By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
With new homes planned to help first-time buyers get on the property ladder, John Prescott has challenged developers to come up with houses that can be built for £60,000. What's the secret?
Newly-built houses suffer from something of an image problem - either seen as unaffordable dream homes as featured on high end "property porn" TV shows, or identikit estates of box-like houses.
Then there are the almost space-age micro-flats dreamed up to squeeze into tiny inner-city plots.
But there are alternatives which aim to provide comfort, privacy and outside space - all of which are high on property-buyers' wish lists.
Inspired by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's competition for developers to design and build houses for £60,000 - excluding the cost of land - four young architecture practices have come up with their own designs. We picked their brains for tips:
That familiar sight, the terraced house, is one of the most cost-effective ways to build homes as each buyer only has to pay for one side wall.
Of the four £60,000 schemes exhibited at the London Homes and Property Show and later at RIBA, three are re-imaginings of the two-up two-down terrace. The fourth is an imaginative scheme for stacked flats, with each home shaped like a giant guitar plectrum. All have outside space, either in the form of a small garden, an enclosed courtyard or a balcony.
Technological advances mean that curves are now an affordable option, says Simon Mitchell, of Sybarite. New materials and construction techniques mean that rectangular is no longer the only easy option.
"The curves come mainly from the balconies that wrap around each floor. Each floor has three flats which open onto these private balconies - and lay-out alternates on each storey to make them more private."
Another exhibitor, Andrew Matthews of Proctor and Matthews, already has form in the affordable housing stakes - his firm has designed the modular housing in Greenwich Millennium Village and Southwark, south London.
"So much modular housing looks like a box. The secret to designing a place you would actually enjoy living in is to increase the wall to floor area. Nor does it have to feel like a living in a soulless sci-fi house - we use technology to drive down the costs but not to make it look like it's a 1960s vision of the future."
Forget brick. Wood, glass, steel and aluminium feature in all four schemes. "These will be the materials of choice for the next 50 to 100 years," says Mr Mitchell. "Our flats are mainly aluminium and timber, which make them light enough to stack one floor on another."
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Architect James Soane, of Project Orange, agrees that these are good choice for affordable homes made of strong, sustainable materials.
His firm's scheme is for terraced "urban cottages" with solid timber structural walls - which can be left exposed inside for those who like wood finish - and plenty of glass to let in the light. New technology has made the manufacture of triple-glazed glass more affordable, so even a glass wall can offer the same level of insulation as that traditional choice of British builders, the cavity wall.
"Not only will this home be cheap to build, it'll be cheap to run - you won't have to pump a lot of heat into it to stay warm."
Typically one of the biggest expenses when building a house, costs can spiral out of control when building from scratch on-site. No-shows, inclement weather, delayed delivery of equipment or materials can all grind the build to a halt.
The solution? The flat-pack house, manufactured off-site which keeps costs down thanks to the economies of scale in mass production.
Flats inspired by a guitar plectrum
On delivery its constituent parts can be assembled in as little a day specialist contractors, says Philippa Stockley, of the Evening Standard's Homes and Property, which staged the exhibition.
Which is no doubt good to news to all who are familiar with self-assembly furniture and cannot begin to imagine what frustrations this might entail on a house-build.
The value of the land is half the usual cost of a property, making it the single biggest expense in such schemes, particularly in the south-east where space is tight.
"A plot in London can cost between £100,000 and £200,000, with the build-cost starting at least £80,000 for something quite basic," says Ms Stockley.
What few vacant plots there are available can be hugely expensive - some house-builders simply buy a derelict property to knock down and start again.
WHAT'S ALREADY AVAILABLE
Just as Ikea has cornered the market in flat-pack furniture, the Swedish superstore has gone into flat-pack homes. The company's first Boklok home to be built in the UK will be a show home in Brighton, and applications are now open for those with a household income of £12,500 to £30,000.
While the British price tag has yet to be revealed, these kit homes in Sweden cost about £7,500. There, the pre-fabricated flats are mostly built of local pine and have large windows and balconies overlooking communal gardens. The flats are stacked in L-shape blocks and assembled in groups of six on site by Scandinavian fitters.
And Weber House, a German company, has a modern modular home available for about £80,000.
"The easiest way to drive down costs further is for a group of friends to get together to build a whole row, or block, of these sorts of schemes," says Ms Stockley. Easier said than done, perhaps, in a country where finding space for just one house on its own can come at a premium.
Send in your comments, using the form below.
The Dorset Cente for Rural Skills is working on building £40,000 homes, built of local timber straw bales with a lime render. Very high insulation and eco-friendly materials. All we need is a helpful planning system.
David Fox, Sturminster Newton, Dorset
These kind of methods for reducing build costs are absolutely essential. I own a half-share of a house-sized plot in a very desirable part of London. We looked at developing, and the cost barriers are ridiculous. The prices we've been quoted for various schemes have offered no room for profit whatsoever, and then there are hurdles like car parking requirements to overcome. It's really no wonder there's a housing shortage in London. The plots that do exist aren't economical to develop.
James, London, UK
According to a report I recently read, flat pack houses may be a modest £30,000 to£40,000, but land will set you back about £150,000, labour a further £70,000, fixtures and fittings £40,000, and furnishings £20,000. All in, that's at least £300,000 for the most basic version.
Matthew Humphreys, Buckley
I live in the Millennium Village and can testify this style of housing, although it may not be for everyone, has given me a very high standard of living and wood, glass and aluminium provide sufficient heat in the winter and shade in the summer, as well as being soundproof. I do question, however, the definition of affordable living - my house to buy would be £249,000. I can't afford that. I rent.
Francesca, Greenwich, London
How about noise? I have lived in flats, terraces and semis, and none of them had proper protection from the noise of neighbours. For me, that's still the main reason to go for a detached house.
Marco Federighi, Pinner, Middlesex
Bought an purpose build apartment last year. The concept was fantastic - vast glazing & clean lines. In reality the Danish windows don't fit and even basics such as plumbing are botched. Architects have the ideas but builders & developers build red brick boxes with white uPVC aplenty. Why? It's easy and cheap. Anything beyond is a struggle due to skills shortages & developers sub-contracting to the cheapest bidder.
A Mortimer, London
Perhaps John Prescott could start with stopping the civil servants within his own department from piling on expensive additions to the Building Regulations. With complex fire regulations, disabled access, ground floor toilets in even the smallest dwellings, temperature limiters on hot taps etc etc, small wonder that no-one can afford houses these days.
Nick Dodsworth, Kettering, Northants
Yes lets build affordable housing but make living affordable through cheaper heating and water bills. Lets see the living costs reduced by using solar, wind for electricity, storing rain water for the gardens and use good designs for energy efficiency.
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