• Wednesday , 13 November 2019

Urban Housing – Build It Yourself

Ongoing self-build construction in Almere.  (Image copyright of Chidi Onwuka). Ongoing self-build construction in Almere.
(Image copyright of Chidi Onwuka).

When the global crash first landed back in 2008, certain sage figures in the field of architecture astutely predicted that the impending doom would actually have long term benefits for the sector. They confidently told us that the lack of work would give architects breathing space; an opportunity to think and reflect about the direction the industry had taken in the preceding hectic period. Most people, understandably, didn’t take any comfort in this, some didn’t believe it, but it is only now that we can see what this time away from frantic production has brought about.

Gone are the days of large developer-led schemes, endless clients and buyers with large budgets; and nowhere more so than in the residential sector. The landscape has changed and we must accept the new economy. More than likely, it will not be returning to what it once was. In addition to this is an increasingly discerning market of clients and homebuyers who are more astute and more demanding than ever before. In many cases the traditional process of top-down thinking has ebbed away and what we remains is a generation eager for new homes that respond directly to how we live today. The endless fields of cash-crop housing of yesteryear (conceived as assets rather than homes) are unlikely to be fulfill the requirements and desires of this emerging demographic.

In the Netherlands these changes have led to a dramatic shift in the way cities are being developed. The traditional builders of Dutch cities, the housing co-operations and private developers, have almost completely stopped constructing new housing. However, the municipalities are still eager to provide new homes to relieve the growing pressure on the housing market (along with the aim making a profit from selling their land), so have turned directly to the house buyers themselves.

Large tracts of land that were originally ear-marked for typical residential suburban development were split up into plots and sold to individuals who could then build independently. In order to make this new scenario more attractive and to harness as many solo developers as possible, a substantial portion of these plots were zoned as ‘design review committee free areas’. This means that people are free to build whatever they want provided that they adhere to the assigned building envelope and technical building regulations. Schemes like this have proved to be a massive success in many cities such as Amsterdam, Almere and The Hague. Initially people camped outside the plot shops for days in order to to buy a chance to build their dream home.

The joy of building your own personal home is not only for the happy few, as municipalities introduced the I Build Affordable schemes, that aim to subsidise lower income groups and first-time buyers. The conclusion to all this is that the crisis effectively stimulated a paradigm shift in how Dutch cities are developed. No longer are large companies building repetitive housing for potential future buyers, but in actuality the home owner themselves are getting to choose what their house and living environment looks like.

In a way the process has come full circle; from merchants each building their own canal house to families currently creating whole neighbourhoods. However, this romantic notion has come at a price; the many uncertainties that accompany the design and construction of a one-off house have led to considerable strain on these first-time developers. A client of ours from IJburg, a self-build neighbourhood, told us how up to 30% of their neighbours had either gotten divorced or gone bankrupt following on from the process.

In terms of time and cost efficiencies, the new model is nowhere near comparable to the traditional developer-led schemes, since each single house is separately designed, engineered and constructed one after the other.

Typically architects have adapted to this new normal and have designed endless amounts of one-off houses in the last few years. However some architects saw this change as an opportunity to re-evaluate their role. This new generation of architects no longer waits for clients to ask for a design but is willing to pro-actively start up projects and form alliances in order to have an input at the outset.

Of the many new residential development schemes that have arisen, a particularly innovative example is WeBuildHomes. Initiated by architects Space&Matter[i], the concept is about combining the advantages of being able to choose your own house within the relative security and efficiency of a larger scale development. The premise is simple – Space&Matter formed an alliance with a developer and contractor, and created an efficient construction and development scheme that still offers a broad range of options for future homeowners via an online platform. They contacted a few of their contemporaries, young offices with big ideas but small portfolios, and asked them to design several typologies that they felt could replace the typical row terrace.

By working closely with the contractor, who specialises in prefabricated component construction, the architects developed a library of elements which could be assembled in a multitude of ways in order to create an endless variety of housing types. These houses can therefore be built very efficiently, but all are different in design, layout and materiality.

In addition, the use of prefabricated building elements allows for a very precise calculation of the construction cost. Together with the information provided by the developer, this allows WeBuildHomes to offer a suitable design for each site via the online platform for a fixed price, therefore minimising the uncertainty of unforeseen costs for the owner.

This is the game changer. It means that although the scheme uses prefabricated construction methods the consumer can still choose exactly what house they want to live in, as opposed to getting the exact same as their neighbours. Overall, the houses vary in price but not dramatically. Once a house of a certain type is sold on the street, they same one cannot be built there; diversity is key.

The project is in its infancy in terms of construction stage; so far 20 units have been completed with another 46 in the pipeline in The Hague and in Amsterdam. However, things are taking off and plans are already under way for further developments in The Hague, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Delft, Rotterdam and Haarlem. Before going to market there is the equivalent of outline planning granted for the row of houses. When all plots are sold with designs, full planning for the development is sought. At this point there are no nasty surprises for the planners as they are aware of what is coming and have had an input in terms of the heights, materials and massing at the outset. It is a smooth process[ii].

But this is not a solely middle class pursuit; it is about people that want to buy a house[iii]. The prices offered are kept competitive for three key reasons: All professional fees are consolidated into one cost and the architects, developers and contractors are initially working at risk as a form of venture capitalism to get the scheme off the ground – nobody makes any money until the houses are sold. The municipalities are interested in getting a better housing type so potentially offer the land at a lower cost. The WeBuildHomes website acts as the estate agent, allowing additional costs to be kept to a minimum.

There is another interesting aspect to this process. As people rate and buy designs via the online platform, the real market desires emerge from the sales analysis; not the misconstrued notions of what people are expected to like based on the build efficiency of the developer. The information here reveals actual consumers’ preferences.

This knowledge is crucial; it informs the architect how their typologies can be improved and which way the market is leaning. The days of build it and they will come are gone, long live the days of they will come and tell you what to build.


[i] Founded in 2009 by Sascha Glasl, Tjeerd Haccou and Marthijn Pool, Space&Matter established WeBuildHomes in collaboration with developers Red Concepts and contractors ICB in 2011.

[ii] As opposed to privately developed housing where families are pushed into the roles of developers and project managers, WeBuildHomes allows each party to contribute according to their strengths; the developer manages the finances, the contractor builds as efficiently as possible, architects create high quality and innovative designs and the future owner can choose the design that best fits their needs and wishes.

[iii]House prices in the Netherlands are considerably more accessible than in Ireland. While the prices are still market driven, the market has more to offer and has stayed friendlier in terms of access to the property ladder. These are affordable houses for ordinary people. The locations in which units have so far been built are self-build sites that are not easy to sell for the local councils and difficult sites in less attractive areas. Generally speaking these are the up-and-coming areas, but still with good access to the city centre via public transport.


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