For many years I’ve been critical of the way we build houses in the UK. Why? Because apart from improvements in the building regulations and with sanitary conditions, that were frankly well overdue anyway, the methods we use to build the vast majority of homes are generally the same methods we used hundreds of years ago. We dig a hole in the ground, lay a concrete foundation, we spend weeks building masonry load bearing walls using wet trades that are always delayed by our poor weather and we finally construct the roof, which we could have done with much earlier on the job to protect everyone from the elements and allow all the trades to get on with their work as efficiently as possible. The major house builders of most of our new-build housing stock use antiquated, inefficient methods of construction that are stuck in the past and we are the ones paying a premium for that inefficiency.
When you look at other industries and technologies that have developed throughout the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries their rate of progress has been staggering. You only have to look at the incredible developments that have occurred, even in my lifetime, with computers, mobile phone devices, communications, car manufacturing and modern transport systems to be in awe at what can be achieved when there is a willingness to change and a willingness to invest in pushing the boundaries of design and creative thinking. Of course there have been significant developments in the building industry when it comes to very expensive, iconic buildings, such as the Shard or The Gherkin, and with important research and testing of individual products at places like the Building Research Establishment, but I just don’t see any of this innovative thinking filtering its way down to effect the mass, domestic house building industry. But, things need to change and they need to change fast.
As consumers, we are taking on the most expensive product of our lives when we purchase a home, so we should demand change. And if, like me, you are so despondent by the standard of spec-built, mass developer housing in Britain then why not take on your very own self-build? In 2011 there were more homes built and completed by self-builders in the UK than by any of the major house builders which I find absolutely staggering, but still we are way down the European League table when it comes to the number of self-build projects being taken on. This just shows what a terrible state the UK house building industry is in at the moment!
But, there are small-scale flashes of self-build inspiration happening in the UK that do give us hope. Take the infamous Huf-Haus self-build project. The company was founded in 1912 in Germany and has evolved into a business that has mastered the art of timber-framed houses being prepared in kit form, in factory-controlled conditions. The striking timber and glass houses can be erected on site in a matter of days making the entire process seem effortless, but my biggest criticism of Huf-Hauses I’ve seen in Britain is that they don’t come cheap because of the technology within them and the amount of glass used on the external facades. If only they had developed a smaller, more affordable house type to revolutionise the UK house building industry.
There is an affordable option that is becoming more popular in the UK, where you can have your self-build home made from a flat-pack system using SIP panels. Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) are a composite building material consisting of an insulating layer of rigid polymer foam sandwiched between two layers of structural board. This load-bearing board can vary depending on the manufacturer and system you go for, but it can be metal, plywood or a cement board known in the building game as OSB (oriented strand board). The panel is so strong that it is in effect a structural board that can be used to construct the walls, floor and even the roof. It is a very simple, easy and cost effective way to construct a pre-fabricated modular house, but whether the total construction cost (materials and labour) of a SIP system is lower than a more conventional timber-framed home is up for debate. The downside I’ve found with the SIP panel system is that you are restricted by the size of rooms due to the structural limits of the material, so if you are looking for very large open-plan areas then the SIP system may not be for you.
I’m still a fan of the conventional oak timber-frame method of construction. You can get the footings and the frame up quickly and have the protective roof on in no time. Once the external cladding is in place you have a wind and watertight building to be able to carry on with the electrics, plumbing and interior finishes. Larger internal spaces can also be created with this method of construction. We need only think of our old barns.
But, if I had my way, a far more radical transformation is needed in the UK house building industry where we stop tinkering with an out of date model. We need a revolution where we rethink all aspects of how our homes are designed and built. I think we need to create our homes in exactly the same way as we build our cars. You visit a showroom and select your model, then your colour, finish and material spec is added onto that model (in effect the chassis of the house), which is then built in a factory under highly controlled conditions, transported in sections on the back of a lorry, and then lifted onto site in fully kitted out pre-fabricated units, which are then assembled together to form your home. The fast and efficient process would substantially reduce the costs of each home and the standard and quality of craftsmanship would be dramatically improved. A better product, delivered faster for a more affordable price. This is what the UK house building industry needs and I’m not talking about in 20 or 30 years time; we need it now.
For more tips and advice from George, check out his website at www.georgeclarke.co.uk