Where do the terms self build and custom build actually come from and what do they mean in house-building circles? Well, the truth is that there is no formal definition for either but wouldn’t it be helpful if we could come up with one!

If you ‘google’ self build then organic results like Channel 4, Buildstore and Potton all appear first, however, for custom build the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) and the Greater London Authority (GLA) appear interspersed with a range of custom build desk top and gaming personal computer sites! There is some logic here, and the clue might just be in the name, for if you can custom build your computer or a new car, then why not your house?

Background to UK self build

For decades the term self build has embodied all of the forms for procuring your own new home regardless of your ultimate involvement and, believe it or not, this is a very wide set of options. At one end of the spectrum are those with both practical skills and technical knowledge who intend to play a very significant part in the physical build and at the other end are those who intend only to commission, choose and specify their new home and, of course, there is every conceivable proportional option in between.

But beneath this shroud of the various management options, what they all have in common is that, somewhere along the way, these ‘self builders’ have all acquired a plot of land upon which they intend to have their house built. These sites will come in a whole range of differing types, be they the field next door, someone’s rear garden, a tired property to demolish or a change of use category, but what they all involve is the need for a discrete detailed planning consent. Rarely do these opportunities come to market in bulk!

And that is where self building in the UK differs from other models across Europe and, in many respects, the rest of the world. In most other developed nations the notion of buying some land and building your own home is just one of a range of normal options and, crucially, open to entrants at all levels of the market.

But things are changing here in the UK and changing for the better. It may not feel like it yet, and we may all still be reeling from the effects of recession and credit correction, but as a result of a sustained campaign by many from this sector, we now have a government who are, for the first time in my 30 year career, actually striving to encourage more self build in the UK. Where, for whom and how is this being done?

Introducing custom build

The government has included custom build in their 2011 Housing Strategy paper for England, entitled ‘Laying the Foundations’, as a catch-all phrase for those wishing to commission or build their own home. Putting it in its simplest form this means, firstly, the traditional self-builders, who through their own physical efforts will get deeply involved on site, secondly, the self-procurers, who will orchestrate the management of their projects and, lastly, the self-commissioners who will link to their project only through their professional teams.

Building on the principles of localism, the government are hoping to shape an environment where custom build, as described above, can become a main stream option for the provision of new housing in the areas of most need. The phrase custom build is then perhaps best understood as a sector label for the growth in generic self build on a scale not previously seen here in the UK. But who else needs to be involved alongside this newly empowered community?

Other stakeholders

Landowners are key and need to be encouraged to consider allocating their land for custom build purposes. Already the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) are on board having made land available for custom build projects and, increasingly, developers and housing associations are now looking into the possibility of dedicated sites for individuals to play an active part. Indeed the 2012 planning policy framework expressly makes provision for local councils to measure demand for custom build in their boroughs.

But, if custom build is to represent self build ‘at scale’ for individuals, we will also need our developers not only to allocate their sites accordingly, but also to provide infrastructure, drainage and services to each individual plot. Alternatively, and by the formation of appropriate groups, individuals could come together as a collective where the appointment of contractors for roads, services and drains is just seen as an enabling phase of a larger development. With this encouragement from government, there are now multiple options on how custom build can be structured and the prognosis looks good for self build’s expansion.

Finance and lending

Just as vital as land, however, is the need for development funding and the provision of traditional and new lending to facilitate growth. Contrary to the opinions of some commentators, my experience of lenders has been wholly positive where constructive support for this sector has seen the emergence of many bespoke mortgage products. From a lending perspective, the challenges faced by one individual self build project will be totally different to the various profiles of new custom build sites where 10, 20 or even 100 houses are all being individually constructed or where a group of 30 eventual residents are all collectively involved in a large attached, terraced or multi-storey block.

It’s going to take a little time for these project profiles to become properly understood and for responsible and accountable management models to be properly determined such that lenders feel comfortable with their exposure. It’s a great opportunity, however, and lenders, just like all of the other stakeholders, won’t want to miss out.


The scaling of self build into a custom build sector is good news for us all. Such is the demand for new housing in the UK, our existing national house-builders won’t have their supply interrupted, and both channels should happily co-exist alongside each other. And once we have seen the delivery of really good quality custom build multi-development sites, with expressive architecture and thoroughly satisfied occupants, it will only serve to increase the quality and diversity of all new housing, regardless of channel.

To find out more about custom build sites from the HCA visit their web site at www.homesandcommunities.co.uk or take a look at the new self build portal at www.selfbuidlportal.org.uk where there is more information about the opportunities emerging from custom build. Buildstore have a long history in providing self build finance for most types of project and their details can be found at www.buildstore.co.uk.

My guess is that custom build, in all its forms, will help solve our affordability crisis and that over the next five years we will increasingly see this as a way for new entrants to get onto the housing ladder. Wouldn’t that be a great result! Next month we’ll be looking at how to establish your budget before you have even located your plot.

This article was written by Tim Doherty, and originally published for Build It Magazine. Tim is the Director and Principal Surveyor of Dobanti Chartered Surveyors, a building surveyors based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Get in touch for more information about Dobanti’s property and building services, or read more online now. Further articles and blog posts can be found here.