Sunday 2 December 2012

On the cost of housing

Graph shows rise of average UK house price 1986-2013. Source: Office of National Statistics
I've blogged a fair bit about this house as structure, and, by implication at least, as therapy. Now that it is finished, it's time to talk about it as politics. Housing, in this world, is intensely political. We're currently going through an extremely severe period of political turbulence caused mainly by unsustainable housing debt, both in the US and in Europe - in the UK, in Eire, Spain, Greece... Houses, we hear, are expensive. So expensive that ordinary people can afford them only by taking out enormous loans, which consume the overwhelming majority of their disposable incomes for most of their adult lives. Just yesterday, the Westminster government announced a scheme to allow people to borrow up to 95% of a quarter of a million pound price, in order to 'stimulate the building industry' and 'help people into the housing market'.

And it seems to be true; it seems houses do cost that much. Of the houses currently for sale in my home village, only one, a tiny upper flat, is offered at an asking price below a quarter of a million...

Yet the main structure of this house cost less than £4,000. At £6,000 it was comfortable, habitable. Now, admittedly, I have spent more - my off-grid electrical installation has cost £4,500, for example - but that's not a cost the average home has to find. Again, admittedly, it's not a big house. It has about 22 square metres of floor downstairs, and about eight square metres upstairs, so about thirty all together. But from what I've learned building this house, I seriously believe you could build a comfortable, elegant family home for £10,000. This house has four trusses each with 4.8 metre tie beams; five trusses with six metre tie beams, still at 2.4 metre centres, would give 72 square metres of floor area for substantially less than twice the materials I've used.

On David Cameron's '5% of £250,000' scheme, the purchaser would have to raise twelve and a half thousand pounds deposit, and would then have to pay one thousand six hundred pounds a month every month - in good times and bad, in sickness and in health - for the next twenty-five years - assuming interest rates didn't rise above their present historic low. And yet, I'm arguing that a family home can be built for just that deposit. What's going on here? How can such different estimations of the cost of housing both be right?

Artificial scarcity

In the software industry we're familiar with the concept of 'artificial scarcity'. In the Internet age, the real cost of reproduction of a digital asset - be it a movie, a musical recording, an image or a software package - is essentially nil. Once the cost of production is covered, the producers can afford freely to gift a copy of their product to every single person on the planet - as Linus Torvalds, and many other producers of open source software, have proved by doing so. Digital goods are, in essence, too cheap to meter. Yet you can't get a copy of Microsoft Word, or Pulp Fiction, or Dark Side of the Moon for free. The producers want you to pay a high price for a copy of something that is in principle infinitely abundant. Markets - those free markets which conservative political theorists believe to be self regulating and infallibly wise - don't work like that. If something is infinitely abundant, its price drops to zero. In order to maintain a price above the material cost of reproduction, the producers have to make their goods artificially scarce. They do this by means of a law, copyright, which prevents people from copying their work. You can argue about the merits of copyright as you will; it isn't what's at issue here. What's at issue is that the law is used to make things artificially scarce, and this has the effect of raising the price that can be charged above the natural market price.

The primary law which makes housing artificially scarce is planning law. A house cannot be built, legally, without planning consent. Planning consent is often hard to get, and thus the value of land which has planning consent is enormously inflated. I've ignored the price of the land in stating the cost of my house. The land cost £40,000. But there's ten acres of it. If I were to build houses on it at a modest density of four to the acre, the cost of the land would be a very reasonable one thousand pounds per house, still leaving the total cost of a family home below Mr Cameron's notional deposit. But here's the rub: I don't have planning consent. This house does not legally exist, and I could, at any moment, be ordered to demolish it. Land in this village with planning consent is currently on the market for £70,000 for a quarter acre plot. That means, in effect, that the value multiplier created by the artificial scarcity in housing land is 2800%: land with planning permission sells for twenty eight times as much as land - good land - without. I'm not saying that planning law is without merit any more than I'm saying copyright law is without it, but I am pointing out one of its unintended - and desparately damaging - consequences.

