Third sector private homebuilding projects

The Headway Gardens community self build project in London


  • For the homes to be truly affordable you will almost certainly need to find an innovative (and cost effective) way of securing the land. For example, it can sometimes be donated by organisations like the Church or the local Parish Council. In other instances land has been acquired at agricultural values and is then held in a Community Land Trust
  • The Community Self Build Agency has facilitated numerous projects working alongside housing associations. These often involve the eventual residents working on the homes during the construction phase, and their labour input (sometimes called ‘sweat equity’) can be a way of reducing the overall cost of the homes
  • Don’t under estimate the power of volunteers – on many low cost self build schemes the residents of the homes (and their friends, family and the wider community) will be prepared to put in lots of their own time. And local businesses can sometimes be persuaded to help too – offering free labour or materials
  • Councils planning a serviced plot scheme can sell off larger plots at a higher cost per sq m, to cross subsidise the plots for affordable homes


The five brief examples included in this case study cover a very wide spectrum of approaches. Several other case studies are available that could be worth examining. These are identified at the end of this document.


Fourteen bespoke low energy homes for immigrant and refugee families are provided on a small infill site in central Brussels
This project provides 14 homes for mainly immigrant and refugee families on a tight site in the heart of Brussels. Local families who were living in very poor, often overcrowded accommodation initiated it. They approached local housing association Bonnevie with the idea, and the Brussels City Region Housing Fund then stepped in and secured the site from council for €60,000 (there were no other bidders). This was well below the expected market price of €240,000, so this had a big positive impact on the economics of the project.

The Housing Fund team then recruited the residents (they were all on the waiting list for social housing), and helped them to develop the design, secure the finance and co-ordinate the construction the project. The homes are built to Passive House standards, and each apartment has been designed to suit/fit the needs of the eventual resident. Some are quite large as there were several large families on the list.

The project was eligible for a grant towards the land remediation work, and picked up €190,000 from the Federal Urban Policy fund. Because it was built to Passive House standards its secured €100 per sq m from the Brussels Institute of Environmental Management. The various grants, and a simple, cost-effective design (it was built for €1,200 per sq m), meant that the homes were made available to the residents for between €148,000 and €203,000 each.

To help cover some of the early costs of the development the BRC Housing Fund linked up with CIRE, an organisation that was looking to set up a credit union to help people save/borrow. The residents all agreed to pay €50 each month into this; the money was used to fund visits to see other innovative projects, to hire meeting rooms and to cover other incidental expenses.


It can be challenging to deliver self-build homes that are genuinely classified as ‘affordable’ – either to rent or available on a part rent/part purchase basis. One way this can be achieved is by working in partnership with organisations like housing associations, the Community Self Build Agency, charities, trusts and similar organisations.

This case study examines a range of approaches that have created good quality, low cost, self-built homes to rent or buy. It examines five projects including L’Espoir Molenbeek (Belgium), the Rural Studio (USA), Headway Gardens in Walthamstow, London (UK), the West Street Community Self-Build project for military veterans in Bristol (UK) and Housing People Building Communities in Liverpool (UK).

Initiator: Public Sector, Community and Other

Scale: Small, Medium and Large

Site: Urban, Suburban and Rural

Affordability: Low Cost

Opportunity: Individual and Collective

Built Form: Detached, Semi Detached, Terraced, Apartments and Refurbished

Country: UK, Belgium and USA


For the purposes of this Toolkit we have made the following definitions:

  • ‘self and custom built homes’ as properties commissioned by people from a builder, contractor or package company (this is known as ‘custom build’ housing). When people physically build themselves, sometimes with help from sub-contractors, this is known as ‘self build’ housing. We call all these people ‘private homebuilders’.
  • ‘serviced building plots’ are shovel-ready parcels of land with planning permission, laid out and ready for construction with access and utilities/services provided to the plot boundary. Some private homebuilders just purchase a plot; others opt for a ‘shell’ home (that they then finish off), or they select from an extensive menu of options offered by developers/builders.
  • ‘group projects’ mean homes built by private homebuilders who work as a collective.
The colourful street elevation (left); The four level development includes some small gardens at the rear (right)
Residents have created their own small communal garden and allotment
Mortgages were arranged for the tenants, backed by a guarantee from the BCR Housing Fund. This enabled them to provide the mortgage with a two per cent interest rate. The mortgages are arranged over 30 years, and a typical resident pays about €700 (£520) a month to buy their apartment.

Some of the residents do not have full time jobs, or are retired. But even if they are on benefits they have still (just about) managed to afford this.

