Thoughts on the future of housing.

Flavours of the city

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I recently watched a short series on Netflix called, Salt Fat Acid Heat, a gorgeous exploration of what the presenter and chef, Samin Nosrat, calls “the basic elements which can make or break a dish”. Part cooking show, part chemistry and part global journey through food it’s a beautiful show with the aim of showing that “good cooking is in reach of everyone”. The final scene involves Samin hosting a group of friends at a dinner where they all cook together. It soon becomes clear from their behaviour that when you are invited to Samin’s house for dinner you are going to be involved in the cooking rather than just the eating. During this final scene Samin delivers a wonderful monologue on what cooking means to her and how important for her to bring others in to the process and why she thinks some people don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen.

Why not involve your guests? I think a big part of what keeps people out of the kitchen is they feel like they have no agency, no power, no knowledge. So if there is a way they can be involved in just a tiny part of that process they take away that knowledge and they feel empowered. - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

It was this statement which made my mind jump from cooking to city planning. Because all too often we hear from councils that people don’t engage with consultations or that too few people share their views on new developments. While the process of consultation can itself create more stress, anxiety and feelings of exclusion from the most important decisions facing communities.

There are so many parallels and analogies you can make between city planning and cooking, but the notion that their may be four key elements which make or break a development got me to thinking about what versions of Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat are for neighbourhood developments.

This is where I got to and would be interested to hear your views on it.

Salt - Architecture

In it’s broadest forms architecture is incredibly important to building great cities. Without good architecture our cities and communities are bland, just visit your average new build housing estate and you will most likely see a development significantly lacking seasoning. However, like most things, too much of a certain type will make things unpalatable. The first tall glass buildings were interesting but not anymore. Like salt there isn’t just one form of architecture and as will be true of the other elements you need the right form for the right context.

Fat - The Local Authority

Some people try to avoid it and others have too much of it. Local authority or planning involvement is definitely the fat. It’s good a bad reputation but it’s largely misunderstood. It’s incredibly important for all great places but getting the best from it means using the right one at the right time, balancing it well with acid and importantly, knowing which source of heat is right.

Acid - Citizens

I think citizens have to represent the acid, they come in a myriad of forms, have varying strengths and range from one cuisine to the next, but be careful because they can be bitter if misused. Cooking with acid sounds scary on the face of it, much like designing with citizens but it’s important to use it otherwise you’ll end up with flabby developments lacking in bite. Citizens can cut through certain things that others can’t and elevate a development to a higher standard.

Heat - Developers/Investors

This is the dangerous one, obviously if it’s not handled with care you get burnt but not enough can leave you waiting a long time for things to get going. You can cook and make a meal without heat much like you can develop and build without developers or investors but it isn’t always going to be the right approach. Choosing your source of finance is as important as choosing your source of heat, sometimes we just need to slow things down and work at a lower temperature to get the best outcome.

Anyone can learn to cook and do it well, be thoughtful, be curious. And use salt, fat, acid and heat to guide you to delicious food. And if for some reason a dish doesn’t turn out well, it’s okay. You can always try again tomorrow. - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

Now obviously there is some poetic license used here and cooking a meal is in no way as complicated as bringing together all of the ingredients needed for a successful build, development or regeneration programme. Samin’s approach when it’s stretched out still applies here, anyone and everyone should be included. Prototyping is still underused in many cities and definitely in Birmingham. We need to try new things out, things that are quick, low risk and relatively low cost and things which directly include more people in the design and build. Because when people are involved in these processes they understand the value and want to make them better not burn them down.

Credit: Chris Sadler

Credit: Chris Sadler

I love including people I want to get them to get that sensory experience that really is what cooking is all about for me. I want them to get the chance to taste a sauce and adjusting it with salt or maybe a little bit more vinegar. You know if your just part of mixing the thing with a little olive oil and vinegar and salt and it’s delicious at the table, you go away with more than just a delicious dinner, you go away thinking “Oh, I can do that.” - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

It’s that thought which is needed most in our cities at the moment, once someone is in that frame of mind they get the agency they need to be further involved. But this won’t just happened overnight and it won’t happen by itself. Significantly it won’t happen if people are just asked to give their opinion on a dish that has already been prepared or from a few set options.

The best cities in the world are different. They have an energy, a vibe or layout which makes them unlike any other city on the planet. It’s one of the things that attracts people to live in some of the fasting growing cities or go on city breaks. As a city we should be aiming to have an incredible a la carte offering not a limited, inaccessible set menu.

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I would love to see a Birmingham which is able to use the ingredients it has available and the oft celebrated diversity to create a diverse, multi layered and long lasting flavour that is uniquely ours. This weekend I along with others from the Birmingham Community Homes group, will be attending the first weekend training session for Community Led Housing Advisors with other housing activists from across the country to learn more about how we can have an impact. I think we stand at an important moment for our city and hope we can introduce some new styles of housing and reimagine some of the ones we already have. I believe that Birmingham Community Homes can play an important role in ensuring that all elements of neighbourhood development are recognised and considered and that we get the right amount of acid in our conversations. I’m hoping this weekend will help to start me on a personal journey to learn more and to then teach others, spread the knowledge and empowering more people in the city.

