Bunker Self-Build: Affordable Homes for Brighton Families

On an abandoned garage site in Brighton, Bunker Housing Co-op has spent the last four years creating a community of high-spec but affordable homes. The co-operative was borne out of the area’s spiralling housing crisis, which has forced many local residents into sub-standard rental accommodation at unsustainable rates. Property prices in Brighton and Hove are amongst the highest in the country with the median house price in 2018 standing at over 11 times the median salary of local residents. As a result, adequate housing remains out of reach for many, particularly those on lower incomes.

Bunker is the brainchild of Martyn Holmes and Agata Bogacka who live together in Brighton with their children. They had spent five years searching for secure affordable housing in the city when a conversation with a neighbouring family – also caught in a cycle of damp, cramped and overpriced rental accommodation – spurred them into action.

Inspired by their shared vision of an alternative and fed up with precarious living situations, the families came together to form a housing co-operative with the ambition of self-building their own homes – an ambition that began to take shape when the group secured funding from the Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust and the lease of a brownfield site from Brighton and Hove City Council.

After extensive planning and consultation with local architects, work began on the two self-built three-bedroom homes at Plumpton Road. An Ecology interest-only mortgage provided funding for the build phase and gave the families time to move house and be in a position to pay rents to the co-op. The overall mortgage term of 40 years has ensured that the project is financially sustainable for current and future members of the co-op.

The houses themselves mark a clear departure from the energy-hungry, damp-prone properties that the co-op members had previously endured. Built using a modular system from cross-laminated timber, the finished homes are filled with natural light and provide a healthy interior living environment, which maintains an ambient temperature due to excellent insulation, triple glazing and underfloor heating.

The use of cross-laminated timber, which is still a relatively new material within the UK, meant that extensive research and checks were required to show that the finished builds would meet the required standards. However, once work was underway, the off-site modular construction enabled the project to progress at a much faster pace than a conventional bricks-and-mortar build, with the main construction phase being completed in under two months.

The co-op will manage the homes, which will be available to households on the housing register and, with rents set well below local market rates, will remain as affordable rental properties in perpetuity. The buildings’ high levels of energy efficiency will also help to ensure residents’ energy bills remain low.

In doing this project, Bunker’s members wanted to house themselves but also to create a model for low-cost sustainable homes that can be replicated elsewhere and rolled out across the city on similar sites. With the new residents now settled in their homes, the pilot project at Plumpton Road is being used to build a tool kit and database of skills, contacts and information that is already helping the many other co-ops planning to build in the city over the coming years.

Bunker is now looking ahead to its next phase and is working alongside Brighton and Hove City Council to identify other potential sites throughout the city with the aim of building a further 15 affordable homes.

Commenting on the project’s progress so far, co-op member, Martyn Holmes, says, “I do think this is something that more people can do and will do. A lot of other groups in the city are looking to us and seeing what we’ve done, seeing that it’s actually happening. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s a really viable alternative. I think that when people realise that this is an option, it’s one that a lot of them would choose.”

While Ecology’s Business Development Manager, Jon Lee, added, “We were excited when Bunker approached us about this – our first new self-build project run by a housing co-op, and using a modular offsite construction method, too! Ground-breaking sustainable projects like this are what Ecology’s all about. It hasn’t always been straightforward, but thanks to the tenacity and energy of the team at Bunker and the support of Brighton and Hove CLT and the local authority, we are proud to have played our part in helping to realise their vision and create affordable, comfortable homes for their members for many years to come.”

Find out more about Ecology’s mortgages for Community-led housing.