There's another consequence of expensive housing about whose merit one can argue, but which undoubtedly raises the price even further. If people are going to have to borrow for twenty-five or thirty years to buy a house, then the lender has to be confident that the asset is going to retain its value as collateral over that time. Which means we are required by law to build houses with a design life of at least sixty years; and that means building conservatively, with tried and tested methods. This house is experimental in several ways, but one of those ways is that it is by design and intention bio-degradable; I'll write about this later in an essay on the house as philosophical object. But, briefly, without maintenance it will rot away - apart from the glass - into the natural materials of field and forest from which it was built. It has a design life, I'd say, of thirty years, although with reasonable maintenance I see no reason why it should not last very much longer. If housing is cheap and bio-degradable, then houses can be treated as disposable: they can be rebuilt at need at little economic or environmental cost. But our present building regulations, written in large part to protect lenders' collateral, prevent people taking this light-hearted approach to dwellings.

Qui bono?

So if we have what amounts to a conspiracy to inflate the price of housing, qui, as they say, bono? To understand the answer, one needs to look at the history of the speculative bubble in housing. Over the past half century, the price of housing has risen considerably above the rate of inflation. Which means that everyone who has owned a - legal - home has seen a windfall profit, a profit which has come directly out of the speculative bubble. And people are naturally inclined to project the past into the future. House prices have risen, so house prices will go on rising. In fact, we've already reached the natural limit of the bubble. Like any other ponzi scheme, it can go on running only as long as there are new people prepared and able to buy into the scheme, and frankly there no longer are. New entrants into the housing market may wish to join the dance, but they can no longer realistically raise the buy-in price. So house prices cannot rise.

Housing is one of the two products - the other being pensions - that have over the past two generations required most people to hand over most of the money they earn to the 'financial services' industry, and the 'financial services' industry grew very fat and greedy on the proceeds. Note that I'm not claiming that the 'financial services' industry invented planning law, let alone that they did so with malice aforethought. Rather, planning law was created by well meaning people to tackle real problems. If people were allowed to build their own houses wherever they wanted to, some of them would be eyesores. Some of them would impact on other people's views and other people's amenity. If people were allowed to build houses ignoring the building standards, some of them would be dangerous, and some of them would fall down. Planning law and building standards tackle real problems in the real world. But by interfering with the market, they create excess value for someone to hoover up; they create, in effect, a new ecological niche. We tend to call the creatures which move in quickly to exploit new ecological niches 'vermin'. Or 'financial services'.

But if house prices can no longer rise, neither can they be permitted to fall catastrophically. The majority of people in what Ed Milliband so elegantly calls the 'squeezed middle' have their all invested in the bubble and if - when - the bubble bursts they will all be bankrupted. Developments which disturb their willing suspension of disbelief in the prospect for further growth or at least stability of the bubble cannot be permitted. More seriously, when, in 2009, the bubble trembled in the States, 'financial services' institutions round the globe shuddered and fell.

It's one of the features of modern Western democracies that political parties seek their crucial election finance from those people who have surplus wealth, and those who have surplus wealth are by definition those who are profiting from the status quo. Which, in both Britain and the States these days, largely means the financial services industry. So it's little surprise that when 'financial services' institutions shudder and fall, our politicians, whom we elected with their money, choose to use our money to bail them out. A financial meltdown, we're told, is too appalling to contemplate  And the problem is, in the short term at any rate, that's true. If banks crash, if currencies crash, it becomes impossible for every other business in the economy to transact their business, because our economy is built on exchanges of value, on quid pro quo, where the quid is vectored through the banking system.

So the 'financial services' industry cannot be allowed to collapse. Yet that industry depends in large part on the tithe of mortgage charges it levies on householders, which enable those householders to have and to hold houses purchased at artificially inflated prices. If - when - the bubble bursts, those householders will be bankrupted. If - when - those householders are bankrupted, they will cease to pay their tithe to the 'financial services' industry, and the 'financial services' industry will be bankrupted. And that must not be allowed to happen.