For me, cooking has never been about the food. It’s about what happens at the table. Making good food accessible is really important to me. - Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

For me, this has never been just about the houses. It’s about what happens when you invite many more people to the table, grow their agency, give them knowledge and empower them to think “Oh, I can do that”. Making amazing neighbourhoods accessible to everyone is what is really important to me, it just so happens that I think this can start with housing.

Birmingham at the cusp of a self build revolution?

Duckweave  WikiHouse  by  Richard Woods

After discussions with a few council representatives it appears that a new self and custom build process and policy is being drawn up and due to be presented to the City Council Cabinet soon. This could be a really interesting turning point for the city and I hope they make sure this policy is bold, innovative and ambitious and offers a way for more people to benefit from the potential cost savings available from self and custom build. Land cost is often the most prohibitive element of any self build project and as the largest land holder in our city the City Council has the ability to radically alter the model. 

Currently difficulties arise when engaging with the opaque process involved in identifying land and then being able to bid for, lease or buy land. This results in a lengthy and confusing process of building up trust, where connections and contacts appear to trump everything else. Mechanisms are needed that afford more transparency in the ownership of public land and micro-development opportunities. 

For far too long the financial contribution of land sales has been the biggest driver in disposal of surplus land. The traditional route of sale by auction lends itself to the cash rich and those with the security to go through a speculative process. This process often leads to land banking and very few homes actually being built on the land sold. If we are to have a more inclusive housing system in our city then then any new policies should be written to champion people and communities who actually want to put building homes ahead of making a profit. 

The council could mobilise a movement of self builders and community led housing projects across the city and allow them to benefit as our city grows whilst contributing to, rather than, destroying the richness of their communities. But for this to happen the council needs a new framework within which to work with self builders and community led housing groups.

The usual single plot price for small sites disposed of at auction over the last few years has been between £20,000 and £50,000. A nice little earner for the council but we feel that this short term view of 'best value' needs to be addressed in order for a wider societal benefit. By leasing these land assets the council could create greater financial returns whilst building stronger cultural returns and holding onto an asset which increases in value. 

Over a 50 year lease with a £1,000 upfront contribution and £1,000 yearly ground rent this would create a return of £51,000. Along with this would be an uplift in land value after construction which is still owned by the council, a value with can be realised at a later date or paid in phased periods by the home builders. There are many ways in which the council can capture land value without having to sell to the highest bidder with the deepest pockets.

There is going to be a window of opportunity over the next few years where Birmingham can learn from cities which have gone down the normal route of redevelopment and regeneration and the problems that come with this. We can, as a city create the conditions for all citizens to benefit from regeneration rather than the usual developers. If the council is serious about the notion of inclusive growth then it needs to extend the opportunities of self and custom build to our communities and allow them to play an active role in their city as the redevelopment train  heading into the city at high speed arrives. 

All local authorities have a statutory duty to create and promote a Local Self Build register, which you can sign here for Birmingham, and to try and provide plots for people in this list. So I would encourage you to sign up and show how much demand there is for self build across the city, it's a bit long but it's needed. The bigger the list the more we can show that a self build revolution is possible in our city. 

It will be finished by Christmas.

The immortal words that almost every self-builder uses at some point in their project.

This is exactly what I said too and it happened, just Christmas a year later than planned! 

Cooking in a WikiHouse

Firstly an apology, It's been far too long since we updated this site, sorry about that. We have been doing a lot of work on the maps behind the idea and not so much on the build. Thankfully the structure is a lot more finished than the last image we left you with. As you can see we have a working kitchen which is awesome and have enjoyed several sunny days with the big bifold doors open. Everything is now up, installed and operational with just the external rendering and a few snagging bits to finish off.

As we approach a year since we started this journey we feel like it's time to reflect what we have learnt along the way. About building, about processes and about people who want to push housing forward and those who don't. We will be sharing more of our insights over the next few weeks. As well as this we will also be sharing updates on the broader ambition to enable more people in Birmingham to be part of a self-build revolution across the city. 

We have met with the great, the good and the not so good from the city council to understand where the best opportunities lie as well as speaking with a few other large landowners keen to make more of their land holdings. It feels like we are on the cusp of an exciting few years for housing in the city and we want to make sure that the custom, self-build and community build sector can contribute to this. 

In the meantime, head over to Medium to read a piece which Alastair from WikiHouse and myself have submitted to the All Party Parliamentary Group on new sources of Housing Supply.  And sign up to register your interest in self build so we can show there are lots of prospective home builders out there just waiting for their chance to contribute. 

Structure is almost complete

We did some more work on the extension in the wet and cold over the weekend. The main WikiHouse structure is now done and the roof is finished and felted, just need to finish the cladding on the front and install a nice set of doors. Should be watertight before the really cold weather kicks in.

Although the build is taking longer than we had hoped, still need to remember that the house has been transformed from this:



To this in just 16 days of actual onsite work.

As it is now

As it is now

A WikiHouse Extension

To show how self-building can be an affordable way of making a home, Andy Reeve (Co-founder of Impact Hub Birmingham and DemoDev) embarked upon building his own WikiHouse Extension with the help of some friends. Follow the progress here.