Sunday 22 October 2017

A new concept in house building

Cloughjordan Eco Village, Co Tipperary. Photograph: James Flynn
Cloughjordan Eco Village, Co Tipperary. Photograph: James Flynn

Douglas Dalby

WHO wouldn't be interested in knocking 25pc off the cost of a new home by dumping the developer?

And, if instead of being forced to compromise on someone else's off-the-shelf plans for your dream home, what if you could have a say in the design?

And what if you could meet and work with your prospective neighbours before moving in?

Greg Jackson and Donal Groarke, who describe themselves as architecture and social advocates, believe the market is now ripe for an intriguing alternative to the one-size-fits-all traditional residential development and have set up practice to mainstream a successful German concept they call 'Citizen Developer'.

"In Europe there are long waiting lists for people to join such groups," according to Jackson, who first stumbled across the idea while studying architecture in Stuttgart.

"The quality is higher being based on the home owner's needs and not developer's profit . . . and its 25pc cheaper than the typical developer-led option.

"This is a model for our times. Irish people are better informed and willing to embrace new concepts that have been successful elsewhere.

"They also have a keen eye for real value and a growing impatience with Celtic Tiger options when it comes to housing."

At its root, the idea is simple: cut out the middle man.

A group of people interested in developing their own homes come together, appoint a professional team to look after all the technical aspects of design, planning and build but retain the final say in everything -- other than the individual finishes of course.

There is, after all, no accounting for taste.

The process is similarly devoid of complexity. Designers usually initiate the overall plans based on the site or its intended usage.

Drawings are completed following consultation and then transparent detailed costs are furnished. Construction is fully supervised.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start, anyone who has been involved with any community enterprise or club will realise very quickly how internal politics can snarl the boldest of initiatives.

Groarke acknowledges the dangers in "design by committee" but insists that although a degree of consensus and collaboration is required, the mechanisms are there to break any logjams.

"This is certainly not something for control freaks: it does require patience, but certain structures are in place to move things along and it usually isn't an issue," he says.

Nor, he says, does the whole enterprise hang by the weakest link.

"Five people might come together to buy a site, for example, and the bank will give them individual mortgages rather than a collective one, which will cover both the cost of the site and the build.

"If someone goes bust or cannot pay after a few years, the liability does not fall on the other property owners in the development -- the bank only owns the individual share."

The partners are currently preparing to bid for a Dublin City Council site on Fishamble Street in Dublin, celebrated as the place where Handel's 'Messiah' was first performed.

The plan is to develop five apartments and duplexes, ranging from 1,200-1,500 sq ft, sandwiched between two four-storey Georgian buildings and they are urging suitable interested buyers to contact them.

They are also in advanced discussions with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown to build affordable housing for mortgage-ready clients in the council district with the longest waiting list in the country.

Jackson & Groarke argues that far from being too good to be true, the concept is already well established in Germany and its popularity has also spread worldwide.

Closer to home, in Co Tipperary, the eco-village in Cloughjordan is probably the most famous citizen development in Ireland to date. The site comprises almost 70 acres; a third of it residential.

In spite of the new-found conservatism of the Irish banks, Groarke believes this is an excellent time to test the market.

Although house prices are on the up in Dublin, there is a real willingness on the part of local authorities to test alternatives to the exclusion of traditional developers.

"Developers are probably not interested in the kind of sites we would be looking at anyway because they wouldn't provide the critical mass or scale they require to make them a good return.

"We are right in the thick of it: it's our job to make the concept accessible so people can get to grips with it quickly.

"More and more people are buying into social capital -- this isn't just a house when they have had input into the kind of space you want to live in."

Irish Independent

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