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  • Richard Hanks

Is Self Build The Way Forward To Save The Architectural Merit Of Wells?

Updated: Jun 4

Wells Civic Society Monthly Meeting - 14th February 2024



Christopher Charles has experience of self build housing and lead the talk
Chris Charles, an advocate for self-build housing talked about his experiences and the pros and cons of a different approach to housing development.

Wells is renowned almost the world over for its medieval hub along with a miscellany of beautiful historic buildings spanning centuries. Indeed, it was only recently that the Wells civic society had a presentation about one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Vicars Close. It is surely true, though, that few of the audience at the society’s February meeting knew that there are also perhaps half a dozen houses in the city which are not only brand new but contemporary in every way and shining examples of modern design and building techniques. In each case, these houses have come to be created because their owners were deeply involved at every stage in their design and construction and were, in fact, the source of the original architectural concept. 


One such is Christopher Charles and he spoke to the society of how and why he came to self build his present home. Self build means that you commission the whole project from scratch, in fact from the germ of an idea or dream, with the intention of living in it yourself. The result will be a house which is totally original. Thus, the starting point is very different from that of a major developer producing large numbers of houses to a relatively standardised formula and perhaps releasing them to the market when prices are right from the developer’s point of view.


Christopher sees the advantages of the self build approach as including: comparative or relative economy, including being VAT exempt; a way to sidestep the lack of ready-made suitable alternatives; the ability to insist on the highest quality; the chance to create the right amount and type of space for your own needs or wishes; the ability to cater for any specific needs or disabilities in the household; the scope to build in as many eco friendly features as possible. He was also keen to stress what wonderful fun it is to be able to mastermind the whole project, and to create something which is a substantial personal legacy, although there may be very few builders who will undertake a whole house project in this way.


Perhaps there are not many people willing to take on such a project. Or perhaps there are more than one might think: in Mendip in October 2022 there were 331 proposals for self build, 78 of which were in Wells. A high percentage of these were proposals for detached properties and, significantly, 0% could be considered affordable. One way to improve on this last statistic would be through Community Land Trusts, who own land particularly with a view to making affordable housing a real possibility for and in a community.


Christopher went through the various stages to be undertaken from trying to determine the budget, finding a site, developing the plans and choosing the architect, choosing the builder and selecting the materials and method. You will be working with not only the architect and builder, but a number of other trades people, especially if you save money by doing the buying of materials yourself, so the choice is important. The job will not be a short one and good working relationships will make the whole project that much more enjoyable. And, of course, there is planning permission. Obtaining this will probably take time. The process may be lubricated by inviting councillors to visit the site and meet with you even before your application is on any agenda. Rather similarly, it is wise and courteous to make a point of meeting your would-be neighbours well in advance in order to allay any fears they may be harbouring.


Eventually, you will experience a sheer joy in having built your own property which you will greatly appreciate living in. You will have had the opportunity to help the local economy by employing local builders and using local suppliers. Ideally, you would have been realistic: things can go wrong. A supplier might suddenly go out of business; insurers and financial institutions may be surprisingly lacking keenness, despite the high quality of the design and the ultimate asset the house will be. Christopher feels, such institutions need to catch up. 


But Christopher greatly favours self build to the extent that he would like to see 20% of our new housing being the result of such projects. Not only that, he enjoyed the whole process so much, he would do it again.


The number of questions which followed and the positive discussion points which arose clearly demonstrated how interesting the audience had found Christopher’s presentation. 


The next meeting of the society will be on Wednesday, March 13, when the topic will be The early economic development of Wells: 900 – 1400. This presentation will be given by the accomplished speaker, Mark Hutchinson. The starting time is 7pm, with drinks available beforehand and non- and new members welcome. Further details of this or the society in general can be found at www.wellscivicsociety.org.uk or by e-mailing the chair, Chris Winter, at chris.f.winter@btinternet.com


Richard Hanks

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