There are seven duplex homes on the ground level, and a further seven apartments above. A basement car park is also provided. At the rear of the properties there are some small private gardens, and on a plot alongside the block, the group has set up a communal vegetable garden.

The residents association takes care of the management of the communal spaces, and the building has become a key social hubs for the district, with a small annual music festival and lots of ‘gatherings’ in the garden.

Work on the project began in 2005 and it was occupied in late 2009. It has subsequently gone on to win a string of sustainability and housing innovation awards.


The site was donated by the neighbouring church
Army reservists helped build the roads
This 32 home project demonstrates what can be achieved through voluntary efforts. More than 12,000 people, from right around the world, have contributed time over the last few years. The Church donated the land, and the residents of the new homes have all put in hundreds of hours too.

The charity is a Christian-based organisation but it stresses that it works with, and is interested in, people of all faiths (and no faiths). There is an extremely diverse community of residents evolving on the site – young and old, and with many nationalities represented (including several refugee families).

To qualify for one of the homes people must currently live or work in Liverpool or have strong family connections; they must be willing to work for 500 hours on the project (this also qualifies them for a £10,000 discount); and they must have sufficient income to secure a mortgage to buy at least a 50 per cent share of their new home.

The charity has teamed up with the Sanctuary Group, which owns any residual equity in the homes and provides ongoing housing management services.

Funding for the first phase came from a variety of sources including Merseyside’s Housing Market Renewal Initiative, the New Heartlands regeneration programme, gifts in kind, donations, and, as each property was completed, from the sale of the homes. The charity also arranged for a loan from Liverpool City Council (secured by the value of the first phase) to provide it with working capital to progress the later stages.

Some of the thousands of volunteers that have helped build the homes
The homes have cost about £65,000 each to construct – thanks mainly to all the free labour and donated materials. They have been valued at around £120,000.

The project isn’t perfect – the standard three bedroom house doesn’t suit every family’s requirements; in the early days some potential residents got very excited about the project (only to discover that they didn’t earn enough to qualify for a mortgage); and there were some very ‘slow’ periods, when the charity almost ran out of cash – this delayed completion by two to three years.

But on the upside it shows what you can do if you inspire people with a bold vision, you tap into the wealth of volunteers that are out there, and you persuade companies to donate supplies.

(left) Construction apprentices worked on site; (right) The terraces are all the same, with private gardens to the rear
The frontages of some of the first homes that were competed


The frontages of some of the first homes that were competed
Recruit a cohort of enthusiastic students and set them a tough challenge. Then stand back and watch what they can achieve. That’s exactly what happened more than 20 years ago in Alabama, when an architecture lecturer set his students a vacation challenge to design and build a simple home for just $20,000. The task had even more appeal when the students realised the homes would be used to house local homeless people.

(left) The 2010 house had a generous porch; (right) The 2004 house for the Patrick family
The first challenge was set in 1993, and since then, every summer, students congregate in Alabama to see if they can design a home that’s even better, and even more cost effective to construct. To date they have built more than 100 much-needed properties.

The houses have all been constructed for $20,000 or less. They’ve also built delightful bus shelters, kitted out new parks with play equipment, delivered a new library, a series of school buildings, a scout hut, village hall, a skate park, an animal shelter, community shops and cafes, churches, a senior citizens club, an animal clinic and a children’s nursery.

in 2011 the students built this 470 sq m extension to the local school
The idea has caught on elsewhere too – there are similar initiatives now underway in seven other US cities, plus one in Finland and another in Germany. In the UK, the Architectural Association manages a woodland at Hooke Park in Dorset in this manner, and several other schools of Architecture run ‘live projects’ (although only a few manage full-scale buidings). 

In the US, all the students give their time for free, many of the materials are donated, and millions of dollars have been donated to support the programme.

For further information, see .


The completed homes – built with support from the Community Self Build Agency
A collective called the Headway Self Build Group constructed this ten-home project. It teamed up with Circle Housing, Waltham Forest Council’s Housing Department and the Community Self Build Agency (CSBA) to realise the development, with the assistance of Jon Broome Architects.

The families in front of the derelict garages site
The site was a block of 50 redundant garages on a large housing estate that Circle 33 owned. The housing association had previously sought planning permission for affordable housing on the site on three occasions; but each time it was rejected for reasons that included over-development, loss of off-street parking and inadequate vehicular access. One house designed for a wheelchair user was also required to comply with planning policy.

A local single parent was the main initiator of the development. He was living in a two-bedroom home with two teenage daughters and a young son, and he’d been on the housing waiting list for seven years. He persuaded the housing association to consider a self build scheme, and he helped to recruit the other self builders – all of whom had been on the council’s waiting list.

