17 Jul 2018

The essential guide to Custom Build and key models for owner-commissioned homes

The essential guide to Custom Build and key models for owner-commissioned homes

Custom Build is loosely defined and often confused and misunderstood. As a term, Custom Build has been around since a Government strategy document of 2011, and refers to the building of owner-commissioned homes.

Distinctly, Custom Build is linked with some form of support for the purchaser, making it an easier route to a bespoke home than Self Building.

The organisations providing this support are frequently referred to as enablers, who work to bring a site on to the point where it is ready to build on.

These could be landowners, local councils, housing associations or groups of people. They may also be Custom Build developers, who are building out the houses themselves, and will commit to build out any unsold custom homes speculatively to complete the scheme.

Unlike with Self Build, on a Custom Build site the enabler has undertaken the hard work of sourcing land, securing a guarantee that planning for housing is acceptable, and has undertaken the infrastructure work of putting roads and services in.

Typically some level of planning permission is granted on the site, either outline or full planning permission that allows for a range of options.

Essentially, Custom Building is easier than Self Building, as it de-risks much of the process.

Once the site is up and running, the consumer gets involved at the point of purchase – either of a serviced-plot, ie that has had all the pre-building work done on it, or of some other stage of the build, such as Golden Brick or wind-and-watertight shell.

They do not buy a completed house at the open-market stage, which is the dominant model in the UK’s housing market.

Equally, spec-built homes with a limited range of choices, such as fixtures and fittings, are not Custom Build homes. Nor is Custom Build the same as buying off-plan, as it involves greater financial commitment and input into the final home.

Custom Build models

Custom Build operates on a spectrum, and enablers offer a range of routes for this more ‘hands-off’ journey to a consumer-commissioned home. These vary from site to site, but dominant models are emerging.

Custom Build is usually pitched at individual buyers, but group Custom Build offers a different route to home ownership.

For individual householders, the route ranges from a serviced-plot with few constraints, right through to delivering a complete bespoke turnkey home.

In addition, many models can be tailored to allow for different levels of “self-build” or “self-contracted” work for those people want to take on some element of the build.

The amount of ‘self finish’ work people choose is often dictated by the drive for affordability, and is frequently up for negotiation on many sites. For example, community-led housing groups will often be more hands on, both as a means of cost control and forging community ties through the experience.

However, very few Custom Builders actually do any ‘Self-Building’ at all, rather, they follow a commissioning process. So if they take on the build project prior to completion, they will usually be sourcing their own contractors for the remaining jobs as opposed to doing the work themselves.

Despite Government definitions, industry and local government have a tendency to use Self Build and Custom Build as interchangeable terms. This only serves to confuse the public, as it prolongs the misconception that Custom Building means Self Building, which means laying your own bricks.

If Custom Build is to sell itself to the mass market, it needs a limited number of easily-understood models to dominate, so that the public can understand what each route can deliver, and the benefits and drawbacks of different models.

Steps to ensuring consumer confidence

Choice of a few, easily understood models

Standardised processes for each model

Simple explanations of the jargon, eg plot passports

Accessible support choices: finance, insurances and warranties.

Transparent approach to costs and the implications of design changes


Custom Build models for individuals

These all offer sites with infrastructure, such as roads, in place, with services provided to the plot and some form of planning permission in place. This might be outline or full planning permission.

In theory, this means the time frame from purchase to building can be very quick in comparison to traditional Self Building.

Serviced–plot model – Plots are ready-to-build on, which enables households to commission and co-ordinate the design and build of their home, typically working within a set of design parameters.

Fixed-developer model – This land-and-build service is Custom Build in its most pure form. With this route you purchase a serviced plot with a design in place from a range of developers/house manufacturers, which you tailor to your preferences.
In some cases the plots don’t come with a set of pre-approved plans, with the expectation that you will work on the designs with the developer(s). In other cases, the homes may be pre-designed but customisable, offering a range of layouts or sizes, for example.
On large sites, we’re starting to see the arrival of digital house configurators that allow people to experiment with designs, for example choosing room sizes or finishes, and the cost implications of these options.

SliderStudio's custom build homes configurator

SliderStudio’s configurator for the HTA/Potton house at Heartlands

Purchase points

With all these models, there are usually options for the transfer or purchase point of the house. An earlier exchange, will often give buyers more freedom to bring costs down by negotiating their own deals with contractors, or even taking on some of the work themselves.

