Since the Industrial Revolution the assumption has always been that the only people who can build homes at scale are large organisations – either state or market – building whole estates; rows of one-size-fits-all boxes for imaginary “average” humans. Form follows finance.
In a way, the most extraordinary thing is that this top-down form of development became so normal. Planned communities tend to be, at best, dormitory neighbourhoods and shopping malls, and at worst, empty, economically dysfunctional accumulations of capital; permanent hotels for borrowers with ever larger mortgages.
The hidden flaw is that in the “current trader” model, the houses built by property developers are not actually designed as places to live, but as financial assets; to be sold to the mortgage lending market. The term “housebuilder” is actually a little misleading. A better description might be “land developer” a company that buys land and seeks to resell it with a 20% margin for its shareholders.
So, a sensible property developer sees all the things we might see as valuable about housing – quality, affordability sustainability, community leadership – not as investments, but as costs. No matter how much land we may release to housebuilders, no sensible executive will ever release so many new properties onto the market that they cause prices to fall. Their shareholders would (rightly) sack them if they did.
In other words, traditional property developers cannot solve the housing crisis, because they are almost perfectly designed not to.
So who can? There is only one group with a direct reason to build homes with – for example – better energy performance, and that is the people who are going to pay the heating bills: us. Unlike property developers, custom builders (individuals or groups who buy land and procure a home for themselves as a place to live) can usually procure their homes at a fraction of the equivalent property market cost. They can also break the cycle of community resistance to new, topdown developments.
Custom builders have always been there, it’s just that we’ve never taken them seriously as a scalable force for mass housebuilding. More Grand Designs than volume industry. In the words of one executive, it’s just “too damn difficult”. But what if it were now possible, using digital tools and the web, to make it less so?
Our first step might be to develop open source tools and platforms that radically simplify the process of planning, designing and constructing customised, high performance, sustainable, low-cost homes, and to put those tools into the hands of citizens, communities and businesses. That is the aim of the WikiHouse project, an open source construction system that allows online self-build models to be shared, improved, 3D printed and self-assembled.
But we also need to reform the land market, to make it dramatically easier for those without much capital to buy a plot of land and commission their own homes – either individually or as a group. All political parties pledge theoretical support for custom and self-build, and the government’s “Right to Build”, which allows people to buy council land on which to build their own houses, is a first step. But systemic change is needed to create a market providing land specifically for custom and self-build housing.
Let’s create a new land use class in the planning system “C5 Custom build”. In effect, that would create a parallel land market that differentiates between a house built as a speculative asset, and a house built as a place to live. Let’s create space for both, and see which works.
That is the real economic shift that citizens, with open tools and data will bring to housing. We will move, in the words of housing visionary John Turner, from an economy that invests in housing as a noun – a set of physical objects or financial assets – to one that invests in housing as a verb – a continuous process of maximising our social and economic success. As the cost of the first approach slowly suffocates us, it’s time to make a bet that the second will, on the long run, be worth billions more to all of us.
Artículo publicado en The Guardian