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Kevin McCloud's new self-build housing revolution

McCrowd funding: Hoping to spearhead a bottom-up housing revolution in Britain, Kevin McCloud talks exclusively to Will Hunter about his plans to use crowd-funding to bring the self-build dream to the mass market

Kevin McCloud has been a fixture in British television life for the last dozen years as the amiable presenter of Grand Designs, the flagship property programme of Channel 4. Explaining the format for international readers, it begins to sound almost quaintly geared towards our national psyche. We have a saying that ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, and the show essentially follows those in these isles trying to make some iteration of this dream a reality.

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Hab’s first scheme: the Triangle by Glenn Howells Architects in Swindon is an exemplary riposte to the dreariness and mediocrity of most suburban volume housebuilding

Each episode chronicles the travails of a single project, with the opening optimism of the owners almost-inevitably followed by teary timetable and budget overruns (as the experimental windows arrive on site the wrong size; or an ancient burial ground is unearthed; or the structure collapses…). The formula doesn’t stale as strife isn’t always followed by a happy ending: for all the jealous-making projects, a few turn out to be howlingly ugly, while others so overshoot that the narrative rounds off with the vexed building unfinished. In the British imagination McCloud is fondly associated with domestic innovations, and in 2007 he furthered this by setting up a development company, Hab Housing.

The ambition was to offer a design-led alternative to the monotony of the suburban mass-housing market, and he poached Isabel Allen from the editorship of the AR’s sister magazine, The Architects’ Journal, to become his design director.

In 2011 Hab completed its first scheme comprising 42 new homes in Swindon designed by Glenn Howells (AR January 2012), and today it has a handful of other projects on site or on the drawing board by architects including AHMM, Sarah Wigglesworth and DSDHA. Now Hab wants to expand into the custom-build market.

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To this end, last month McCloud launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise £1.5m, selling 20 per cent of the business through Crowdcube in order to invest in the infrastructure to support and develop such schemes. ‘When you begin to look at what the custom-build route delivers it becomes very compelling for developers and social housing organisations,’ he says, ‘because you’re effectively taking people very early on in the process and forging bonds between them − which otherwise takes a long time − and using them to create a better building that will have a little bit more individuality about it.’

Custom-build is not new, and is much more popular on the continent than it is in Britain. Almere in the Netherlands is a noted example. With a population today of nearly 200,000 people, it was started in the 1970s on land reclaimed from the sea and developed impressively quickly − but the results were felt by many to be dreary, uniform and soulless. In 2006, local people started to be allowed to buy their own land, and to date more than 1,000 homes have been built in this way.

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In 2011, the British housing minister was inspired by his visit, and the government has now set aside £30m of loan finance to ignite community-based custom-build over here. ‘Almost every self-build ever constructed demonstrates that when you have a client actively involved you get a better built product − because someone is there acting as the site manager in a more engaged way than someone you might employ,’ says McCloud. ‘In terms of social cohesion, sustainability, build quality and deliverability: in all these things there’s plenty to suggest that community custom-build is a fantastic route.’

Many volume housebuilders in Britain already offer individuals some version of this, but Hab wants to provide a much more integrated and engaged service. ‘The reason I’m excited about it is that − unlike many other developers − with us, we spend a lot of time pre-planning in design, and we spend a lot of time pre-planning in communities,’ says McCloud. ‘We’ll do exactly the same as we’ve ever done, but we’ll introduce customers to the process earlier.’

Hab will perform a range of functions, from being responsible for the creation of the design codes with the local authority to providing physical back-up and training on site. ‘It needs mentoring,’ he explains. ‘We’ll be there to support self-builders. You can’t expect people just to turn up on site and put a hard hat on and become the client.’ And beyond the individual plots, they see their role as adding value to all the bits in between, providing excellent public realm and community opportunities for social sustainability.

It is in this arena that Hab primarily wishes to distinguish itself from the competition. ‘If you improve the social sustainability, you improve the well-being. All the standard indicators − of how many people do you know on your street, how many conversations do you have in a day, when was the last time you helped a neighbour, etc − go to demonstrate this,’ argues McCloud.

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The Triangle, housing project Swindon. Architect Glenn Howells + HAB.

‘It is going to become an enormously important part of how we organise ourselves spatially in the future, not just to reduce our environmental impact, but also to find happiness through social relationships.’ Hab sees a perfect fit between the self-build model and using crowd-funding to capitalise the business − both of which are about opening up opportunities and engaging a much wider group of people. ‘We’re interested in doing things differently and in reaching a broad constituency.

We’re not selling yachts to wealthy individuals, we’re selling houses to the largest number of people we can find,’ says McCloud, who has set the minimum investment at only £100. ‘The bigger effect we have in the housing market, the better. Changing expectations is a large part of what we do.

Crowd-funding is therefore of great appeal because it’s getting out to the biggest number of people.’ Though more populist in his expression, the underlying thinking chimes with much that has been written in the AR recently, not least The Big Rethink campaign, which spoke of the importance of showing the positives of sustainable living, in order to effect faster change by making it something chosen out of desire (rather than doom-mongered guilt).

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In the Neighbourhood Issue (AR June), guest editor Isabel Allen reversed President Roosevelt’s famous maxim − ‘If you build it, they will come’ − to conclude that today you can form a group of neighbours first and then build the neighbourhood. She championed the notion that: ‘Big ideas take root in people, and conversation, in common purpose and shared dreams.’ It is a line of thought explored in the next article below on how online communities interface with the real world; and in Broader View (page 22), where the notion of Network Specifism as a type of 21st-century app-update to Critical Regionalism is unveiled.

As the human relationships and interconnections created in the digital arena begin to provide the motoring forces reshaping the built environment, the old anxiety that the internet would supplant real face-to-face interaction is beginning to be superseded by the intuition that it might become its saviour.

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