Golden Brick Using a serviced-plot model, with Golden Brick buyers purchase the plot and the transfer happens once the foundations and first layer of bricks, the ‘Golden Brick’ are built to their design.
Effectively, the plots are sold with foundations, drainage, substructure walls, ground floor slab and services in place.
This mechanism allows the enabler to easily pass on the Self Build tax benefits to the purchaser. In some models, the below ground works will be fulfilled by the enabler’s contractors, such as at Graven Hill.

Shell Handover at wind-and-watertight shell allows the purchaser to follow a Self Build route from this point, either contracting the first- and second-fix work or undertaking the work themselves.

Self Finish The house will be handed over at an agreed stage with most of the construction work done. This allows owners to finish the work themselves, such as painting, or installing fixtures and fittings.

Turn-key The contractor you work with will hand over the finished house ready to move into, built to your agreed specifications.

Some Custom Build developments offer a choice of options offering greater flexibility across the scheme. On these sites, you choose your design, then you choose your handover option, from serviced-plot, shell or turn-key.

Group Custom Build

In comparison to the individual Custom Build route where the householder is the customer, in Group (or Collective) Custom Build the customer is a group of households. These will be working to create individual homes in a single building or on multi-home site.

Groups might be building on development land, or may purchase a site with existing buildings that they will renovate or replace, and complement with additional housing.

Unlike the individual approach, a group will typically be involved in the sourcing and purchasing of land, obtaining planning permission, and arranging infrastructure.

Typically, they will combine to form a corporate entity to buy the site, which will then be split into individual ownership upon completion.

Special advice should be sought to ensure that this mechanism doesn’t attract unnecessary financial charges, such as CIL and SDLT, which can be triggered when the ownership transfers.

Other group routes offer great solutions for cities, where a developer or enabler builds an apartment block or land, and assembles a group that will customise individual flats.

Community-led housing

With this route, the customer is a community organisation, which may or may not include the households that will live in the homes. These groups may be following a cohousing model, with shared facilities, or Community Land Trusts, which try to lock in affordability on site in perpetuity or other models.

Community consent is involved throughout the process in key decisions: what is provided, where, for whom and at what price.

Effectively all community-led housing is a type of Custom Build, as they are involved in the design and creation of their homes.

Refurbished Custom Building

This is a European model that’s yet to get off the ground in the UK, although it has huge potential. With this, existing buildings are re-purposed for Custom Building, typically on an apartment model where the space is subdivided and then brought on to a level of finish, such as to shell, where individuals take over.

Examples in the Netherlands have included redundant housing estates or civic buildings, such as schools, where a contractor has regenerated the building fabric and exteriors, and then purchasers buy multiples of basic units.

The owners then convert these into homes, either by using contractors or undertaking the work themselves. The apartments may be handed over as shells, with a tap, toilet and power connected up, or simple rudimentary kitchens and bathrooms, depending on the model.

Design terms

Custom Build requires many planning considerations to be made in advance of the consumer being involved, while still giving some element of choice. To facilitate this, a range of documents can be used to set out the limitations and, again, different sites use different combinations.

Pre-planning is agreed for Custom Build sites on the condition that you meet the conditions set out by these documents, such as a design code or plot passport. Some sites may require you to apply for full planning permission for your design, while other might have a fast-track, say 28 days, that automatically grant you full permission, as long as your design follows the guidelines.

Masterplan – this is a framework document for a district, residential area or region that sets out the large-scale vision. A masterplan might include areas set aside for Custom Building or community-led housing, general housing and infrastructure such as roads and amenities. It can also refer to a project, such as the masterplan for a regeneration area or a housing development, setting out expectations for the site.

Design Code – this sets out the parameters at a development level, such as the location of roads, areas allocated for different types of housing etc, such as two-storey homes or apartments, and so on.

Plot Passport – this will set out what can be built on a plot-by-plot level on a development. It might include a list of maximum sizes, guides to the location of the building/parking on the plot, and lists of approved materials and finishes.

Palette of options – this refers to a range of pre-approved materials that you can choose from for a design or site, when a Plot Passport isn’t used. For example, it might include a selection of colours for render, brick and cladding types or roofing materials, and so on. Often these will include a few vernacular materials, such as pale stone in the Cotswolds or red brick in the north of England.

Together, these guides set out the parameters for the development, offering greater or lesser design freedoms depending on the site. You may find some or all apply to a site, and they offer guarantees to planners and local people/prospective neighbours that the development will have some form of homogeny.

Again, the are a way to de-risk development and provide assurances about quality and appearance in terms of placemaking.

Graven Hill plot passport's first page

A Graven Hill plot passport’s first page, detailing the essentials for each plot

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