Shell homes: Why don’t we build more of them?

Blenheim Grove shell bedroom raw

Shell homes and self and custom build in the UK is still a new idea. It’s so new that we need a whole page on our website just to explain what custom build means.

Pretty much every other country in Europe has been developing homes via custom build for years. 

Homeowners get to choose what they want put into their house, and get to live in a home that is suited to them, their lifestyle, and budget. 


Developers get happy customers and sell more homes off-plan and there is less waste so the environment is better off too.

So what’s not to like? And more importantly,


Why not here?

Unfortunately, custom build is not common in the UK because developers make more money by fitting the units out. And as developer John Skelton says, ‘volume house builders buy the land wholesale & effectively sell it at retail’.


And this is the great shame about housing in the UK – it’s all too often driven by financial returns rather than what is right or best for society/the environment/the purchaser.


On day 1 most new builds look the same – bright shiny and new – it’s only after a few years of wear that you see whether the developer has put in the cheapest materials or paid more for better. Unless you are a really savvy buyer – there’s almost no way of knowing. 


For example, you can buy a tap for £20 or £200 – and they won’t look that different on day 1. However, the cheap one will have bad quality chrome coating which will peel off or scratch. It will have non-replaceable parts and will start to leak within a year (once the developer has sold you the house). 


Now that’s not a problem if you, the customer, are making that choice consciously as you may only have the budget to fit the £20 tap today, but it’s not good if that’s what you are given without knowing that you’ve picked the budget tap.


Have a guess what the two taps cost below and see if you can tell the difference?

cheap tap vs expensive tap

Let us know below which one you think is the expensive one and how much in the comments! And we’ll reveal all in the update.


Now, add to the list of taps all the other things that go into a house. Would you be able to tell the difference in price / quality on these when they are all new and shiny?

  • floors
  • windows
  • paint
  • ironmongery
  • sanitaryware
  • woodwork
  • kitchen

And then you have to think of the things that you don’t see

  • plumbing
  • wiring
  • stud work
  • insulation
  • acoustic sealing
  • airtightness

And because you only buy houses a few times in your lifetime, there’s no incentive for developers to up their game (because in fact, the industry is stacked against them – valuers don’t ‘value’ better quality materials any higher and so banks don’t lend more). 


They’re in fact highly incentivised to cut corners and keep costs as low as possible. That puts more money in their pockets but it doesn’t help you as the owner occupier who has to pick up the pieces when things start falling apart.


So while we think that shells are a great answer to our housing crisis because it gives people choice and lets them decide (for themselves) where to spend their money, it also provides transparency – you know what’s behind the walls because you were there when they were built!


Consultant Bernard Hornung agrees that, ‘Getting the thermal envelope right is a critical process and the concept of a hybrid approach with a custom delivered shell and a self fit out is a balanced and elegant solution.’


This isn’t like doing the normal development and it makes our lives so much more complicated. It’s why what we’re doing is so rare!


Many would say it’s ‘too idealistic’ as it’s not putting profit above everything else, but it’s what we believe in – because if we all get to be involved in the design of the houses we live in, we’ll know more and be more discerning of the developers who believe in profit above everything else. And as architect Max Rengifo says, ‘ the benefits are way above the pitfalls when it comes to Shell Homes.’


So what can we do to support more custom build in the UK?

1) The government needs to do more to support custom build and SMEs. They have announced the Help to Build fund which is a great start, but certain things are stacked against smaller developments from the start.

The CIL charges, for example, are the same amount per square metre whether you are building 2 houses or 100. There should be recognition of the extra costs that are involved in developing a small site, so that smaller developers can deliver better and more affordable housing for more people.


2) Local councils need to do more to identify and make available plots of land for self and custom builders. Councils have closed their Right to Build registers citing overwhelming demand as the reason for not meeting the demand.

Councils need to step up to meet their responsibility to the citizens living in their area as well as their responsibility to commit to the Right to Build legislation.


3) Planning authorities need to be more supportive of projects that are not deemed to be ‘in character’ with existing housing. In order to create homes that fit into the sites that are available and that suit the needs of the people who will be living in them, we need to move beyond traditional design and aesthetics.

Diversity in housing is essential to helping us meet our housing needs in the future.


Fellow custom build developer Angelo Baccarella agrees, ‘Educating the public, more companies entering the self and custom build market as well as the government focus and support should help grow the sector and contribute to better housing for the future.’


Help us create more custom build homes

We are always on the look out for ways to help more people build their own homes. That’s why every month, we send out self-build plots that we have seen that are a good opportunity and worth a look into.


Click below to sign up to the newsletter to receive emails about plots, or if you have a plot that you’d like us to take a look at to assess its potential, please let us know here.

New to Unboxed Homes?

We make self-build easy. We build customisable eco friendly new homes that you fit out yourself, or we fit out for you. 

If you’ve ever wanted to build your own home but have been daunted by the idea or you want a project but don’t want the risk of buying a Victorian terrace that needs modernising, then sign up for our newsletter or our custom build register and we will send you emails with opportunities and land for sale that has been vetted as a good opportunity by our MD Gus Zogolovitch

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