I seem to get invited to breakfasts these days, they seem to be an easy way to get people to a room – promise them a Danish and they’ll be there. My most recent breakfast was hosted by the Housing Finance Institute (HFI) – a great body trying to do something about homes.
We are in a housing crisis
While there, it struck me that there’s unanimous support for the idea that we are in a housing crisis. There also seems to be unanimous support for the solution – to build more homes. The idea being that we are in a supply-demand imbalance causing the endless upward march of house prices.
Without question, there is some truth to this, but I have always felt uncomfortable believing that building 250,000 new homes is the panacea to our crisis. Indeed, the HFI has published a great report on the solution entitled ‘building the homes that Britain needs’.
Now, in principle this is great. However, my position is that it is not as simple as merely building more homes. After all, we’re currently sitting on something like 600,000 unbuilt homes (i.e. all the unbuilt planning permissions). This is a significant number.
However, when I asked the room full of 30 distinguished housing professionals to raise their hand if they lived in a new build, do you know how many people raised their hand?
A single person had chosen to live in a new build. Everyone else lived in a period property. And that single person was me. And I didn’t buy a new build home off the shelf from a house builder, I built it myself. Why?
Well for several reasons – but the main being:
- I could get what I wanted (I’m a fussy consumer)
- I could save some money
- I could invest in good environmental technology and live in a draft-free home and
- I loved the idea
The point being is that we all talk about solutions for the housing crisis and we are asking people to buy new homes that none of us want to live in. Imagine I’d asked the room how many people have a phone which is say less than 5 years’ old, or a car. I’m pretty sure that I would no longer be in a minority of one in that case.
This chimes with research done by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) – which suggests that a staggering 75% of us would never wish to live in a new build home.
Quality vs quantity
So, while the HFI has solutions to build the homes we need, it falls into the trap that everyone else does and emphasises quantity not quality. Of course we need both, more supply of the right kind, will help to house our growing population. But building homes of the wrong sort, the sort that those 29 housing professionals didn’t want to live in, is the wrong solution. And the volume housebuilders know it too.
That’s why they build out slowly. Unlike the latest iPhone release, where people will camp overnight to buy one, the reality is not that they can’t build them fast enough, it’s that they can’t find enough people to buy them fast enough, i.e. this demand is there, but not for the wrong thing.
At the HFI, a lot was talked about collaboration. This is a problem that can’t be solved by just one part of the chain. It’s not just about planning or construction. It’s not just about land. It’s about all of them working together. However, the link that most housing professionals miss and the one that is, in my mind most important, is the customer.
For, without input from the customer, we will continue to build to the lowest common denominator. After all, housebuilders build and leave. They are incentivised to build as cheaply as possible, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in building homes, you get what you pay for. No wonder that those 29 professionals don’t trust them.
So, what is the answer? The answer is collaboration.
It’s about getting customers to be involved in the end product, collaborating with the customer and bringing them into the equation – treating them as a stakeholder, just as you would the local community. Build what the end occupier wants rather than what you think they want.
It’s not about building the homes we need, it’s about building the homes we want!
– Gus Zogolovitch