Nothing had prepared me for the house clad in white leather. But much to my surprise, I rather liked it (although I’m not sure our vegetarian staff and members would be so keen…)
Along with Housing Minister Grant Shapps, newly appointed self build champion Kevin McCloud and leading figures from the UK housing industry, I was visiting Almere, Europe’s biggest experiment in ‘custom housing’.
What we saw was a remarkable city in which residents were empowered to design and build homes that fit their specific needs, at a cost that they can afford, with a focus on ensuring that growth is ecologically, socially and economically sustainable. Sometimes this meant an unusual approach, such as the cowhide fascia, but many of the houses were impressive in the sustainability of their design – way beyond the UK level.
Almere is zoned into themed areas, including a timber zone where the majority of the most eco-friendly houses are located. The general high level of sustainable design is a result of stringent building standards rather than public campaigns or incentive schemes – an approach our government would do well to heed. My favourite building was the children’s centre: an upside down spinning top, designed by young people as a place to learn about sustainable living and experience the excitement of sleeping over in a green building.
The purpose of the visit was to identify what we could learn from Almere to help grow the self build sector in the UK. I was impressed by Shapps’ approach: it was very apparent from talking to him that he’s deeply committed to supporting this industry and understands its role in improving both the affordability and the sustainability of property in the UK. The new £30 million fund for groups of self builders is a welcome step in the right direction.
Finance can be a problem for self builders, with some mainstream institutions reluctant to lend, but a number of building societies have embraced the self build revolution. We’ve led the way since our beginnings, providing mortgages for innovative, sustainable self build projects and encouraging self builders to consider the resource and energy efficiency of their homes.
With a stagnant UK housing industry and a pressing need to cut the carbon footprint of our nation, self build has to be an important part of our housing mix. So a willingness from the government to look to other countries for new ideas and an appetite for innovation are very welcome indeed.