Great Britain is in a housing crisis. Everywhere you look, some version of that headline is making the rounds. In some places, it’s a daily conversation. Of course, as we all know, it’s not just a matter of not building enough new houses, but the fact that housing prices are well out of proportion to most people’s income. In London, the crisis has reached such levels that 80% of the new housing built is only affordable for 20% of the city’s population.

Of course, this isn’t a new problem; it’s an escalating one. We can look back several decades and see where the seeds were planted, and how exploitation has exacerbated an issue already compounded by recession and skill shortage.

Today, we are building far fewer houses than are needed. We are creating poorer quality homes that are undersized and over-priced. In the rental market, we have landlords who overcrowd and advertise storage closets as flats and living rooms as bedroom space. We have renters spending 40% of their income on housing.1 We have houses being built and put on offer at much higher prices than the community around them can afford. The problem that began years ago is now coming to a head. The question is what are we going to do about it?

While the government is busy looking for solutions and creating schemes – to greater or lesser success – in this two part series we are going to take a look at some alternatives to the traditional home: different materials, innovative designs, and unique approaches to community that just might be a part of the wider solution to the increasing question of: Where are people going to live?

Last time, we investigated some unusual construction materials. This time, we investigate some alternative housing designs and community schemes.

Alternative housing – thinking outside the box, or is that inside the (modular designed) box? 

While the tiny house movement hasn’t made the impact here that it has in the USA, the size of the average British home is getting smaller.

Unfortunately, those smaller homes are often far too expensive for people trying to get on the property ladder. This is where the real tiny house could come into play. Offered as a cheaper alternative to student accommodation, bedsits, and single rooms, the tiny house could provide an interim solution for people trying to save money towards a house deposit18.

Pre-fab designs

Pre-fabrication has featured in a lot of new housing ideas as of late. In New London Architecture’s (NLA) recent Housing London competition, pre-fabrication was presented as a solution in several forms, including partial self-builds and floating alternatives to house boats.19

In southwest London, the YMCA has opened what it calls the Y:Cube development. Thirty six pre-fabricated apartments, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, are rented out at 65% of the market rate to people who are moving on from hostels and supported housing schemes20.

Elsewhere in the UK, interior design firm Bert & May has launched what it calls “Spaces”, which offers portable boxes that are large enough for two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The boxes are made from timber, with a green roof and double glazed windows. While Bert & May are marketing their units as home extension alternatives, Ealing Council is turning to prefabricated units to minimise the use of bed and breakfasts to host families needing emergency housing21.

Floating homes

We live on an island with more than 10,000 miles of coastline and access to hundreds of major rivers. Yet, for the most part, as a culture, we aren’t keen to live on the water. Slowly, this attitude is changing, with flooding problems and the housing crisis forcing all of us to look at floating alternatives.

In the Netherlands, the attitudes towards living on water are quite different. About one third of the country is below sea level, so the Dutch have embraced the idea of not just living in house boats, but creating entire floating communities. One example of this is Ijburg, a floating community that includes roads, playgrounds, shopping centres and offices22.

Here in the UK, the idea of floating communities has been played with, but we still haven’t really embraced the idea of living on water. That being said, in the NLA competition, Baca Architects came up with a proposal that they called Buoyant Starts that features 7,500 prefabricated starter homes designed to take advantage of London’s 50 miles of rivers and canals, as well as 150 hectares of bluefield space23.


While self-built homes only account for approximately 8% of the new homes built in the UK, research by the National Custom and Self Build Association indicates that there are as many as seven million people who would like to build their own home, with one million of them actively looking for land to build on. The problem is that, of all of those people, only one in 100 will actually get the chance to complete a project in any given year. This is largely due to the lack of suitable land, financing roadblocks, and tight planning rules24.

While there are a lot of perks to building your own home, one of the biggest incentives is getting more house for investment. As mentioned earlier, homes here are getting smaller. In fact, UK new builds are the smallest in Western Europe; averaging 88 square metres. A lot of people avoid new builds for that reason. Further, because 60% of the UK’s new housing is produced by its top eight developers, there is no incentive for those developers to put extra effort into their builds. As long as the homes meet minimum Building Regulation requirements, they’re satisfied. Self-builders, on the other hand, typically strive to exceed minimum standard, which makes for superior housing. They are also more inclined to stay put for longer; selfbuilders stay in their homes for an average of 20 years, compared to everyone else, who tends to move after seven25.

Unified approach

In addition to new materials and new designs, here within the UK people are starting to look at new approaches to community that is focused on providing a better quality of life. Inherent to these schemes is ensuring that housing is available and affordable to all.

Community land trusts

Community land trusts (CLT) are not for profit organisations that champions housing and other assets on the behalf of a community; balancing the needs of the community as a whole with the needs of the individuals within26. The CLT model originated in the USA, and it has been adopted by the UK over the past 40 years. Currently, there are over 170 CLTs in the UK. 

One of the benefits of having a CLT is that it keeps the investment localised and focused on the needs of the area. For instance, Stonesfield Community Trust, which became a registered charity in 1983, was set up by three friends as a way to combat rising house prices and investments from outsiders who had no interest in maintaining small, local amenities like village shops, pubs, and schools.

On the affordable housing front, the national CLT network (serving England and Wales) has published a manifesto download that proposes ways to address the shortage. The goal is to develop 3,000 new affordable homes by 2020, but they say that with the right government support and funding, they could triple that number. Because their focus is on meeting the needs of the local community, homes championed by CLTs take into account local wages, and new homes are developed accordingly28.


The co-housing movement began in Denmark in the 1960s as a way for young professionals to share child care responsibilities. It was such a success that approximately 8% of the Danish population live in a co-housing community, where they share meals, gardening and general maintenance responsibilities.

In the UK, most co-housing communities have a firm that they’ve created to own the freehold, while individuals purchase leasehold homes. Specific financial arrangements differ from community to community. In Thundercliffe Grange, home owners pay a traditionally-achieved mortgage plus monies for gardening, maintenance, and emergencies. At Lilac, owners put down a 10% deposit and then pay an average of 35% of their net income into a mutual society fund – the exact percentage paid is dependent upon the size of the home. In Lancaster, the home owners help keep the community thriving by leasing out a converted mill to small businesses.

Many of the co-housing groups also have positive environmental goals. For instance, as a community, Lilac works towards having a zero-carbon lifestyle29.

Whatever the exact format, the basic principal for co-housing is the same: encouraging social interaction. As a way for young people to get into the housing market, co-housing communities could provide the support needed. Co-housing is also an attractive model for our ageing population; providing a healthy alternative to conventional senior housing30.


The best solution to the UK housing crisis looks to be many-fold; with government schemes, innovative designs, new materials, and novel community approaches all playing a part.

Whatever approach or mix of approaches we decide is best for our selves, groups, or businesses, let us all hope that we aren’t still having this conversation in 20 years’ time.

Previous: Alternative housing: a different approach to materials, styles and community thinking (Part one)

This article has been edited and repurposed from “Alternative housing: a different approach to materials, styles and community thinking”, written for the Construction Information Service.