A trade mission visit to the largest and most innovative self build project in Europe, this week, has been widely heralded as a success, with many useful learning points captured for potential use in the UK.

A trade mission visit to the largest and most innovative self build project in Europe, this week, has been widely heralded as a success, with many useful learning points captured for potential use in the UK.

The visit to Almere in The Netherlands, which was led by Housing Minister Grant Shapps, alongside the industry’s newly-crowned champion, Kevin McCloud, consisted of more than 30 senior delegates, representing all sides of the growing self build sector. There were also representatives from small and large housebuilders and contractors as well as bankers and building society CEOs, housing associations and local authority chiefs.

Other movers and shakers included  the head of the Government’s Homes and Communities Agency, the Director of Housing at the Department of Communities and Local Government, the chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, a land buying specialist, and senior people from the building materials sector. The National Self Build Association and community self builders were well represented too.

The day began with a briefing from one of the key aldermen at the City of Almere – who explained the background to the project – followed by a more detailed description of the master-plan of the self build zone from Jacqueline Tellinga the inspirational manager of the project.

Exceptional project

So what makes the Almere self build scheme (or the ‘Homeruskwartier’) such an exceptional project?

  • Over the last four years,  nearly every plot on the 1,200 home development has been bought or built, while the traditional new housing market in the Netherlands has been stalling
  • The whole area has very few restrictions on what can be built – but instead of constructing cheap or sub-standard homes, as some critics had predicted, the people of Holland have built one of the most vibrant, inventive and creative new housing developments in the world
  • It has been done very cost effectively – some of the smaller ‘self finish’ apartments have been constructed for as little as £50,000.
  • Typical individual homes are around 25% cheaper than standard ‘off the shelf’ new homes.

You’ll find a detailed case study on the project here, so take a look to find out more about how the project has been planned and delivered.

Learning Points

At the end of the trade mission, during a de-briefing session at the British Embassy in The Hague, some preliminary learning points emerged. One of the strongest themes was the level of ‘trust’ the local council had put in the self builders. Instead of micro-managing everything, the planners and building inspectors in Almere simply trust people to do things well. They don’t check the installation of every toilet; they don’t impose  health and safety red tape (they suggest people remain vigilant and there have been no  serious accidents); and they explain that the whole area will be a building site for three years until most of the homes are built, which the residents understand.

Simple and practical

Another strong theme was the way in which the council has made everything much simpler and more practical. So, each home has a short A4 ‘planning passport’ that explains what they can and can’t do (there are very few real restrictions other than the maximum height being specified). They don’t take long to make decisions, for example; there was an audible gasp from the UK delegation when a local alderman explained that they had streamlined the planning approvals process and reduced the decision time from 3-6 months to just three and a half days. They also provide first class information – easy to understand plans and contracts; an expert roving builder, to provide tips and advice to self builders and a clear information display in a local retail centre.

The Dutch have also managed to break down the conservative mind-set of the funding institutions too. In the Netherlands they have developed some innovative new financial models to make it possible for people on very modest wages to secure a mortgage. Members of the delegation from organisations such as the Lloyds Banking Group and the Ecology Building Society said that they hoped to be more flexible over funding innovative larger scale self build developments into the future.

Building a community

It will be another year before all of the ‘gaps’ in the streets are filled at Almere,  but it is already possible to see its potential. By the end of 2012 the current temporary roads will have all been replaced with new ones, the landscaping will have been planted and the communal facilities will have been built. Interestingly, the self builders in the Netherlands don’t just construct homes – 20 local entrepreneurs are about club together to build a market hall, and another group are planning to jointly construct a Hindu Temple. It would be wrong to pretend that Almere’s self build experiment has no faults. The public transport system is limited to a few buses (there’s no real direct integration with the Dutch rail and tram network); there is little evidence of much happening on the ‘green’ front, and alongside some very funky contemporary buildings there are some ugly ‘Tudor-esque’ kit and log homes. And at present there are no real shops, but the team behind the project “trust” the local community and are confident that they will rise to the challenge, spot an opportunity and organise these in due course.

€100million development has already ‘paid for itself’

The council say the whole development has paid for itself generating more than 100 Million Euros to fund the initial investment in the master-plan and the installation of the main infrastructure, and they point out that it’s been sustaining hundreds of construction jobs during the worse economic downturn in living memory. The project has also resulted in increased orders at local builders merchants and interiors shops. There really is nothing like Almere in the UK, and it will require a bit of bravery for anyone to try to replicate it here. But if there’s a council or a Government land owner with a very large site that none of the conventional developers wants to touch, it could be an approach worth exploring.

Over the next few months, The National Self Build Association (NaSBA) will be working up a detailed case study on the development, with lots of information about the costs and a template for how similar schemes might be adapted so they can be taken forward in the UK.



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