The UK’s coalition government has made some policy changes in favour of self-build. You can see an overview of the changes here. One key change is full exemption from any sort of charge for infrastructure (i.e. the ‘Community Infrastructure Levy’) as discussed in my last post, on the former Olympics site in Stratford. More information about that here.
Dessau graduate student Winnie yuen-pik Chan has done a comparative study of Berlin baugruppe projects:
The comparison between a private developer project and a baugruppe project on pp. 61-64 is interesting. This is a German private development, so decently large. The baugruppe advantage here is cost.
Oliver Wainwright describes two group self-build schemes; one in Lancaster, another just outside Leeds. These two projects both emphasise building a sense of community, and have design features – such as a communal kitchen in Lancaster – to reinforce that. This might be a step too far for some, so it’s worth bearing in mind that you don’t have to sign up for everything good and holy just because you’re building as part of a baugruppe.
Compare and contrast. Chelsea Barracks, 5.2 ha. Sold for £959 million to a housing development consortium in 2007. Site remains empty. Woolwich Arsenal, 13 ha. Parcelled up and the best plots sold, from 2003 onwards, to housing developers such as Berkeley Homes and Barratt Homes. Large parts of the site remain undeveloped; enough for 5,000 (masterplanned) homes. Vauban, Freiburg, 38 ha. Sold, via an NGO, to a mix of private developers and baugruppen. Site is fully developed.
All of these sites were government sites (all were formerly defence sites). And while it’s arguable that the Chelsea site sale was ‘good value for the taxpayer’, there are good reasons for preferring the Vauban model over the Woolwich Arsenal model. With Vauban, the resulting development:
• Is democratic, and reflective of community needs and aspirations;
• Is socially well integrated;
• Has excellent energy performance;
• Conserves the best natural features, such as trees;
• Is interestingly diverse, being designed by or in close consultation with residents;
• Has safe, car-free residential streets (but with car ownership);
• Is popular: the entire site is now lived in.
Generally, the features of the Vauban Quarter were argued for, rather than imposed:
It was … meticulous liaison work with prospective residents that contributed to, and eventually built the necessary popular support for, some of Vauban’s most conspicuous innovations – such as the parking-free and carfree models of mobility management, the emergence of owner cooperatives (Baugruppen) as self-governed, non-profit developers and the instigation of building energy concepts far exceeding the already stringent legal requirements. Assisting people to translate their dreams and aspirations about sustainable living into feasible plans, and seeing them through a council planning department (that may be well-meaning in general terms but often sceptical in detail), became an invaluable role that Forum Vauban filled with verve, notwithstanding some inevitable conflict potential.
Of course if you look sympathetically at developments such as at Woolwich Arsenal, you can see some of the same planning ideas in play: there’s integrated public transport (the DLR extension) and developers are encouraged to create high quality public spaces, and to prioritise sustainability. But the dialogue between private for-profit developer and local authority, often antagonistic, is never going to much resemble the dialogue between future resident (and owner) and a non-profit development organisation like Forum Vauban. Developers have their own ideas about what appeals, and in Britain that often means a view of some water. In London, river front sites are strongly preferred, and are developed to very high densities. Meanwhile, other sites are neglected completely. Local authority planners struggle to give a humane shape to the outcome; often the result is very poor urban planning. Just try to take a walk along York Road, Wandsworth.
More about Vauban, Freiburg, here.
Community Build is a resource for matching people who want to join a baugruppe with projects, and projects with land. One project listed here is Slice London, a group of self-builders in East London: they were in the architectural press recently, and – as The Guardian reports – are interested in building on a former 2012 Olympics site. The LLDC (London Legacy Development Corporation) is mulling it over and inviting further expressions of interest. More on Slice London soon, I hope: it’s currently the only London baugruppe (that I know of).
Update: Look carefully, and you’ll see that the LLDC is being coy about what they might commit to. Probably the best thing they could do is just sell the land, blunting the price a bit: the group decides what to build (subject to planning and building regulations, obviously). But I’m worried that they’re thinking only that buyers get to tweak the layouts and outdoor spaces. If they start talking about ‘partnership with a developer’, run: that’s not what a baugruppe is about.
Since I’m a Londoner, I’m aware how difficult it is just to have somewhere to live. I got my first job (as an architect) in this city in the mid-90s. Naively, I thought you simply went out and rented a flat, on your own, and so I did. It was small, but decent: the place even had a tiny garden. Then I realised that I was shelling out 70% of my net income in rent: not sustainable. After moving back home for a bit to recover, I tried again, this time by sharing a flat: sensible. Not comfortable, or at all stylish, but sensible. Fifteen years on, I’m married, and now I can afford the rent, just about. And there’s a garden. But it’s still a stretch, and I suppose, when you think about it, it’s still a flat share.
Time to think about taking steps. If you’re not qualified to apply for social rented housing or other forms of subsidised housing, the obvious move is to buy. But buy what, exactly? New build housing everywhere in the UK is, to be honest, fairly terrible. The biggest problem is that new homes are very very small. Stuff like clothes, maybe some books, maybe a bicycle, become luxuries, simply because you can’t store them. And maybe you’re thinking of a family …
Older existing homes might be a bit bigger, but they can bring their own problems: they tend to have poor layouts (if they’re converted from something larger), poor insulation (both thermal and acoustic; you’ll be wasting energy and overhearing your neighbours), and maybe even poor air quality (damp and mould).
In summary – free market or no free market – British housing construction is just not good. Standards have been low for a long long time, and remain low. And for those low standards, prices seem staggeringly high. But there are still alternatives. The one that interests me most – and the reason for this blog – is group building. Or in Germany, where the idea is better established: the baugruppe. The concept is straightforward: a group of people, all with the intention to build their own homes, form a collective. There’s no developer, so no profit or marketing to be paid for. And construction standards, including space standards, can in principle be as high as the group can afford, and will agree to. Here’s an example (under construction) in Berlin: