25 Jul 2016

Developer Town on how custom build can help make better housing

Jonny Anstead & Neil Murphy
Developer Town on how custom build can help make better housing

Jonny Anstead and Neil Murphy are consultants turned developers who set up TOWN in 2014. “We’d previously worked for Beyond Green, originally a sustainability consultancy working in the built environment sector, and we were instrumental in its move from a consultancy to developer,” says Anstead, Director. This experience gave them the drive to strike out alone, “as we wanted to get closer to the delivery rather than the planning end,” he adds.

“Working on extremely large strategic land projects means we’re very aware of the quality of existing housing provision and its shortfalls. The UK doesn’t have many high-quality developments delivered by alternative build routes, and we felt we could help redress this imbalance,” says Murphy, Director.

“Planners have very little trust that developers are going to do what they say they will. We wanted to show that housing done well can be something that adds value to local areas rather than becoming a blot. And the only way you can do this is by actually building decent schemes.”

Neil Murphy of Town

Murphy: We’re motivated by our desire to see a better kind of development in the UK

In line with this ethos of better building, TOWN decided that custom build offered masses of potential. “It’s a growing niche and a force for good in the wider residential development industry in the UK. It seemed like the perfect fit for us,” says Anstead. “At core, custom build is about giving people more control over designing their living environment – both the home and the place it’s in;  with the professional quality and management that comes with a developer-led process,” adds Murphy.

Community housing

TOWN’s custom build homes philosophy evolved around its involvement with the K1 Cohousing project in Cambridge. Group builds can be notoriously tricky, so this was not necessarily the easiest route into custom designed homes. “Actually, working with the K1 group has been surprisingly simple. The group pre-dated the development and has a strong sense of identity. It’s got solid decision making processes in place, and it already had a good relationship with the council and a well-thought-out brief for what it wanted from its development partner.”

Working with Swedish developer Trivselhus, TOWN has taken on the role of the developer on site and is ultimately responsible for building and overseeing the entire project. It purchased the land from Cambridge City Council and worked with Mole Architects who collaborated with the residents to formulate the plans. K1 Cohousing will use Trivselhus’ timber panel ‘Climate Shield’ system, including factory-fitted windows,  fabricated in Sweden. Murphy states that this offers both cost and quality efficiencies with regards to ease of build, air tightness and flexibility, as the system removes the needs for other structural components.

With regards to residents, K1 embraces a range of purchasers, including single people, couples, young families and downsizers, all with different needs and desires. TOWN has deployed a series of configurable shell dwelling types, including terraced houses and Tyneside flats, which enable customers to tailor their layouts to their needs.

Dwellings vary in width to achieve different dwelling sizes, but are designed with the same depth, allowing homes to be arranged efficiently in any order within a terrace. Effectively, it is not just the homes but the streetscapes that are the products of a custom process. “What we really wanted people to experience was the opportunity to configure the design to suit their lifestyles,” says Anstead, “and the shell model lends itself to this.”

TOWN's Jonny Anstead

Anstead: People want homes designed to suit their lives

Throughout the development, flexible loft spaces can be used for storage or to create a second floor habitable space. “The benefit of this is that, thanks to the insulated panel system, it’s easy to convert a storage loft at a later date as people’s circumstances – or budgets – change. The system also allows conventional apartments to be customised, although with more limited layout options. At k1, Tyneside flats offer a ground floor unit, which is a more affordable, entry-level option that is smaller with fewer customisable options, with a more flexible duplex flat above. Having a range of houses and flats creates diversity in housing supply on the site, meaning that it appeals to a broader spectrum of people.

“The wider application of the K1 typology is that a lot of people want the kind of customisation experience they traditionally associate with period houses which they buy to do up.  The basic qualities of high ceilings, big windows, lots of light are all there as standard, but you might want a knocked-through or divided ground floor; more or fewer bedrooms and a different attic space,” says Anstead.  “We can envisage this kind of style and process of custom development working well on urban sites all over the country,” adds Murphy, “whether as cohousing or just where there’s market demand for a type of living environment that the general run of new house-building isn’t providing.”

Compared to the usual draw-down mortgage model commonly seen on custom homes UK projects, K1 has not been forward funded by the buyers. The actual purchasing process is more akin to a standard off-plan build development, with a reservation fee and deposit followed by the remainder on completion. “Custom build is going to evolve for us and we’re look at projects where you adopt different models, even several financing models in a single project,” says Murphy.

“However, this would depend on the appetite of the purchaser, from a serviced plot allowing them to contract their own builder, to a complete house purchased through a menu-based customisation approach. We feel that there’s a market for both these routes. It’s natural that one model won’t suit everybody.”

 Learning points for working with cohousing groups
  • Help residents develop a strong and consistent group decision making processes.
  • Nurture solid links with the planning authority.
  • Support the group so that they know what they want from, and what to expect of, you as a developer.
  • In planning discussions, stress the fact that custom build operates as a supplement to – and not a replacement for – conventional housing delivery.

Beeston Park

TOWN, working alongside investors U+I Plc, is also managing the promotion of Beeston Park, a 3,500 home urban extension in Broadland district, north of Norwich. There, custom build is one part of the mix of homes envisaged, with the scheme’s planning permission committing to at least 88 custom and self build plots being provided.

Early market testing was undertaken in conjunction with BuildStore which indicated demand  for self and custom build housing. “We think that on a project of this scale it makes sense to deliver a wider range of provision and supply,” says Anstead. “We welcome conversations with other companies that want to get involved with the provision of custom build at Beeston Park.”

And the council’s attitude to a diverse housing supply is positive, as Murphy explains: “Broadland wants housing delivered quickly, and knows that custom and self build may offer an alternative and speedy route to housing delivery that doesn’t detract from the conventional supply route offered by the volume builders. Essentially it’s creating a market for people who they know just wouldn’t buy a speculative new-build house.”

But beyond this, TOWN believes that custom build has the potential to build something more attractive and distinctive; a place made by the people who are going to live in it. “We’ve learnt that community is a really powerful thing in terms of how people feel about a development,” says Murphy. “But the sector needs to be more ambitious – we need more SME builders and developers, more custom built homes and more diversity of design and placemaking.”

Anstead adds: “People say custom build is a niche but on one level so is all development; lots of people don’t want a new home from a big builder even though they dominate new supply.  We need to reach a point where custom build has enough support to sustain large companies, as well as small ones. The sector needs to work together to develop the industry, rather than being protective of our own projects. We need a range of projects and models so that we can say to people, ‘look, custom build is all of these things, it’s about choice and empowerment’.”

Credit: Cigar Park, Beeston Park; Keith Hornblower

Editor’s comment

So much of what Murphy and Anstead say about custom build is true. It offers a dream to many of a tailored home, and creates a new-build market for people who would traditionally prefer to renovate precisely because they have the period features of light windows and space, that they can freely customise. It seem ludicrous not to be able to offer this market the same choice in new housing, which Town truly understand.


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