Adversus Haereses

You think I've come a long way from my modest little house on top of my hill, don't you?

I haven't.

This modest little house on top of the hill is the concrete exemplar of a disruptive, a revolutionary, idea. The idea that you can build your own dwelling, yourself, now, at a cost that will not require you to borrow any significant sum. That idea is heretical, because if the young people who ought to be taking out David Cameron's quarter of a million pound mortgages hear it and heed it, they'll stop taking out quarter million pound mortgages. They'll stop buying houses, and start making their own. Which means that housing will no longer be scarce. Which means that the market price of housing will drop - as it naturally must - to the cost of production. Which means that people who bought houses on borrowed money at artificially inflated prices won't be able to sell them at artificially inflated prices. Which means they're bankrupt. Which means the banks are bankrupt. Which means the economy, and the political system as we know it, must collapse.

Heretical ideas must be suppressed. If I stand still alone on my hill and watch the sun going down, I can be ignored and left alone. But if I were foolishly to get up in public space and point out that the emperor has indeed no clothes, the council not only could order me to demolish my modest little house. They'd have to. It is a concrete exemplar of a revolutionary idea, and so - for the good of society, for the good of us all - it must be suppressed.

Or in this case, demolished.

Monday 2 April 2012

On being mad

I'm mad. It's a fact. A lunatic; a headcase. Insane.

I can own all those terms perfectly comfortably; they form part of my identity. They are part of who I am I am, and on the whole I like being who I am.

But I very much reject the term 'mentally ill'. I'm not ill. I'm well. I'm just a little mad.

I think the analogy between madness and illness is a false one. The claim that it is is, it seems to me, part of a hegemonic claim by the medical profession firstly to expertise and secondly to control. The solution is a medical solution, a solution applicable to illness: drugs. And more drugs to control the side-effects of those first drugs. And so on. I'm not saying those drugs don't have effects: they do. I'm not saying they can't help in the short term: they can. But they aren't the solution: in the long term they rob you of control, and that makes matters worse. They're the wrong solution. They come from the wrong model. You don't catch madness; it isn't infectious.

Monday 5 March 2012

Living in the Winter Palace, part two

This is (now) a blog (mostly) about building a house. But it's a blog about my life, and my life impacts on building the house. So I'm going to digress briefly; bear with me, it is relevant.

Having spent a great deal of my adolescence in and out of mental hospital, I have an intense dislike of psychiatric drugs. In my adult life, despite three major breakdowns, I'd always refused them; until the autumn of 2010, when, out of desperation, I asked my doctor for anti-depressants. They got me through the crisis of having to sell my home, but I stopped using them as soon as I felt I could. However, in November of 2011 things were worse. I had the shell of my new home up, but I was out of money, and my ability to cope with strangers was almost nil. I again asked my doctor to prescribe anti-depressants. I went, almost inarticulate, to the Citizens' Advice Bureau to ask for help applying for social security benefits; the volunteers there were extremely patient with me, and, in the course of talking to me, asked what I was doing for food. I admitted that I didn't have any, and they gave me a food parcel - including, bless them, food for the cats. I accepted it, gratefully. That's as low as I've ever been. I don't want to go there again; although, having said that, swallowing my pride and going to the Citizens' Advice was a positive step in itself.

I had considered trying to get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, or something similar; and decided not to, because I thought (and my doctor agreed) that I couldn't cope with it.

And then, completely out of the blue, before the Department of Work and Pensions could even respond to my application, a friend rang up with news of a job in Dumfries which would have been, had I been well, perfect for me: my own skills, my own preferred choice of tools, and a very generous amount of money being offered. My initial thought was that I shouldn't even apply, because if I got the job I would inevitably fail, let my employers down, and further undermine my own self confidence. However, I did apply, and managed, through the interview, to be fairly articulate. I was offered a six month contract. I said I could only work three days a week for the first month, because of finishing my house. That was sort-of true, of course; I was finishing my house. But the real reason was to give myself a more gentle reintroduction to the world of work. I was pretty certain I'd fail.

