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Can a man who can't put up a shelf build a house?

Thousands of Brits flock to Ikea every weekend to buy flat pack furniture. And while on a recent trip to Bavaria, I discovered the Germans do the same - but only after calling in to a retail park to choose their kit-house house first.

So with a German coffee in hand – great if you’re not looking to get any sleep in the next 48 hours – we made our way around the houses on show: big ones, small ones, bungalows, town houses, cube-shaped ones, classic ones. The homes I looked at all boasted top notch air tightness, triple-glazing and maximum insulation as standard. The idea is you take along a map of your land and pick the house you like that fits. It is then delivered and put up for you.

In Austria, 80 per cent of all homes are self-built. In Germany, France and Italy the figure is 60 per cent. In the US and Australia its more than 40 per cent. By contrast the number for the UK is about 10 per cent which begs the question: why is the UK lagging behind? Is it too hard to secure land? Are there planning issues? Will there be endless form filling? And what about support infrastructure? The National Self Build Association is a good first port of call and can provide good advice for those seeking answers to some of these questions.

Inspired by this trip to Germany, my wife and I decided to oversee our own self-build project. We sold our ex-local authority three-bed semi and after embarrassingly outbidding myself several times during the auction, we are the proud owners of 18 ex-local authority derelict garages soon to be demolished. Sound simple?

The answer is not really. Overseeing a self-build project is a complex thing. It seems that for too long self-build homes have been seen as an option only for a privileged few. The Channel 4 show Grand Designs has done many great things to inspire us all, but a visit to Fertighausausstellung (kit-home exhibition) in Munich underlined the potential for self-build homes to be much more accessible than they currently are – even if more modest than we see on TV. Additionally  it’s fair to say that I wouldn't want to live in a house that I'd built. A friend who visited my home recently asked what a big piece of wood was doing on the floor?  My response was, “It’s a shelf I [tried] to put up."

The government claims it has committed to increasing housing supply and improving market stability and affordability by making self-build housing a mainstream option. Being VAT exempt is attractive and you only have to pay stamp duty on the value of the land. It's worth considering the lesser known Community Infrastructure Levy is due to become more widespread. Oh and then there's all the form filling.

So can we Brits make self-builds become a mainstream thing? We can certainly do better. We also need to encourage the 10 per cent self-builders to build energy efficient properties. The Germans I spoke with plan to stay in their self-build homes for years to come. So surely, the self-builder’s motivation goes beyond margin and re-sale value. With energy prices continuing to rise, it makes sense to build a warm and cosy home which is also cost effective to run. And it might be easier than we think. Some housing developments are encouraging people to buy their plot with the support of a developer and architect while managing the project themselves. I recently visited one called Newhall on the edge of Harlow in Essex which could represent the future look of the housing estates of tomorrow.

Back to Germany and that kit-home exhibition. After a long day of walking, and climbing stairs, I decided to take a well-earned sit down in the last house: one window too many for a bathroom perhaps. But style considerations aside, the future might see many more of us choosing a kit house together with our flat packed furniture.  

Julian is Head of Communications at the Energy Saving Trust and has led a number of consumer engagement campaigns. After buying some derelict land at an auction, Julian project managed an eco-build house for his family and he is convinced that if he can do it, anyone can.

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