A Sustainable Approach to Self-Building

With increasing concerns regarding the state of the environment, many self-builders are considering various methods to elevate the sustainability of their constructions. Ultimately, the objective of sustainable residential developments is to generate dwellings that don’t overwhelm the world’s resources, allowing people and the planet to co-exist in harmony.

In the last few years, the rules governing self-builds have shifted in the UK. The 2015 Deregulation Act removed the obligation on local authorities to apply any building standards at all, delegating power to the generic Building Regulations instead.

However, this set of rules predominantly comes from a time prior to widespread concern about the environment and, therefore, doesn’t provide any direct guidance to architects or builders beyond very elementary safety concerns.

Because of this, a sustainable and effective strategy has to come from the stakeholders involved in the construction project themselves.

With this in mind, Scenario Architecture has created a system of “sustainability levels” that self-builders can utilise to evaluate the level of sustainability that their new properties offer. Ranging from Bronze through Silver, Gold, and Diamond, the highest level receives the rigorous Home Quality Mark.

The benefits of sustainable strategies for self-building are countless. Those who implement and activate sustainable methods can expect better thermal and acoustic comfort, lower running costs, reduced carbon footprint and favourable treatment throughout the entire planning process.

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The Anatomy Of A Sustainable Approach For Self-Building

The principles of a sustainable strategy for self-building come out of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – the government’s plan for development today that doesn’t compromise the ability of future generations to address their needs.

The basis of the document is an assumption that sustainable development is preferable and that it should be considered when thrashing out the details of each individual plan.

But what does this mean on a practical level?

Buildings That Boost The Local Economy

According to the NPPF, sustainable development involves any building strategy that consolidates constructions that generate value to the community over the long-term. The principle applies equally to large commercial projects, as well as small-scale self-builds.

The government is keen to encourage the development of these types of projects and releases funds to local councils for every solo property they permit to develop in their area. Thus, one-off builds can assist with local council budgets.

Buildings That Elevate The Sense Of Community

The second pillar of the NPPF’s sustainability criteria for construction involves buildings that encourage to meet the needs of the community. In practice, this means creating homes that cater to the current generation’s needs and elevate the community’s general health, comfort and wellbeing.

For self-builds, the cultural aspect of this mandate is fundamental. The sustainability criteria suggest that builders need to focus their energy on creating homes that add value to the local environment and pay homage to the local architectural techniques.

This type of sustainable development can be seen in some of the home counties. In Essex and Suffolk, for instance, many self-builds include the region’s iconic black tar barns. Others pay homage to the pink-painted walls of traditional homes built in the 16th and 17th century in market towns in the area.

Buildings That Protect The Natural, Historic And Built Environment

The final pillar of the sustainability approach is to create buildings that protect the natural, historic and built environment.

This aspect of sustainable self-builds includes minimising carbon emissions, using renewable materials, cutting down on waste and pollution during the construction phase and encouraging biodiversity.

It also incorporates other important considerations, including whether the design of a building complements the surrounding area. Although we haven’t seen this in practice a great deal in cities like London, Leeds and Manchester, there is evidence of it in many historical towns and cities – especially Cambridge, York and Durham.

It could also include stopping construction if builders find something of archaeological significance during foundation excavations to constructing a property that blends into the historic landscape, allowing future generations to enjoy it for years to come. In many cases, planners will react positively if you show them renderings that reveals how your design will enhance the local environment.

Sustainable Self-Builds In Practice

Although the NPPF plan has been approved by the government, it doesn’t surpass local planning laws. So even if your project is sustainable, you’ll still need to meet these standards: simply telling local planners that you want to integrate sustainable approaches isn’t always enough to guarantee the project’s approval.

With that said, sustainability is a major consideration in the planning process and likely to help your case.

Proximity To Transport Links And Amenities

The primary considerations local planners take into account is the proximity of the self-build to local amenities, such as shops, jobs, schools and social facilities. It will also account for things like how close it is to non-motor-car forms of transport, such as bus stops and cycle lanes.

Use Of Construction Materials And Renewable Energy Systems

Planners will also consider the degree to which a self-build makes use of construction materials and renewable energy systems. Ideally, planners want builders to utilise materials that don’t consume natural resources and will eventually return to the environment without damaging it.

There’s also a preference right now for homes that include renewable energy systems in their basic design, and it’s worth spelling these out during the application phase. These convince planners that the lifetime CO2 output of the property will be lower, helping to bring them closer to their carbon targets.


The fact that we’ve seen deregulation combined with preferential planning arrangements for sustainable projects doesn’t mean that it’s open season for self-builders. However, planners are much more likely to approve projects they feel are constructive for both the local and wider environments. Going green and being as sustainable as possible is probably the best strategy to add value to to the community whilst getting things moving quickly.


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