06 Oct 2015

Guest blog: Chris Brown, Igloo Regeneration

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Guest blog: Chris Brown, Igloo Regeneration

“With a commitment to creating affordable homes with a sense of community, Igloo Regeneration is at the heart of what custom building is all about. And as Executive Chairman, I can think of no better definition than that used by Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis during the Right to Build debate in the house:

It is right to put on record the important distinction between custom build and self build within the sector. The definition of self build covers som­eone who directly organises the design and construction of their new home, while custom build covers someone who commissions a specialist developer to help to deliver their own home.”

Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Housing and Planning

“For me, there are many flavours of custom build, such as, the German-style Baugruppe group model, Almere‘s terraced houses, the factory-built model that dominates in Japan and the US ‘stick home’ model. But the UK needs all of these and more to help diversify its housing market. We need to take the best of these systems and recreate their successes here.

Offsite construction is a key factor in Japan's housing supply

Offsite construction is a key factor in Japan’s housing supply

“With regards to our positioning in the sector, Igloo sees itself firmly as a custom build enabler. We’re all about making sites happen, and we use our long track record of working with land owners and investors to create great neighbourhoods and friendly communities.”

Working together

“For Igloo, creating synergies is the key to making good custom build happen, and we’ve nurtured a range of partnerships, with investors, local authorities and communities. For example, Igloo partnered with Blueprint, in conjunction with Nottingham City Council, to enable Blueprint’s Green Street Phase II, which allowed it to bring forward its first ever custom build plots as part of the wider development. It’s our ambition to work with people who want to make places better for both people and the planet. And the more landowners, investors and communities that are engaged in this the better.

“But we can’t partner with everyone, so we try and pick the best possible organisations to deliver the best results. What’s more, all of these partnerships are excited by the potential of custom build and they’re busy bringing forward custom build projects.”

Going large

“A major driver for custom build is the creation of affordable homes with a community approach built-in from the very start. It is this affordability that the Government is so interested in as a way of diversifying our housing market. But for me, it is volume sites that hold the key to unlocking this potential, which, as yet, we’re not seeing enough of in the UK.  And Igloo is committed to bringing on these large scale schemes that are vital if custom build is to go mainstream.

“No-where is this commitment more apparent than with our Heartlands site in Cornwall. Here, we’ve created partnerships with select architects and home manufacturers to deliver a range of properties that offer greater choice. We’ve taken inspiration from the Dutch-style individual home approach used at Almere, and have created six designs – each by a different architectural practice, that purchasers can choose from. As well as the tailored approach to layouts and finishes, Igloo is enabling a far more exciting approach to custom build. And it’s this choice of external designs that is helping us create a style of development rarely seen in our market.

“This innovative model is a UK first, and and offers purchasers far greater choice than any other custom build site currently emerging in the UK.

“In addition, we also want to introduce a German-style building group version, similar to that adopted by some cohousing groups. The success these models have experienced in their home countries can, and should, be re-created here. We need to trial a range of models as not all approaches work on every site.”

Barriers to success

“Looking ahead, the custom build homes sector faces a number of challenges. For example, with regards to local authorities, it’s not the inability to access funding that’s a barrier to growth. Rather, as a consequence of continued cuts, there’s a skills shortage in that there just aren’t enough estates people in position to do the necessary work to bring the land forward. It needs more than just money to turn ideas into sites.

“But the most significant barrier to growth, is an actual understanding of what custom build means, and that volume is key to the success of the sector. And this is often at a local government level as well as a lack of understanding by the public.”

Customers in the UK haven’t experienced custom build in their lifetimes, whereas the system is mainstream in most other countries.”

“Both the Homes and Communities Agency and a number of planning authorities (and, initially, some parts of the DCLG ) were confused about the difference between custom build and self build. This meant that all but one of the Government’s pilot sites have less than 15 homes, which to me means that they were really targeted at self build. Custom build has to embrace volume sites, hence the fact that we’re piloting the only large scale HCA site at Heartlands in Cornwall.

“The lack of understanding about scale is widespread. In fact, many planning authorities started their custom build experience by stating that every large conventional development must have a small proportion of ‘custom build’ on site. This will never work, as efficient custom build business models need a site of around 100 homes to benefit from scales of economy. So the big challenge will be allocating enough large sites in local plans in accordance with the NPPF.

“The Right to Build registers are desperately inadequate in assessing demand for custom build. Opinion polls are much better and Ipsos Mori’s work for NACSBA suggests that, in the long term, around half of our allocated land should be for custom build and self build. What’s more, local authorities, ­ probably with Government help, will need to bring down the time for reserved matters approvals from the five weeks the planners in Cornwall hope to achieve to the 3 days that exists in Holland.”

Creating awareness

“But it’s not just the councils that need to establish new patterns of thinking, as the most significant barrier to success is public perception. Customers in the UK haven’t experienced custom build in their lifetimes, whereas the system is mainstream in most other countries. The same is true of professionals; planners, valuers, mortgage providers and government agencies all need to change their ways of doing things if custom build is to succeed. It isn’t self-build!

“When you explain custom build to someone with no prior knowledge of the concept about the possibility of getting involved in the creation of their own home, they’re simply blown away by it. Building your own home really is a dream for many people, and custom build allows them to realise that dream simply and easily. But the good news is that this understanding will increase exponentially as the first sites come on stream because they will be very photogenic and newsworthy!”

Editor’s comment

Igloo is stepping up to the challenge of custom build and, together with Cherwell County Council’s Graven Hill site, it is truly a pioneer treading a new path. I’m convinced that the future of housing supply in this country has to include volume custom build sites that take us beyond the blight of brick and block starter developments with poor design and mean proportions. Brown is correct when he says that there’s a correlation between volume and affordability, and this has to be exploited.

But the UK house building industry needs to be diverse, and to this end smaller custom build, and self build, sites are still a valid part of the mix. And in some cases developments with a limited amount of homes on them are a logical solution, such as pockets of land within village boundaries or in urban settings. When you look at the housing shortfall in the UK, surely there’s enough room in the market for this level of diversity. What do you think?

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