All through my period of unemployment I'd been scrupulously careful to stay out of overdraft, but now I needed to eat and to be able to put fuel in the car to get to work. So I deliberately used my overdraft. As soon as I'd been working long enough that I was owed sufficient to cover it, I...

OK, so. Manufactured doors and windows come in standard sizes. Patio doors come in a number of standard sizes including eight feet wide by seven feet high. That fact has been built into my design thinking since the original sousterran design. So the portal in the front of this building was made to accommodate a eight foot by seven foot unit. Last November, this portal was closed only by a tarpaulin curtain, and that's how I expected it would remain all winter. I could live with that. But real glass which would let daylight in would be so much better. You can get patio door units framed in uPVC, of course. They're relatively inexpensive. For twice as much, you can get doors framed in 'engineered timber' covered in oak veneer. For twice as much again, you can get doors with real solid oak frames. In an ideal world I would have solid oak; but in early December I used my credit card to buy two enormous luxuries: oak veneered doors, and a steel bathtub, the first significant fruits of my employment.

Having doors to close out the weather was obviously a real improvement; having real glass to let in light, likewise. But for me the bath was equally important. I like to be clean, and, still more, I find long, hot baths relaxing and restoring.

There's a wee design quirk about my bath which pleases me greatly. This is a very small house, and it's a one person house. It was always the plan that the bath would be immediately behind the sink unit. It would, I planned, make the plumbing simpler. Well, or course it would. But it was even simpler than I expected. I had bought the cheapest mixer tap I could get for the kitchen sink, and I'd bought a mixer only because it was cheaper than two separate taps. I didn't know, when I bought it, that it had a swivel mechanism. I didn't think about it. But it does, and, because the bath is immediately behind the sink unit, you can swivel the tap round to fill the bath. It looks like a very clever piece of design, but in fact it's a happy accident.

Straw walls have a number of problems. Firstly - and this was quickly evident - they shed straw and dust, to the extent that particles of straw get into everything. Also - in a house heated by a wood stove and lit by lanterns and candles - they're vulnerable to fire. So it's necessary to seal them. The most usual way to seal them is with a lime mortar (lime, not cement, because a cement mortar seals any damp in and the bales can rot inside the mortar seal). But a cheaper alternative is clay, and because when I started on the walls the budget was extremely tight, I'd decided to use clay. It took a very long time to arrive, because through most of the winter the ground was too soft and wet to get a heavily laden trailer over the hill; but in early February we had a few days of hard frost, and Angus, who'd dug the clay for me, was able to deliver it.

I'd thought of a number of things to do to get the clay on the walls. I'd planned a big tub in which the clay could be trampled with water to get it soft enough and even in texture. I'd bought a number of different floats and trowels to apply it with. Some people had advised me to take a hedge trimmer or even a chainsaw to the walls to get them as flat as possible. In the end none of these things proved necessary. The best way to get the clay into the walls proved to be just to push it in with your hands; and the clay proved to be naturally fairly homogenous and plastic. By the end of February - which is to say this last week - the clay on the interior walls was complete. It's now drying; once it's dry, it will get a coat of limewash, and then I can (at last) move my furniture in. Claying the walls was an intensely dirty job, and it was inevitable that the floor got extremely dirty. I thought it unlikely that I'd be able to clean it up again without sanding it off, but to my surprise and delight a bit of work with a mop got it back to good condition. Let's hear it for the old school floor! It always was my intention at some stage in the future to sand off the floor and oil it, but to do that would be to lose its arcane pattern of randomised gym lines; I'm now thinking I may just use polish on it.

