What’s Sociological About Selfbuild? by Michaela Benson

Selfbuild: ‘where the first occupants arrange for the building of their own dwelling and, in various ways, participate in its production’

(Duncan and Rowe 1993: 1331)

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Recently, I appeared on Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4’s flagship social science programme, talking about my research on selfbuild in an episode focussed on the sociology of housing.  You can listen again to this here. Preparing for this appearance, caused me to think once again about what a sociological approach brings to the study of self build, and the relationship of this to other forms of housing, all wrapped up in the (I hope!) catchy title: what’s sociological about selfbuild? This fits to the original ambitions of my ESRC-funded project, Selfbuilding: the production and consumption of new homes from the perspective of households, where I aimed to build a sociological account that asks wider questions about the structure of the housing economy, how individuals negotiate housing and with what consequences for their social identities

To my mind, there are several ways of approaching the question; my ethnographic research on selfbuild in Britain which adopted a multi-sited method tackles this from a range of different angles, allowing me to think through questions about what the shape of the selfbuild sector and experiences of selfbuilders tell us about the wider housing economy in Britain; how selfbuild figures in the political economy of housing; the ways in which selfbuild intersects in (individual) housing trajectories; how selfbuild provides a space for people to overcome some of the challenges that face them in relation to getting homes fit for their families; and how selfbuild projects reflect and refract the social identities of householders, the organisation of homes and what they reveal about the family relationships within them.

It has taken me some time to get to a stage where I think I have something definitive to say about selfbuild in Britain. But let’s start with the headlines. At a time when housing inequality is increasing across Britain, I am sure that a lot of people will be asking why we should care about self build? In a recent article for the Conversation, Jenny Pickerill, Professor of Environmental Geography ask Should more of us be building or own homes? She passionately argues that anyone should be able to build their own home and the self build might not only represent a way out of the housing crisis, but also a way of preventing another in the future. This brings me to the first point that I want to make, a response to the question of how we can realise the potential for selfbuild to do this.

The answer lies precisely in working on loosening the structural constraints which mean that it is only accessible to those with significant financial backing. In the last few years, there have been a series of initiatives aimed precisely at doing this, including changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, the development of a small custom build sector, and recent changes to the budget that aid community-led development of housing. Each of these initiatives has been hard won, the result of tireless work by a small number of passionate individuals, and provides signs of some alternatives–both within and beyond the market–to the mainstream, mass production of new housing by profit-driven property development companies. Certainly, the intentions behind this are to scale up selfbuild in Britain, to move it from a niche industry and practice into a realisable alternative to the status quo. And there are many reasons, all well-rehearsed, why this would be valuable. I have written about these elsewhere on my research blog, but also in the Conversation and Open Democracy.

Rather than a narrow focus on selfbuild, my approach to understanding this has been with a critical awareness of the wider housing economy and how the ways in which this structures and constrains the possibilities for selfbuilding in Britain are revealing of the deep-seated problems with housing provision. Simply put, the difficulties that many of the selfbuilders in the study faced as they tried to find land, navigate planning, finance their build, employing contractors and subcontractors, etc. were challenges not only to them but also telling of the housing industry, housing finance and land economy of which selfbuild is but a small part. Interviewing a researcher from one of the major housing charities for the project brought this home very clearly; when I asked what the charity’s interest in selfbuild was, he stressed that many of the concerns that selfbuild advocates raise are actually indicative of wider problems within the housing and land economy that in turn exacerbate social problems of housing inequality and homelessness. Recognising that selfbuild is nested within these economies breaks it away from the rather idiosyncratic position it might otherwise occupy if we view it only as a form of housing provision available to the relatively affluent and asset-rich.

The development of this critical understanding was paired in my project with the detailed investigation of the everyday experience of selfbuilding. This included work with both individual households in the process of building their own homes or who had completed them, and ongoing group projects. The lens on their experiences brought an additional perspective on the social dimensions of selfbuild that is rarely examined in detail. We have all seen the episodes of Channel 4’s Grand Designs that document the spiralling of costs, the breakdown of relationships with contractors, and the resolution of these problems. While these are often added for dramatic effect, working closely with the selfbuilders through the research, it becomes clear that managing social relations is a central feature of any selfbuild; it takes time and effort and is a considerable dimension of any project management. This is particularly writ large in cases of group selfbuild, recognised in the extensive preparatory work goes into thinking through how to manage group dynamics, including training in conflict resolution and consensus decision-making.

But the sociology doesn’t stop there. In the wider context of my research interests that track how social identities are made in and through space, my original interest in selfbuild from a sociological perspective lay in thinking about how the production of residential space through selfbuild both mirrors and refracts the identities of future residents and their relationships to one another. Thinking through the research on how people relate to domestic space, I have been fascinated by how the process of building and living in selfbuilt homes become statements about the people who have designed and live in them, interplaying, for example, with post-work identities and lives among retirees, enhancing family life. My work with some households included video methods; working with a GoPro, I would ask individual family members to make a short video about their home. This provided a whole new way of seeing the homes their eyes; their navigation of these new spaces revealed more about the structure of family relations and how these played out within the home than might otherwise have been visible. The process of building was often viscerally experienced. It framed how people, at least in the early days following completion, related to their houses, not quite viewing them as homes. In this way, it became clear that the effort of building a house does not neatly map onto the work of making a home.

These brief reflections are just the beginning of thinking about how we might think through selfbuild sociologically, enhancing understandings of the housing economy but also practices of homemaking and the relationship between homes and identity.

Image by Martin Pettitt licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Michaela Benson is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research interests focus on the intersections of space, society and the individual, with a particular interest in class, identity, and belonging and the sociology of migration and a longstanding commitment to theoretically-informed ethnography. She is the author of ‘The British in Rural France’ (2011, MUP) and co-author of the ‘The Middle Classes and the City’ (2015, Palgrave), as well as many journal articles and book chapters.

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