What the British can Learn from the Americans about Custom Build

Over the past few years, I’ve spent my days working across the United States. During that time, I’ve visited and stayed in family homes across 27 states – in virtually every corner of the country! In this blog, I take a look at how and why the USA has achieved such a high volume of custom build homes and what we can learn from their model in the UK.

The idea of custom build may still be in its infancy here in the UK, but overseas and in parts of mainland Europe it’s the norm.  In Austria, 80% of homes are either self built or custom built by the customer, in Australia and the USA, the figure is almost 50% and rising every year.

The USA has a culture which promotes the right to choose. It’s an ideal that is constitutionally founded, and because of this, US citizens have far more flexibility in many aspects of their lifestyle, including their right to build a home on land owned by them. The Right to Ownership is an extension of the Second Amendment, The Right to Life, which includes property and gives US citizens a great foundation from which to lodge their plans to build something unique to them, on a plot of land owned by them.

In the US, it’s not unlawful to deny planning permission to build something that may look out of place in a neighbourhood but the local authority would need to have concrete evidence that the build would directly influence a neighbour’s right to privacy within their own dwelling.  As a result, developers in the US have realised much earlier than the UK, residents have requirements which are unique to them.  And, as a culture, they are used to having those requirements met – whether it be for their homes, their cars, or even their meals.

This cultural contrast forces the US developers’ point of difference – creating custom built homes on multiple plot sites. They pride themselves on being flexible and being able to meet the requirements of new home owners taking up dwellings on their sites. The use of different contractors on sites is common place, even contractors themselves will outsource various aspects of the build to others, to ensure the quality of the build is as high as possible and the customer experience, as good as it can be.  Continued success of all businesses in this sector, is reliant upon customer satisfaction and recommendation. It is consumer-led growth which sees new residential areas occupied by houses that are individual to each other, but all as beautiful as the next.

This customer-led industry is helping developers in the United States lead the way in home design at affordable prices. Customers have the opportunity to work with developers to install a range of design features from swimming pools, wine cellars, basements and hurricane shelters to the simpler floor plans and patio space. Each feature can be factored into the build with a range of varying styles from the more economically viable to the outlandish and extrovert. 



Throughout my travels, it was lovely to be able to compliment the custom build homes I stayed in and hear their individual stories. “We built this house in the late 1990s” and “My father and I built this house before the kids were born” two examples of how these stories began.  The reality being that neither of these home-owners truly built their houses, they were involved in the design process working with a developer to create the best possible house through a range of options given to them by the developer and then having a relationship with the contractor during the build. This is the emotional connection for a house buyer, different to the connection made by the self builder where it is a practical one.  Neither home owner had ever laid a brick but the input they had while custom building gave them the emotional feeling of building their own home.

While I was employed by a contractor in Rhode Island to extend an existing house to give more light to the master bedroom by opening and extending a roof terrace on the first floor, creating a lovely sea view of Warwick Cove; the boss Pat shared the stories of individual houses in the area, explaining how they were built and why.

The overwhelming feeling you get, is that whether it is the residents, developers or the contractors who build the house, they all see homes as an emotional project either for themselves or their clients, and in time they will all have a story as to why they were built.  When something has a story it inevitably has a character and it’s this character that gives people the sense of care towards it.  The results are homes perfect for those living in them.

There are of course other forms of housing in the United States.  City dwelling accounts for a large proportion of the housing in the country with more that 70% of people currently living in properties in urban areas. The housing types for these areas are traditionally either apartments or semi-detached homes built with a view to accommodating many families in close proximity to one and other, as industry in these cities grew – much like the tenement style housing you can find in Edinburgh or Glasgow or the mill worker’s “2 up, 2 down” houses in the northern counties of England.

The essence of custom build seems synonymous with the North American lifestyle. Modern family life in North America consists of outdoor eating in summer, cosy TV and play rooms for winter, areas for communal living and eating and a functionality within the house that is flexible for all generations. It is becoming increasingly popular for grandparents to move into their children’s homes and many families will have three generations living under the one roof.  Multi-generational living is something that has come full circle – the norm a century ago – but somewhat lost in the latter half of the 1900s.  Recent polls suggest this is being factored into the design requirements of many people looking to build a new home in the USA. The resurgence of finished basements with separate entry to avoid stairs for elderly inhabitants is something that may provide the answer. Second and third floor living could be made available for the rest of the family.

Eco houses are also becoming fashionable as a new generation of home builders become more environmentally conscious and have seen the financial benefits of being a little greener in the way their house operates from insulation, water uses and solar power.

These are just two examples of requirements that are individual to the customer.  How can developers help meet this sort of criteria in the UK?  Custom Build surely – by becoming more customer-centred like our American counterparts and regenerating faith in new build through custom build – making choice the overriding factor in developing new communities in the UK.

If we only learn one thing from what the US is doing, it is that the majority of customers still want to BUY over build. The majority of customers do not want to self build but to buy a new home built by a developer working with good contractors (builders) that meets their individual requirements which is why custom build is developer friendly in the same way as it is customer driven.


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