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Best Practices for Human Settlements
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Self Built Affordable Homes to Rent
United Kingdom

Keyword: Homelessness & Housing


To enable people to build their own high quality homes to rent, thereby gaining skills and confidence as well as meeting their housing needs.



Significant numbers of homes are built by people every year for their own use. Generally the aim is to build a conventional home but a larger one than could otherwise be afforded. Many of these people have building skills of some kind and most have the capability of raising finance for the scheme.

A new approach to self build was formulated in the 1970s by architect Walter Segal to enable ordinary people with no previous skills to build their own home. His idea was to simplify the building process using post and beam construction which could be erected entirely by hand to provide a home of unconventional appearance but with a number of substantial advantages: wide choice of possible layouts and positions for openings, high levels of insulation, easy maintenance and scope for extension or alteration if housing needs changed.

The first community self build project using his technique was started in Lewisham in South London in 1978 and provided the builders with a low cost route into home ownership. The potential of this technique for helping people on low incomes acquire skills, confidence and a home then began to fire the imagination of people in different parts of the country and a lot more homes began to be built. A scheme was completed by young unemployed people in Bristol (Zenzele). Other techniques for achieving the same aim have been developed by other architects and the first self build for rent scheme began in Tower Hamlets in 1988 using one of these. As at March 1995, 36 schemes providing 214 homes have been completed and a further 20 proving 200 homes are under construction.

Agencies to promote self build have now been established: Walter Segal Self Build Trust (1987), the Community Self Build Agency (1989) and Young Builders Trust (1994).

Some of the earlier schemes were built by people who had been in the forefront of local campaigns for more housing, especially for single people. Brighton Diggers who completed their homes in 1994 had argued for the needs of single people to be recognised for many years. More recently, self build has been sought as a solution by disadvantaged low income groups as the best answer to their housing problem, as in North Tyneside. Schemes have been completed by ethnic minority groups too including Fusions Jameen in Lewisham.

There are a number of housing associations, who have promoted self build as a solution and helped and supported groups of self builders. CHISEL Secondary Housing Co operative have played a major role but at least twelve others have provided the supportive framework and finance necessary to enable groups to succeed.

Individual schemes have been submitted for consideration as examples of Best Practice to Habitat II. The purpose of this submission is to propose that the concept of self build itself is worthy of consideration, in parallel with consideration of particular schemes which illustrate how the scheme can best be made to work in different circumstances.

    Quantitative and Qualitative Impact

Self build produces affordable homes in the same way as homes constructed conventionally by a builder. The cost is no greater and, on a difficult site may be considerably less because of the simple foundations and unconventional layout.

In addition the cost of labour which is normally part of the building cost is contributed by the self builder. Payment for this labour may be deferred in return for a reduction in the rent of 15 30% which reduces the initial cost of subsidy, although there is no long term saving. Where a low cost home ownership option is chosen, the self builder's labour is translated into a equity stake in the final building.

Self build is not an option which will suit everyone but people of both sexes, all ages and all social groups have been successful self builders. It can be as effective as any other means of providing homes for people who need them, either by making opportunities available to the homeless or by enabling overcrowded local authority tenants to meet their needs, which in turn frees the original home for letting to the homeless.

Each self builder also gains substantial skills in construction. A link to National Vocational Qualifications levels 1 and 2 can be made so that a training qualification is obtained as the home is built. Small business enterprises in site management and the installation of recycled paper as an insulant have been formed following successful self build schemes.

Just as important, self builders gain confidence in their own abilities which stands them in good stead when seeking any kind of employment, not just employment in construction.

Self built homes are generally very environmentally friendly. The most common type of construction is timber frame with timber panels and timber windows which achieves high insulation levels saving around 5,000 kilos of CO2 per annum per house compared to building regulations. Use of timber from sustainable sources also helps to fix CO2 into the structure and take it out of the atmosphere. Self builders, because they are directly exposed to both the building processes and the environment of the finished house, have been keen to minimise the use of chemicals in all parts of the building process and create healthy buildings.

Some self build may use concrete which has high embodied energy but in a form of construction which requires very little use of fuel for running costs.

    Changes in Policy or Practice

The first self build to rent required the Housing Corporation to accept that homes built in this way were to as good a standard as conventional homes and that the labour put in by the self builder should be valued as part of the cost of the scheme. There was initial resistance but both were finally agreed in 1990. Self build is now a small but accepted part of the Housing Corporation's funding. There is very considerable potential for a much larger programme.

Self build schemes have also had to overcome obstacles put in the way of the schemes by local authority building regulation departments who have not always accepted that the building techniques were acceptable. This remains a matter for local negotiation but with increasing number of schemes in place in other local authority areas, it is becoming easier to obtain approvals for new ones.

The same problems have arisen with planning authorities who have said that detached properties are not appropriate to particular sites. Again this remains a difficulty to be overcome in new areas but increasing experience, and a wider range of self build house types, is making it easier to overcome.

    Narrative Summary
    Involvement of Users/Residents

Self build requires the users and future residents to be fully committed. All self build schemes include substantial training and consultation before work starts on site and continuing support thereafter.

    Acceptance and Support

The section above on "changes in policy" sets out the difficulties that have had to be overcome to gain acceptance of the schemes themselves.

There has also been some local authority on the grounds that self build cannot meet the housing needs of the most disadvantaged. Self build has now been achieved by a wide range of different people from different backgrounds and with different housing circumstances from homeless hostels and bed and breakfast hotels to existing but poor Council housing. It remains true that self builders have to have time available and to be self motivated but it has been possible from the examples of the self builders themselves to show that they are far from being an exclusive group.

The dual benefit of meeting housing need and enhancing individual confidence and capability is increasingly recognised under Government and local authority programmes.

    Promotion of Partnership

Groups of individuals formed to undertake self build will need to find land on which to build their homes, raise finance to meet the cost of the building materials, deal with the local planning and building regulation bureaucracies and obtain Housing Association Grant if they wish to build for letting at affordable rents. Several housing associations have specialised in providing services to self build groups to deal with these problems, forming a partnership with the self build group which enables the scheme to go forward and for problems to be overcome.

Local authorities have helped to encourage self build by setting aside land for self build schemes while the funding is sought, the group is established and the buildings are designed.


Qualification gained by individuals are generally validated as NVQs.


    By March 1995:

    • 36 schemes had built 214 homes,
    • a further 20 schemes were constructing 200 homes.

    Several agencies to promote self-built have been established.

    Construction and business skills are learnt.

    Common house designs save about 5000 kg of CO2 per year per house.


Self build homes are usually timber frame and achieve very high levels of insulation. A very high proportion of the materials used come from sustainable sources and involve much less mineral extraction or manufacturing. On completion they use less fuel than most conventional homes.

Self build provides a powerful example of how individuals can meet their own needs with less damage to the environment. Building homes for homeless people can still exclude them from the normal benefits of society: it solves their housing problem but none of their other problems. Self build has the potential to transform the lives of the self builders.


    The Community Self-Build Agency, Unit 26
    Finsbury Bus. Ctre, 40 Bowling Green Ln.
    United Kingdom
    EC1R 0NE


    National Federation of Housing Associations
    175 Gray's Inn Road
    United Kingdom
    WC1X 8UP
    0171 278 6571


    The Community Self Build Agency
    McGettigan, Anna: Com'ty Self-Build Ag'y
    40 Bowling Green Lane
    United Kingdom
    EC1R 0NE

    Walter Segal Self-Build Trust
    Broome, Jon: Architype
    4 The Hop Exchange
    United Kingdom
    SE1 1TY


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