Circle 33 worked with the CSBA, and together they secured the finance for the project. The bulk of the money came from the Affordable Homes Programme with £300,000 from the Greater London Authority. The building costs amounted to £921,383 and the external works cost an additional £261,187.

The self builders attended training courses at the local college. Recognising that they didn’t have the skills to do all the work themselves the project was undertaken as a ‘self finish’ development – so a contractor was hired to build the homes, with the self builders doing some of the final fitting out work (mainly decorating, landscaping, fitting the kitchen units and second fix carpentry).

The self builders were heavily involved in the early stages too – working with the architect and the housing association to agree the preferred layout of the development. They also selected the external materials used – they opted for brick cladding rather than render or timber. A number of options for the internal layouts were developed: for example the residents could have a kitchen with a view of the street with living room opening off the back garden; or a ‘parlour’ living room at the front of the house with a family kitchen facing the back garden. The latter was the arrangement they favoured.

(left) The group had a big say in the design and layout of the development; (right) A main contractor built the shells and these were then finished by the self builders
The group included young families – many of whom previously lived in overcrowded flats on a nearby council estate. One or two members had some experience in the building industry; two were single parents. There was not a wheelchair user among the membership of the group, so the local authority nominated a tenant to rent the wheelchair dwelling.

The ten homes that were built were designed to ‘fit’ the size of the households – so there was one two-bedroom; six three-bedroom; two four-bedroom; and, one two-bedroom house for a wheelchair user. All the homes were built to very high energy standards.

Many of those involved were living in overcrowded accommodation
All of the homes are for rent – a typical two-bedroom home costs £120 a week. The residents did not get a discount; they did the work just to help them ‘fast track’ access to social housing.

On most projects like this – involving residents doing some of the construction work themselves – there are usually only marginal cost savings. The housing association involved here reckons that any reductions in labour costs were offset by the additional project management and supervision costs that were incurred.

It took nine years to realise this project. The group was initially formed in 2006, but it then took five years to secure a suitable site. Planning permission was granted in late 2013, and the homes were built in 2014 and occupied in early 2015. 

The main contractor was Kind & Co, and the architect was Jon Broome Architects.


The first veterans self build project in Bristol
Self build affordable housing projects for veterans are taking off across the country, with schemes on site (in 2015) in Bristol, Plymouth, Weston-Super-Mare and Wrexham. One of the reasons they are popular is that finance can sometimes be secured from the Ministry of Defence’s £40m Veterans Accommodation Fund (a pot of money that uses banker’s fines to help ex-servicemen reintegrate into civilian life).

The West Street project in Bedminster, Bristol, was the first completed scheme. It consists of 14 self-contained two-bedroom flats, that were built with input from ten homeless ex-servicemen. The other four flats were allocated to people with learning disabilities.

A retired Army Major who was aware that one in four of those living rough on the city’s streets were army veterans initiated the scheme. He worked with the Community Self Build Agency (CSBA) and the Knightstone Housing Association to make it happen.

The ten veterans were supported with training from On Site Bristol – a not for profit organisation that helps locals get into employment by providing construction training. Several of the veterans have now gone on to secure full time jobs in the building industry.

The project was largely built by a local contractor who provided on-the-job training to the veterans. In return for their unpaid labour – which averaged 20 hours per week – those participating were offered one of the homes at an affordable rent.

(left) The layout of the Bristol project; (right) the veterans involved in the Bristol project
In total the project cost just under £2m with £660,000 coming from the HCA, £270,000 from Knightstone and the remaining £1m was a mixture of charitable donations and small grants.

There was some important learning gleaned from the first Bristol project. Many of those involved had had a long history of rough sleeping and some of them found it difficult to adapt to working again. As a result, Knightstone has chosen a less needy group for its latest scheme, with participants drawn from hostels, and those with a shorter history of rough sleeping. Rent arrears have been another problem – resulting in the eviction of one of the original tenants – while another is on the verge of being kicked out for the same cause.

(left) The Nelson Project in Plymouth was due to start in late 2015; (right) the Wrexham scheme is also now on site

Further Reading

Duneland Ecovillage, Scotland

Orwell Housing Association – affordable self-finish

Kleine Bergstrasse, Hamburg

Projekthaus, Potsdam

Bristol CLT

De Flat, Amsterdam



The NaCSBA Research & Development Programme is funded by the Nationwide Foundation and aims to promote the self-build and custom build sector as an affordable route into housing for a greater number of people in the UK.

For further information, please or