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Knowle West project building homes on unused gardens paves way to help solve housing crisis

Main image: Resident Toni Gray (left) with the WeCanMake build team constructing her home. Picture Ibolya Feher and WeCanMake.

An innovative Knowle West project which builds small houses on local unused gardens could pave the way for a further 33,000 affordable homes being built across England.

Community-led housing land trust WeCanMake has just launched a model for unlocking microsites across the area – after its plans were given the green light by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities  (DLUHC), Michael Gove. 

WeCanMake has created a new ‘opt-in’ process so people in housing need can build new affordable homes exactly where they need them. The project makes use of neglected large back gardens and spaces between buildings – that would previously have been off-limits to development. 

The first two residents moved into their low-carbon affordable homes in Knowle West this summer – and now an 150 additional sites have been identified across the area.

The successful pilot has led the way for other communities across the country. With 1.1 million council-built interwar homes across England similar in design and density to those in Knowle West, it means an additional 33,000 affordable homes could be built under the same system.

Key features of the WeCanMake model include ensuring communities to set their own rules for what gets built through a Community Design Code.

The project also Uses Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) with the homes made up of small wooden blocks that fit together, which are designed, created and assembled locally in community-based KWMC The Factory to make the low carbon homes.

Assembling the homes using timber cassettes. Picture Ibolya Feher and WeCanMake.

This also helps generate community wealth in the form of jobs, skills and new tech – with the residents also helping to design and build their new homes.

Affordability of these properties is also designed in relation to income – rather than the market – with a Living Rent set at no more than one third of average neighbourhood household net income. 

Director of WeCanMake Melissa Mean says: “The UK seems permanently stuck in a housing crisis. Instead of relying on big commercial developers to fix a problem they helped create, WeCanMake shows another way is possible – about what can happen when the power and resources to make good homes  are put in community hands.  

“Our two homes in Knowle West are just the start. Our toolkit for unlocking micro-sites through  community-led opt-in densification is designed so other neighbourhoods can use it. Imagine 33,000  new affordable homes across the country – all inserted exactly where people need them most – helping elders to downsize, and ease pressure on overcrowded families. It opens up a new way to  scale with real impact, one where communities are in control.”  

One of the homes is for Toni Gray, a young mum, and her daughter who had been living in overcrowded conditions at her parents’ council house.

They desperately needed more space but finding anything affordable was proving impossible. Toni’s parents opted-in to using part of their large back garden to help their daughter’s situation, and Toni now has a new two-bedroom home of her own.  

Toni and her daughter outside her new home last summer.
Aerial view of Toni’s home in Knowle West. Picture WeCanMake.

The other home is for former-bricklayer John Bennett, who was experiencing homelessness after splitting up with his wife.

John Bennet. Picture Ibolya Feher and WeCanMake.

John was matched with Bill – a council tenant – who due to ill health, was struggling to  maintain his large garden. Bill opted in to transferring part of his garden to the community land trust, creating the space for a new one-bedroom home for John. 

John said:We’re literally building our community from the bottom up. It’s giving people different choices, better choices, about how things can be. We are the pioneers. No one’s ever tried  to do this before. Hopefully what we’ve done is make it easier for everyone else who comes after.  We’ve made it happen in Knowle West. But this could be the future for a lot more people like me.” 

The pioneering WeCanMake residents Bill, his son Liam and John and below John’s house in Bill’s garden. . Pictures Ibolya Feher and WeCanMake.

For residents’ stories visit: https://www.knowlewest.co.uk/first-we-can-make-homes-ready-by-january-2022/

WeCanMake is supported by Nationwide Foundation’s Nurturing Ideas to Change the Housing System and forms part of the Bristol City Council’s Project 1000, which aims to speed up the delivery of affordable homes in Bristol.

Cabinet Member for Housing Bristol City Council, Cllr Tom Renhard, says: “As a council, Bristol recognises  that we need to go beyond ‘business as usual’ in order to tackle the housing crisis. WeCanMake offers  an innovative and additional way to unlock land and deliver high quality, affordable homes where  people need them most. We think it is an approach that can scale-up, both in Bristol and in helping set a new model for estate regeneration across the UK.”  

Programme manager at the Nationwide Foundation, Jonathan Lewis, says: “To combat the housing crisis, we need innovation and flexibility. We’re proud to fund and support WeCanMake.

“Often, projects that test completely new solutions are seen as a risk the first time they’re tried. We’re confident that the  homes in Knowle West, and the people living in them, are tangible proof that this model works. The  next step is to shout about what has been achieved and take the learning to other areas so that more  affordable, decent homes can be created for and by local communities.”

On February 8 WeCanMake launched a Playbook and documentary film about the model, encouraging others to adopt their approach. You can view the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSgY2OuTZoA

A film about the project is also being shown at the Watershed on March 14 at 6.30pm with a discussion afterwards. For tickets visit: https://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/11805/we-can-make/

For more information visit: www.wecanmake.org