Following a recent exhibition of her research project, sociologist Michaela Benson talks us through the traits that self-builders commonly have.
Interview with Dr Michaela Benson
Michaela Benson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has spent the last three years working on a research project called ‘Self-Building – The Production and Consumption of New Homes From the Perspective of Households'. She wanted to understand the diversity of the houses people build, their motivations for doing it and their experiences of the process. Her interviews with twenty individual self-builders and five group projects during that time have led her to notice characteristics that these people share. She explains five of them to us.
1. Having Two Different Skill Sets – Practical and Organisational
Michaela explains that this could be within one individual self-builder or shared within a couple where one person has the practical abilities and the other has the organisational skills. Many of the people in the study were engineers, while often they also had experience of managing other people too.
Self-awareness of their organisational skills was often a reason why people chose to project manage the process themselves, and to try and save money. Michaela stresses however that the size of this challenge shouldn't be underestimated, as it's not just about managing the budget, but also about having your procurement and tradespeople lined up at the right time. The times when this worked most successfully were when the self-builder already had experience of the construction process, usually from working in related professions.
2. Acquired Knowledge Through Previous Projects
In many cases, the self-builders had built up their knowledge by undertaking extensive renovations or extension projects. Michaela particularly noticed this in a number of the 50+ age group, who had worked their way up the housing ladder by taking on properties which had needed considerable work. “So they built up their property assets that way, but they'd also built up their practical experience of working on houses.”
From a sociological perspective it highlights the role that property assets play in self-build. Michaela states that it is very difficult to embark on the self-build process unless you already have significant property assets or savings, perhaps explaining why it can be more difficult for younger generations. She often came across people who, not through being unrealistic about their budget, had periods of financial difficulty throughout. This was more to do with having a cash flow available at the same time as being needed for procurement. “It's to do with the fact that the cash flow on a project often requires more money at a point in time than you actually have in the bank at that moment, because of the draw downs on the mortgage.”
3. A Heightened Level of Involvement and Understanding of Their Project
Michaela explains that for many people there was a fascination in knowing exactly how things worked and proudly demonstrating it to others. Being so heavily involved in their build they would tend to have a keen attention to detail.
“It's not just building a house, it's actually a learning process that they're engaging in.”
And for some, it was learning on a professional level that would assist in their careers. Michaela tells of one self-builder who was a planner wanting to become a consultant in energy-efficient buildings. For her the project was about building a house for herself, but also developing her professional identity and learning through her own experience so that she could help to advise others.
Many of the buildings operated at a high level of energy efficiency, with some motivated by a desire to be conscious about the planet, while for others it was more future proofing their house against higher energy bills.
4. High Levels of Determination and Motivation
A lot of the people in the research project were very highly motivated. And they needed to be! Without their constant pushing to drive their builds forward they wouldn't get to the end. Michaela explains that even with sufficient time and funds the process can be extremely challenging and demotivating, and a lot of emotional support is required.
Michaela feels that something a lot of people underestimated in their self-builds was the importance of managing social relationships, within families and also with the management of people coming onto the site.
“You can understand if you're building your own house you're building your home, you're highly invested in that and when a series of little things go wrong it's quite painful.”
The custom-build sector can offer some of the support by taking away many of those people management jobs from the self-builder. Michaela explains that some of the people working in that sector have experience of community projects so have had to learn to maintain relationships with the wider community in the past.
5. A Keenness to Trace Back The Routes of Their Skills and Ambitions
Michaela explains that often people would trace back the desire to build their own house stemming from having an interest since childhood, whether that be through building Lego or Meccano houses, or drawing their dream home.
Also she would hear people describe how they learned practical skills from their family members while growing up, bringing them to the point where eventually they would self-build. In both cases, they were very clear that their interest in self-building related back to something.
The Process can Taint the Outcome
Some of the people in the research had been exhausted by their self-build experience and felt that moving in was an anti-climax. While being pleased with their house they had been unhappy with elements of the process. Some talked of having decision-making fatigue. Generally they were building houses that they were happy to live in, though perhaps because of their involvement and in-depth knowledge of the projects they sometimes came across with negativity about some aspects.
“But overall I think that people are quite positive about the houses, if not the experience.”
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