21 Nov 2017

Jonny Anstead of Town discusses the challenge of delivering custom build homes at scale

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Jonny Anstead of Town discusses the challenge of delivering custom build homes at scale

Delivering a bespoke home for an individual customer is straight forward, but what about delivering, on a single site, unique homes for a much larger number of households, i.e. custom build at scale?

The growing appeal of custom build housing lies largely in the increased choice it gives customers. As with self-build, it offers the chance to create spaces and designs that meet individual needs and preferences.

But to scale this up presents a unique challenge: how can you deploy custom build homes in a way that accommodates personal choice without becoming either a visual cacophony, or a construction nightmare?

Cohousing conundrum

This is the task we faced at Marmalade Lane, TOWN’s first custom build development. On this project we were tasked with designing and delivering 42 individual homes for K1 Cohousing.

The group is a diverse mix of people committed to building a community together on land owned by Cambridge City Council in Orchard Park, Cambridge.

And in many ways, it is the same challenge faced by the wider sector as it seeks to become more than a minority sport. So it raises the question, how can we scale custom build?

At Marmalade Lane, early discussions with potential design team members laid bare the complexity of delivering 42 bespoke homes. Some were hesitant about joining up for such an unusual project, with the anticipation that working with such a large number of individual end customers would be an exercise in ‘herding cats’.

Marmalade Lane

The residents wanted a lane to be the hub of the design at Marmalade Lane

Mole Architects, the chosen design team lead, was up for the challenge, bringing in their experiences gained from an extensive portfolio of one-off homes, together with more recent experience of designing larger housing schemes.

These meant that they were able to respond positively to the individual preferences of end customers, while remaining mindful of the critical path of a larger building programme. This balance has been a unique strength of the project.

A menu-driven approach to custom build scale

Custom build is all about allowing purchasers to suit their home to their individual need. We realised early on, however, that the degree of choice afforded to purchasers couldn’t be unconstrained.

To build cost-effectively, a degree of standardisation was important in driving the economies of off-site construction. And the scheme’s layout, around a series of terraced streets, called for a regularity of form.

But just as importantly, we sought visual coherence. This was partly to satisfy the planning authority, which in spite of being a custom build vanguard, was wary of permitting too much visual variation.

But it was also about achieving a design that reflected the ethos of a cohousing community – a balance of commonality and shared values on one hand, and individuality on the other.

The result was a menu-driven approach to custom build scale. Purchasers selected from a range of terraced house types, and configured these from a series of floorplans, allowing them to tailor floor area, bedroom and bathroom numbers and finishing options.

Externally, purchasers selected their brick colour – from a palette of four bricks preselected by Mole. A common language of wall, door, porch and window proportions provided a strong sense of coherence to the overall street.

Marmalade Lane Configurator

Town’s configurator for house types at Marmalade Lane

Constraining choice

For some, restricting choice in the way that we have done at Marmalade Lane may go against the spirit of what custom build is meant to achieve.

This sort of option-based system might offer thousands of end outcomes, but all are variations on a basic approach. It limits creativity. But in housing, as in most things, less is often more.

With infinite choice, all but a few purchasers would find it almost impossible even to start. They would experience what Barry Schwartz has termed the ‘paradox of choice’ – the more choices available to us, the less we are able to make decisions. And the more options we have, the less we are contented with the choices we make.

If custom build is to become a force in the UK, it will be through models that limit choice as much as they enable it. Not because these models are readily scaled in construction terms (though they are) and not because they offer greater reassurance to planners (though they do).

Rather, it is because it is the only approach that will have broad market appeal. Of course people want more choice than the volume housebuilders provide (‘white kitchen units, or off-white?’), but few people have the expertise, imagination, time or energy to design or commission a home from scratch and many will be put off by too much choice.

Implications for legislation

This poses problems for policy-makers in defining custom homes. Should custom build be defined according to how much choice it affords end users – and if so, what should the threshold be?

Current legislation – principally the Housing and Planning Act 2016 – excludes ‘the building of a house on a plot acquired from a person who builds the house wholly or mainly to plans or specifications decided or offered by that person’.

This refers to regular house builders, but in effect it rules out any approach which packages a plot of land with a menu-based custom build approach.

This means that policy intended to grow the industry actively excludes arguably the only approach that has the potential to deliver at scale, to compete in the mass market and thus make a really serious quantitative as well as qualitative contribution to meeting housing need.

Of course, custom build, and the legislative framework around it, are both in their infancy and needs to be responsive to different approaches which will best help increase and diversify housing delivery in the UK.

Hopefully our experience at Marmalade Lane, together with other larger-scale custom build schemes that are currently under development by others – will help to enrich this debate and encourage the further growth of the sector.

Read more about TOWN’s vision here.

Editor’s comment

Anstead is correct when he says that we must reach scale with custom build – it has the potential to offer so much more than simple off-plan speculative builds. And the legislation really needs to acknowledge this and ensure that true custom build at scale is identified as such.

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