Graven Hill – the future of self-build in the UK?

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A few weeks ago, team edge organised a field trip to explore Graven Hill in Bicester – the largest development offering self-build and custom build opportunities in the UK. As this unique site has received a lot of attention from the public, as well as the press, we were interested to experience the development for ourselves to see what we could learn from this exciting new scheme.

A place for personality & creativity

In our opinion, one of the development’s biggest positives is the encouraged freedom for creativity. So few of us are able to design and build our houses the way we imagine them and Graven Hill is a unique place where that dream can become a reality for a much wider range of people, who are seeing their creation come to life. It gives people the opportunity to test and develop ideas based on what is important to them, as they create their bespoke forever homes, which cater to their every need and those of their families. The scheme also allows people to consider sustainability from the outset of the design, which is not always possible when buying an existing house.

What was evident from our visit is the great deal of variation between the buildings. Plot owners have come together with architects and designers to create forward-thinking homes which set a precedent for future sites of this kind, and where the scale of the building, garden and materials work together to create houses that are visually striking when compared to the majority of new build developments in this country.

With each building using a different combination of textures, materials, shapes, and forms, there is real emotion across the development, as residents express their individuality and personalities. Graven Hill is perhaps one of the most impactful examples of residents being able to demonstrate what they want from a home, and this will (hopefully) help developers and architects to understand how going forwards we can design much more interesting, yet much more personal homes on a mass scale.

A place that considers community

Another great feature that was clearly visible from our visit to Graven Hill are the thoughtfully designed children’s play areas, which are considered and attractive, appealing to a young eye as well as creating a nice focal point that encourages people to mix, socialise and meet naturally. Inspiration was clearly taken from a variety of the world’s most successful play area examples.

However, even though children’s play areas are an important feature of any development, they only attract a specific group of people. As a result, we felt the Graven Hill development lacked a strong ‘heart’ where residents of all ages and backgrounds could socialise together, host communal events and share ideas, which is the key to creating a successful place. It needs shops, cafés and other facilities which would help generate a ‘place to go’.

It was evident that the development was trying to promote the creation of a community, however we didn’t feel like the execution had been successful, and there was no evidence to suggest a strong community presence.

A place that lacks green infrastructure

Even though the masterplan proposals for the green infrastructure at Graven Hill look promising with large football pitches, lots of trees and open green spaces planned, during our visit we actually felt disappointed by a lack of green infrastructure. Public spaces lack greenery such as street trees and front gardens and the wealth of concrete, car parks and roads create a place that feels cold and uninviting. A small amount of trees positioned along the roads would help to frame and soften the streets and provide shade or shelter. The individual gardens have also been reduced to a minimum, with very little or almost no planting visible at the front of the properties.

We did find one pretty green area with natural grass, wildflowers, seating and an attractive SuDS design, however in relation to the scale of the development it didn’t feel like enough to create a continuity of green spaces that will encourage people to go outside, meet outdoors and enjoy the surroundings.

A place for diversity but confusion

Very often when people are given the freedom to do what they want, mistakes can happen and the overall context is overlooked. As there has never been a site on the same scale as Graven Hill in the UK which allows this number of people to be able to afford a plot and build the house they want, when walking through the site it is easy even for someone without an Urban Design or Architectural background to identify that some of the building designs are sometimes strange and feel out of place.

What we found surprising was that most houses take up the entirety of the plot, leaving very little outdoor space and little to no space between neighbouring houses. This felt strange, especially as a large proportion of the houses were family homes, where gardens and areas to play, have BBQ’s and enjoy sunny evenings are very often the priority. This suggested that the size and overall finish of the dwelling was the priority and outdoor space was not.

We also felt that the design rules failed to deliver the desired outcome of a diverse, yet consistent and cohesive development. By not providing strict and comprehensive rules for the dwellings, the inhabitants were able to design houses of all shapes, sizes and materials, that sit on top of each other without paying any attention to the wider context. Walking through the development, it felt like we were in the middle of a supermarket of ‘off the shelf’ houses, where each house has been designed to showcase the wealth of its owner, aiming to be more extravagant than its neighbours. This creates a disjointed feeling when viewing the development as a whole and could lead to segregation within the community and a lack of that important ‘neighbourly’ feel.

On one hand, it is a huge positive having so many different styles together, but on the other, Graven Hill is perhaps a little too messy and confusing. It is unclear where your eye is meant to travel, as there is no clear flow or coordination. Perhaps if there were segmented character areas (similar to IJburg Amsterdam, where plot passports include building form, height and material palette) with flexible design principles which offer a degree of personalisation, it would ensure that each building ties in better with those around it, so that it instead becomes a neighbourhood and a community, and not just a series of individual plots designed in isolation.

Even though every new development is currently trying to include affordable housing which is neatly integrated with the surrounding private homes, it is often obvious from the design that they are affordable. Even in Graven Hill, it is obvious which properties are affordable when compared to the surrounding homes. The give away in this instance is the lack of refuse storage, with all bins being located directly in front of the houses. It felt like this had been overlooked and left for the house owner to sort and sadly none of the residents have so far come up with an alternative solution.  It was also clear from the building materials and design features which area was dedicated to affordable housing, which further added to the disconnect between the rest of the development and the overall look and feel.

The Future of Self-Build in the UK?

Graven Hill is a great starting point for promoting self-build developments within the UK, and while there are certainly some positives we can take away from the site, there are also some key learnings to be made. The development is a unique champion for creativity and freedom, however it highlights the importance of a robust design code for self-build sites – where individual plot owners are not considering the overall site context. More guidance needs to be provided with regards to proportions, dwelling height, style and materials, to ensure cohesion and consistency. Graven Hill is fun and exciting, as you never know what is going to be around the corner, however it is disjointed and lacks character areas that promote community and harmony, and instead feels like a novelty instead of a place where many people call home.

Considering recent events, our homes are now working harder than ever, and the importance of a space that caters to our ever-evolving lifestyles is becoming an increasing priority. For many of us, generic new-build homes don’t provide us with exactly what we want or need, in terms of function or design, and self-build plots are the ideal solution for those with specific requirements that simple renovation work won’t cover. However, Graven Hill proves that these individual plots still need an element of supervision from somebody who’s priority it is to oversee the harmony of the development as a whole. Graven Hill is a great starting point, but we’re not sure it should be considered as the blueprint for self-build developments in the UK just yet.

Written by Greta