Of course, claying the interior walls was not all I achieved in February: I now have a proper back window, not quite as posh as my front window but still a great improvement over polythene. My bedroom walls are now panelled on the inside. Although I don't yet have my wind turbine and consequently don't yet have electricity, I've nearly completed the wiring. I've floored the storage areas in the eaves. But it is the clay that's made the biggest difference: with the walls rendered and the floor clean, the winter palace feels much less like a building site and much more like a home.

I'm not yet finished. The next priority is the wind turbine; after that, I need some finish for the clay walls that will make them less dusty. But then - by the end of March, I hope - the interior will be substantially done, and I shall be able to move my furniture in. That will be a milestone. There are other milestones beyond that - glazing for the front gable, the render of the outside walls, a more salubrious lavatory - but having my furniture, my books, my computer once again in my home will be a step change in my comfort, and will mark, clearly, the beginning of the end of what has been a very tough couple of years. Life is getting better, and will soon, with any reasonable sort of luck, be good.

This job, of course, may not last for ever; my present contract lasts only until May. But by May I shall have earned enough to make this house extremely comfortable, to fence my land, to plant some more trees, possibly to buy myself some cattle, and to put some aside to pay my taxes and to live on through the summer; so if my contract isn't renewed it's no tragedy. Furthermore, if my contract is not renewed, I've regained confidence in my ability to hold down a job, and do it reasonably well.

So, to go back to the beginning: in the beginning, I was not coping. I was, in strict medical terms, insane. Am I now sane? As I've said before, I'm not really persuaded by modern psychiatry's account of mental illness. All human life is ultimately performance, and the psychiatrist's art borrows much from ornithology and from drama criticism. If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck; if you can give a convincing performance, over an extended period, of sanity, you're sane. I'm still the same person I was with the same vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but over the past couple of months I've performed consistently well enough to not worry my colleagues - and, more significantly, to earn my not inconsiderable wage. Of course, it helps that they don't know me well enough to know how much less well than my best I'm performing. But the very fact that I'm able to give a convincing performance of coping raises my self confidence and makes it easier for me to cope, and consequently my performance is improving. Furthermore, to have got through the dark of the year with improving performance is an achievement in itself, and that, too, increases my self confidence. The anti-depressants? I stopped taking them at Christmas. I have, as I mentioned before, an intense dislike of psychiatric drugs.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Living in the Winter Palace, part one

It's a long time - four and a half months - since I last blogged about this house. Then, it was three walls of raw straw bales covered with the skeleton of a roof covered by tarpaulins. Now, I'm sitting in my bed in my upstairs bedroom, leaning back against the panelled wall. Downstairs, in the kitchen, a kettle sits on the gas hob - it isn't worth lighting the big wood stove to boil a kettle. But when I want a hot, deep bath, the stove will heat it for me in a couple of hours.

Although it's a cold morning outside, the thick insulation in the roof, walls and floor mean I'm cosy here inside. And as I sit here and look around at my home, I know not only that I designed it and planned it, but that every piece of wood, every pipe, every wire in the house was cut and fitted by me. That isn't to say I haven't had help, of course. I've had lots of help. I have wonderful friends. And I'm grateful to them. But this is still, very much, a home-made house: my home made house.

So how did I get from there to here?

The first week after the build weekend, I planked the roof. This was the first of many jobs which I assumed I could not do on my own, and then - of necessity - found I could. The bale walls were obviously very vulnerable to rain, and completing the roof was urgent. The planks run from the ridge to the eaves, and are each 4.3 metres long. Each plank had to be lifted onto the roof, carried along to its place, and nailed securely to th ridge and to each of the four purlins it crosses. More, the breathable membrane had to be laid and stapled onto the purlins first, and the planks laid over and nailed through it.

Some learning, here. First, my initial plan had been to space purlins at 1.2 metres, because that's the width of standard building sheet materials and also the width of a roll of roof insulation. I don't remember why I decided to space at one metre, but I'm jolly glad I did. Moving up and down the roof on purlins spaced at one metre was sometimes acrobatic, but possible. But it was at the limit of my stretch. To have worked, alone, on purlins spaced at 1.2 metres would have been much harder and much less safe.

