Housebuilder’s reputations crumble

Or: why self-build could be the perfect solution to your new home

There may never have been a better time to self-build, pressure on house builders to build means that quality is suffering and buyers are unhappy, recent legislation designed to help self-builders was announced in the Housing white paper so now is the time to take control of your build to ensure your new home is of the highest quality and performance.

Bad building is news, evidenced by the comprehensive coverage of the problems besetting volume house builders, all forms of media have tapped a rich vein of dissatisfied customers and broken promises pushing housing quality to the top of the agenda just at the point the government identifies the problem as our ‘broken housing market’ [1]

House builders are receiving record levels of complaints, some are putting aside millions to rectify faults; a survey released this week by the National House Building Council (NHBC)[2] shows that 98% of new-home buyers who responded reported defects, it appears Standards are falling all the time as demand from shareholders takes priority over quality. It goes without saying that sustainability is definitely not a consideration for volume house builders, from the survey it appears that many of the houses they build are not fit for purpose even before first occupancy.

It maybe that this stems from the very structure the volume house builders have created for themselves where weak regulation and consumer rights coupled with commercial mechanisms such as consolidated purchasing, category buying and the infliction of buyer’s terms on suppliers that has  compromised quality and stifled innovation. Add greed to the mix masquerading as demand driven by government targets and the whole thing becomes a sorry mess where quality is no longer a benchmark of success.

Housing white paper 2107This very point was made by Secretary of State Sajid Javid whilst delivering the Housing White paper who commented “It’s fair to say that new builds don’t always have the best reputation for quality…..this isn’t a new issue” This is further emphasised by the title of the paper Fixing our broken housing market.

Recent adverse headlines for house builders prompted this issue to be covered in an interview on Radio 4’s Saturday ‘Today Programme’  in an interview with  Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman of the Home Builders Federation (HBF)[2] he gave this really quite astonishing answer when asked about the quality issues surrounding new builds “Now clearly things go wrong on building sites, we are working in all weathers with all sorts of raw materials that have to be imported and clearly there are challenges and I think most customers accept that actually is not necessarily possible to always produce a perfect house. The key thing is to make sure we deliver their house on time and where they do have issues and when they do have problems making sure we address.” This from the industries own PR and lobby group!

His comment that delivery on time is the ‘key thing’ speaks more directly about contractual obligations and financial penalties than customer service and quality, however as Phil Waller who runs advice and campaigning website points out that the house building industry that Stewart Baseley is attempting to defend, “cannot even produce a home that is 100% finished by the date builders say it will be. There can be no excuses for handing over a defective, poor quality and often unfinished new home. Whilst it is true a new home is exposed to ‘all weathers’, so are new hospitals, schools office blocks etc. all built to much higher standards handed over 100% compete, on time, with very few (if any) defects. It is not impossible to build a perfect new home. All that is required is care, desire and sufficient time. The industry has lowered expectations, so buyers expect to have defects and faults. You do not expect to have faults in a new car. You don’t drive it for a week and then take it back to the dealer with a list of things that need sorting out!”

One area conspicuous by its absence within the report, is the self-build sector; not part of the UK corporate housing delivery system it also benefits from being shorn of the profit motive and support of shareholder value which is contributing to the reputational damage to some of the most well-known volume house builders. The self-build market could be one of the last remaining custodians of quality housing.

Self build portalThe Self Build Portal defines self-build ‘as projects where someone directly organises the design and construction of their new home’. Self-build includes projects where the self-builder arranges for an architect/contractor to build their home for them. Many community-led projects are defined as self builds too, it also includes the term ‘Custom Build’[3]which covers those projects where you work with a specialist developer to help deliver your own home. Predictions suggest that the sector will grow steadily by around 7-10% per annum to 2020.[4]

In countries like Germany or France where self-build and smaller local providers are the norm[5] building regulations and the law help frame the delivery of quality housing but here in the UK were different, we don’t have building regulations or the law to promote and encourage the delivery of quality we can only deliver this by persuasion, and this is one of the self-build sectors biggest challenges.

There is some evidence to suggest that there may be significant unmet demand for self-build housing in the UK. A YouGov survey commissioned by the Building Societies Association (BSA) and published in October 2011, suggested that 53% of people in the UK would consider building their own home given the opportunity.[6] In its 2011 Housing Strategy (Laying the Foundations) the Coalition Government reported that 100,000 people were looking for building plots at that time.[7]

For those who value quality then self-build really is a realistic option, and why wouldn’t you? There is a wealth of support out there for the vast majority of self-builders, it’s simply a cost-effective route to a good-quality home that’s tailored to your needs. Because you’re not operating to a profit margin, you can expect to get more for your money than you would by buying an equivalent developer-built home you can build what you want not just buy what is built. Self-building is one of the few activities where buying bespoke is more economical than purchasing the ready-made equivalent.

Pople House Architect Nicholas Pople. Private house self- built using sustainable and natural materials to provide a low impact energy efficient home. Structural timber and wood fibre insulation from Steico

Not all self-builders want to build with natural materials but we find that they are much more receptive to different ways of building often ways that are the norm elsewhere. Many of the products we sell (at Ecomerchant) are proven performance materials with the additional benefits of being sustainable and nontoxic. One of the criticisms in the Housing White paper of the way we build in this country is that we are ‘locked into’ a way of building  that resists change, the volume house builders have lowered our expectations through their market dominance, but it doesn’t have to be like that. We should all have the ambition to build better quality, less polluting more durable homes.

To conclude on a positive note, there is an interesting statistic uncovered when you look at imported building materials. Stewart Baseley eluded to the impact of higher levels of imported building materials[i] and various figures, depending on the type of build system, range from around 40% up to over 60% of imported materials for a complete house.

imageedit_2_3957763999 Source: Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England DCLG Nov 2011 ISBN: 978-1-4098-3234-8

When you overlay the source countries for materials with a graph showing the levels of self-build it’s no surprise that some of the highest levels of self-build are recorded in the largest providers of sustainable, natural and performance building materials: the reason is obvious, materials are chosen by self-builders on a wider range of criteria than volume users, they incorporate values discounted by mass purchasers and as a result benefit from extra performance and durability. The good news is that self-builders don’t have to account for a profit margin so building this way can work out much cheaper than you might expect for significantly better quality materials.

Materials by country Purchases of sustainable construction materials by Ecomerchant for 2016 broken down by broad geographic region

To read more about organisations involved in supporting self-build and sustainable building click here


UK construction material imports vs exports January 2017

Imports and exports of construction materials january 2017

Read the full report here



[2] Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman of HBF interview on BBC Radio 4 Today – Saturday 11 February


[4] AMA Research Self Build Housing Market Report - UK 2016-2020 Analysis

[5] Numbers of self-Build as a % of new build Germany 50% France 60% Austria 80% A Housing Strategy for England, DCLG, 2011

[6] Survey commissioned by the Building Societies Association (BSA), October 2011

[7] A Housing Strategy for England, DCLG, 2011, p14



[i] Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Monthly Statistics of Building Materials and Components Published 1st February 2017