Friday 19 July 2013

Ultra-low impact housing and public policy

Politicians are once again talking openly about how to reduce the cost of housing. I know how to do this, and have a genuinely modest proposal.

This house, as I've described earlier, is almost entirely bio-degradable. Without maintenance, it would fairly rapidly collapse into a pile of rotted timber and straw on the forest floor, marked only by the stove, the bath, the water pipes and the glass; and, as these things are inherently valuable and recyclable, I would imagine someone else will rob them out long before the house gets to that state. With reasonable maintenance, I believe the house could last - and be comfortable and habitable - in the long term. Sixty years at least, perhaps twice that; as long as a conventional modern house is designed to.

This house would not pass building warrant, and there are some good reasons for that. It has no foundations; it is (intentionally) very close to trees; it has some fire safety deficits. Notably, it would be impossible to get a fire engine to it in the event of a fire, but also there is no fire separation between the walls and the roof structure, and I have not yet fitted the fire ladder which I intend to fit from the rear window. And it seems to me that it would be very hard to draw up building regulations which this house would pass which would not allow very unsatisfactory buildings also to pass.

But those things don't matter to me: I built this house myself to my needs, and I'm comfortable with it. I've chosen the risks and assessed them; I'm happy that it is safe enough for me.

Obviously, if you allow people to build houses without building warrant and then let them to tenants, you will get slums, and grossly unfit and unhealthy housing. And that suggests a compromise.

Suppose you were to legislate that a person did not need building warrant or full planning consent for a low-impact building which they had erected themselves, and in which they lived themselves; but planning consent and building warrant would be required before that building could be sold or let? There would be a couple of problems with a scheme as simple as that. Such a house would have to be built more than a safe margin from the edge of its plot, so that if it caught fire, fire would not spread to other properties. I imagine three metres (i.e. a 6 metre gap between adjacent buildings) should be enough, but there are people better qualified than I to make that judgement. So this sort of development could not provide very high density housing. And while an earth closet has very low environmental impact, for public health reasons, in urban areas, there would have to be some regulations about the disposition of shit, and sewerage.

But if people are responsible for their own houses, they will build houses to meet their needs; and if the houses they build don't meet their needs, that is their problem. And in any case, if a low impact home does prove unsatisfactory, it is cheap enough that the owner would be able to pull it down and start again.

Campaigners for rural amenity will also claim there's a need for planning consent - they don't want to see people building houses in pretty places. But farmers can, within broad limits, erect huge ugly sheds without much in the way of planning regulation, and it seems to me that homes for people are more urgently required than sheds for tractors. So I would like to see no more onerous planning regulation - simple notification - for self build dwellings than for tractor sheds.

There is, of course, another issue: people will fear that urban margins and rural areas will become littered with the wrecks of abandoned self-builds. And that's where 'ultra-low impact' comes in. If these self builds are built mainly of bio-degradable materials - timber, straw, wool - or of materials sourced in the local environment - fieldstone, clay, sand - then the buildings, if abandoned, will not litter the landscape long. They will be transient.

So that's part one of my modest suggestion: building warrant and full planning permission is required to sell or let a low impact dwelling, but not to build one. Now onto part two.

Local government could prepare sites with sewer, drinking water, electricity and telecoms connections, and could lease these on sixty year lets to people. The people could build their own houses on the plots. When the lessor chose to move on then, if the house passed building warrant, the council would buy it at a pre-agreed but fairly nominal price covering the basic cost of construction, and let it or sell it as social housing; if the house did not pass building warrant, the council would demolish it at their cost and relet the site to another self-builder.

Obviously, commercial companies would come into this market with kits or house designs. It seems to me reasonable that there should be some sort of building warrant type-approval for kits and designs - if build correctly as specified, they should pass building warrant. You should not be able to sell a kit which definitely would not pass building warrant.

The cost of building a house is mainly down to two things: planning consent (and therefore scarcity, and windfall profits for landowners), and labour. If you take those elements out of the equation, housing becomes very cheap indeed: the basic materials out of which perfectly good houses can be constructed need not be expensive. As I've argued before, the total cost of building a house can be less than the deposit on a commercially built one. Encouraging and facilitating self build of low impact housing would solve Britain's housing stress problems at a stroke.

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