Second, the strips of breathable membrane were a metre wide. You (obviously) can't step on the membrane when it is stretched, unsupported, over the purlins. You also can't easily reach across a metre of stretched membrane to position and nail a plank. So I learned quickly to stretch and staple down the further half of a strip of membrane, plank over that half, then stretch and staple the near half and plank that; and so on. The last few planks on each side were particularly difficult because there were no longer exposed purlins to stand on, and as a result there's one very untidy plank on the south side... but it's done.

The planks are 150mm wide and are laid in two layers. The planks of the lower layer are laid with 50mm gaps between them, and the planks of the upper layer are laid over these gaps. I'm told this style of roof is traditional in some parts of Russia; I first saw it (and did it!) on the roof of the cruck frame at Taliesin. That roof is eight years old now and very sound, so I thought I'd do the same here.

By the 16th of October I'd completed planking the roof, and the walls were protected from the weather. That night I moved in, and the following morning - my birthday - I woke up in the Winter Palace for the first time.

Insulating the roof didn't go to plan. The first plan had been to lay polythene sheet loosely over the purlins, lay the insulation into the sagging pockets, then lay the membrane over the insulation and plank over that. That didn't work for a number of reasons, and so I next planned to plank the roof and install the insulation felt between the purlins from the underside, and support it with cheap nylon net until I could afford to line the roof.

The insulation I used was glass wool felt. I used it because it was extremely cheap, and I was by then extremely broke. It is both heavy and floppy, and it proved completely impossible to support it between the purlins while I tried to staple up netting to support it. I was very much at the end of my money, and didn't even really have enough to eat, but something had to be done. I had planned, ultimately, to line the roof with matchboarding, which would have looked beautiful - but there was no way I could afford matchboarding, and, in any case, I couldn't see how I would support the glass felt while I got matchboarding up. So I bit a bullet and bought twenty sheets of cheap spruce plywood, at eleven pounds a sheet delivered. Even with the sheet plywood it was tricky getting the insulation up, particularly the top panel of each bay near the ridge, and, indeed, I only got the last panel up last weekend - but I get ahead of myself.

It had always been the plan to reuse the floor from the summer palace as the upstairs floor of the winter palace, so as soon as the outer cladding of the roof was completed and I'd moved my bed and the few pieces of furniture I'd had in the summer palace, I dismantled it, brought it here, and re-erected it. By the end of October I had the outer cladding of the rear gable wall complete, polythene stretched over the window opening, and the wall packed with insulation felt held in place with more of that wonderful breathable membrane. I moved my bed upstairs.

Meantime, a proper stove which could cook and heat water had always been budgetted for. I knew that, no matter how broke I was, the difference it would make to my comfort and morale was worth it. So I'd ordered a very cheap Bulgarian stove, a Plamark-B, which I shall probably blog more about later. It arrived with its chimney at the end of October, and in the first week of November I got it installed and fitted. Raising the chimney was another of those jobs I thought I couldn't do alone, and then, perforce, found I could. Obviously, a stove with a back boiler can't be lit without basic plumbing, and it took me until mid-November to get that installed.

At that point, I had four straw walls, a good roof, and a stove. I could survive the winter. OK, so the front of the building was closed only by some second-hand polythene sheet and a tarpaulin curtain, but it was habitable. I'd got there. I had, indeed, reached the very end of my money, but I'd got there.

I haven't, in these essays, dwelt much on mental illness, but I was still pretty ill, often unable to talk at all with strangers and sometimes unable even to be with friends. Some days I was unable to do anything at all. I was quite unable to cope with dealing with the Department of Work and Pensions, which is why I'd claimed no benefit (to which I would have been entitled). I'd completed the basic structure of my house, so I wasn't, any longer, strictly homeless, but I was literally starving. Things were extremely bad.

And then I had a quite bizarre change of luck - so bizarre that it merits another essay.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License