they evolve and be prepared to be flexible, as Curtin explains:
Graven Hill’s Golden Brick homes all come with a Plot Passport setting out the standards, limitations and any choices for each specific plot. This solution gives freedom of choice to purchasers while retaining some design control over the homes. The passport provides a consistent framework under which self-builders can design with confidence and the certainty that adjoining dwellings are designed to the same rules.
“But this doesn’t have to be set in stone,” explains Curtin. “If a purchaser wants to do something that moves away from the Plot Passport then this can be explored. It does mean that they have to revert to a traditional planning permission process and gain consent from the company for the changes, but we’re open to the conversation.”
“For example, we had one of our plots where the owners wanted to install a lift to a sky garden. For this they went through the normal planning process and got planning compliance within eight weeks. We’re learning as we go here, and flexibility is important,” she adds.
This flexible approach also means they can respond to situations as they crop up. “For example, we’ve decided to delay our shell-build options to a subsequent phase, so that we can ensure the availability of applicable mortgage products.”
GHVDC is working with the supply chain and a number of registered providors to consider affordable aspects of the site, ensuring a range of homes and tenures are available on site.
But having a range of plots sizes and product with various levels of involvement and choice all contribute to creating a broad spectrum of houses. “This range of product really helps to address questions of affordability, ensuring that as many people as possible have the opportunity to customise a home of their own at Graven Hill,” says Curtin.
“Later this year we’ll also be launching our Pocket Plots,” she explains. “These will be a smaller plot, where we’re hoping that the total product in terms of the land, the foundation and the build are going to be fully completed circa £210,000. This is very economical in comparison to 2-beds in the surrounding area. And that’s a 2-bed home tailored-to-your specification.”
Don’t underestimate the amount of support your custom and self builders will need, advises Curtin. While the masterplans do help ensure you build a community, some customers will need a lot of information and hand holding throughout the process.
GHVDC recently set up a Plot Shop in Bicester town centre, which serves as a company headquarters, but most importantly as a hub for the sales process.
“But it’s more than just about marketing plots,” explains Curtin. “Graven Hill has a team of people who understand custom and self-build, and the buyers will be able to benefit from their expert knowledge. And they don’t just purchase a plot and are then left alone, they have support each step of the way.”
“Ultimately, it’s about providing people with a real alternative to buying from traditional developers. We’re giving them the opportunity to create a home that suits their needs and lifestyles,” she adds.
As well as creating homes and communities, custom build sites also offer the potential for councils to generate income. This can then be used to refinance other sites or be fed back into the wider community.
“The Right to Build agenda and the need for councils to consider commercial alternatives to fund the impact of austerity measures mean that councils need to be proactive moving forwards.
“I think that custom and self-build housing innovations have the potential to provide financial and social benefits to Councils,” she adds.
This entrepreneurial approach is also supported by a recent New Local Government Network report that recommended councils should be less risk adverse, but rather become more experimental and prepared to learn from any lessons along the way.
Custom build companies need to work with consumers to help them see what financing options are available for them. This means you need to understand and engage with finance providers, to ensure you’re giving consumers a clear picture of the market.
“For phase 1A we’re working with BuildStore, but we think it’s important that we continue to engage with a range of lenders and brokers,” she adds.
“This is very important to us as a company. Unlike a traditional developer where we just want to sell to create the highest margin, we’re trying to create a community here.
“Clearly our shareholder is the council and we want to promote custom and self build-as a product that can be for all demographics and all budgets. You don’t have to have cash in the bank in order to live in Graven Hill.”