“Self-build”: no mention of an architect, or anyone else for that matter. Maybe it’s a prehistoric urge that makes this idea so enticing; our earliest ancestors constructed their primitive huts to suit their unique needs and reflect their status or style. “Self-build” promises to physically re-connect people to the homes they live in.
However, the romantic notion of "self-build" housing is rarely compatible with the modern reality we live in. Building has become increasingly clouded by the difficulty of procuring land, excessive governmental red-tape, and an increase in building complexity. While self-build remains the purest form of this dream, there are now a series of nuanced processes that can help us achieve similar results. As a new generation of communities that encourage this dream emerges, we must look at the role the architect plays within them.
Looking back on the origins of the modern self-build community, we can see that self-builders retained almost complete autonomy. In 1979, Walter Segal’s "Walter’s Way" limited the designs of the houses to strict but simple principles, “reducing design and architecture to its essentials” and enabling “ordinary people to build for themselves.” The houses could be assembled with standard sizes of material found at the local lumber yard, while the layout could be expanded and altered to suit the growing family’s needs, with each house maintaining the unique characteristics of its owner. In one sense, this is architecture working to erase the need for itself. "Walter’s Way" was an experiment in being intimately hands-on with your home, without the need for an architect or builder of any kind.
One of the main issues with this kind of self-build community is that architects, by definition, are specialists in design. An architect should be able to reduce the gap between a person’s ideal living space and the living space that they eventually create for themselves, and should be a desirable asset to the realization of one's dream.
Graven Hill—the largest town of its kind in the UK—is a modern interpretation of the Walter’s Way ideal. Located just outside Oxford, it allows individuals the ability to design a home “limited only by their imagination and their budget” within its 1.88-square-kilometer "self-build community," and has the capacity to create 1,900 homes (30% of which are planned to be affordable housing) and 2,000 jobs.
The scheme’s design code mixes different plot sizes together to create a diverse, engaged community and splits the residential areas into multiple typologies: rural lanes, urban lanes, village center, tree-lined boulevard, circular railway, swale parks and community streets.
The rural lanes give the village a controlled, conservative border to match the surrounding vernacular, allowing the more adventurous designs to be partially hidden closer to the village core. Each typology offers a unique relationship with the community and surrounding environment, giving the hopeful resident full control over not only the house, but also the life, that they wish to create.
However, at Graven Hill, self-build has become an umbrella term for a variety of procurement and design options which seek to challenge the injustices of the housing market as it has existed for the last half-century. These options can be separated into three main categories, each with a different level of involvement from the architect: custom-build, design-and-build, and kit houses.
Custom-build is a common practice in these communities, and the term is used to describe when the homeowner is the architect’s client. The architect maintains a high level of involvement in this scenario, usually leading to unique moments of architecture that reflect the personality of the homeowner, as well as the experience and flair of the designer. Almere—the Dutch self-build town upon which Graven Hill was based—is a great example of a custom-build mentality. The individual designs have made the neighborhood a huge success with both residents and onlookers, highlighting an alternative to the cut-and-paste estates that have defined suburbanization in previous decades.
However, despite the popularity of custom-build neighborhoods like Almere, the construction industry is seeing a shift toward design-and-build as a method of realizing homeowners' dreams. These companies create a one-stop shop for construction and concept design, the logic being that some sense of the dream home can be retained on the part of the homeowner, but with the benefit of a seamless construction timeline and reduced economic strain. While the best design-and-build homes still maintain a relationship with the architect, this is not always the case. The architect is seen as an additional extra, and not a necessity.
Kit houses take this approach further, completely distancing the architect from the client with prefabricated designs, that reduce cost and construction time, delivered directly to site. Popularized in the US throughout the 20th century, the modular components of these kit houses still offer a certain sense of design control—similar to the self-build origins of Walter’s Way—but in this case they ultimately restrict the homeowner’s creative autonomy. These businesses have noted how the main anxiety of a self-build project centers around the very core of the concept—the building process itself—and that project managing their own build is not what most self-builders want at Graven Hill.
So how do architects compete with quicker, cheaper alternatives that bypass the architect? Is there a continued role for the architect within "self-build communities," or will the profession have to adapt what they offer? Opinder Liddar, a director of Oxfordshire-based lapd Architects, is working with self-build clients at Graven Hill and highlights design as the irreplaceable core of any self-build project:
The clients we work with come to us because they value design. Even D+B [design and build] companies come to us because they value design.
There’s a reason architects train for such an extended period of time, and a reason designs by traditional practices are usually more fulfilling. Smart self-builders understand that there is no replacement for design professionals working with their client to achieve their aspirations, but perhaps a new alliance could be forged between the practicality and cost-effectiveness of modular build solutions and the professionalism of architectural design. In the next few years, as more projects reach completion, Graven Hill will provide an insightful precedent for housing schemes of the future, and could be a case study for a new era of architects having increased involvement in the residential housing sector.