NMB meets
Gus Zogolovitch

We recently spoke to Gus Zogolovitch, of Unboxed Homes. Gus is on a mission to bring brilliantly designed custom built homes to London and the UK.  He’s Managing Director of Unboxed Homes, runs the Developer Collective (with Amanda Baillieu) and sits on the board of the National Custom and Self Build Association.  

 

Gus, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about Unboxed Homes? 

I started my property development career building design-led homes speculatively. I then built my own home and it changed everything! I realised that having the chance to design and specify what you want in a home is brilliant and really it’s a no-brainer. Houses are our largest investment, and we should get to have a say in what they look like and how they’re built. And while this is common practice in Europe and the rest of the world with about 45% of homes delivered this way, we’re only at a meagre 10% in the UK. I started Unboxed Homes because I wanted to change that.

 

What sets Unboxed Homes apart? And how has it developed over the years?

We were the first custom build developer in London. We were one of the first in the UK. Custom build is different to self-build in that we take some of the risk out of building your own home. For example, if you buy a shell from us, you get to fit it out as you wish, but we have done about 75% of the hard work for you: we’ve identified the plot, got planning, got funding, dealt with highways, put in foundations, built the walls and put in the windows and sorted the roof out. There’s still plenty to do – but it is a lot quicker and less risky than doing a house from scratch. My self-build took five years from the day I bought the site through getting planning permission to moving in. A recent shell we built – the owners were living there within 3 months.  Our next project will also be offering plots to those who want to have even more choice.

 

Blenheim Grove, Peckham, photograph courtesy of Unboxed Homes

Self building and custom building give people freedom from the confines of developers, agents and/or architects. What potential environmental benefits does this freedom offer? 

Interestingly, I think that given the choice, most people want to live sustainably. It’s hard and expensive to retrofit a property – but if you are building from scratch, it’s a bit of a no-brainer to build in extra insulation, go for triple glazed rather than double glazed windows and think more generally about your carbon footprint. I’m looking into a new project at the moment which is based on retro-fitting which I think is going to be increasingly important

One thing we’ve noticed is that when end users are empowered to make decisions about their new homes they will often invest more at the outset to save in the long term - what does this say about the state of our current house building model in the UK?  

I think that you’ve hit the main reason why house building doesn’t work in the UK and we aren’t getting homes we want. A recent survey said that over 76% of us would never buy a new build home. Developers and house-builders are not incentivised to build higher quality or better design because the market will not reward them for it. Mainly that’s because we have to borrow money to buy our homes (unlike our new phones) and house prices are driven by comparison. At the moment valuers don’t put extra value on better insulation or triple glazing even though it costs more and is better for the customer in the longer term due to lower priced bills – so developers and house-builders don’t build them. Whereas I have found that if people have that choice, they will take it. I certainly did when I built my own home!

Blenheim Grove, Peckham, photograph courtesy of Unboxed Homes

You’ve described custom build as ‘self build made easy’ can you tell us a little bit more about the difference?  

It’s best to think of a spectrum. On the one hand you have a house that is built for you by the housebuilders. On the other, you have a house that a person has built themselves completely from scratch – including doing all the structures. Custom build is a hybrid. Some elements are commissioned and chosen by purchasers and some are delivered and chosen by the developer.  There are mainly 3 different models for Custom build: serviced plot, shells and customisable turnkeys.  I like to think that self-build is where the owner is the one who is ultimately responsible for choosing and paying for everything, whereas custom build is where that is shared between the occupier/purchaser and the developer.  When you buy a custom build shell, you are actually self-building the fit-out. When you are buying a serviced plot, you are self-building the entire house.      

 

You’re preaching to the converted at NMB with the idea that we need more custom (and self) build houses and we need to enable more self development (whether it be architects or non-construction professionals). What would you like to see change at government policy level to enable much more?   

Actually the government has been pretty supportive of the sector with a raft of policy decisions. However, there’s still much to be done. I’d say the biggest issue is for people to organise funding which isn’t the standard mortgage and for people to be made aware that this is a real choice. Most people have never heard of custom build and that needs to change if we are to see custom build become a real alternative to standard new build cookie cutter homes.

 

Blenheim Grove, Peckham, photograph courtesy of Unboxed Homes

 

Our focus (at NMB) starts with embodied carbon as it’s an ever growing proportion of a building’s whole life carbon - but it’s sometimes hard to convince clients of the benefits and we’ve still got a very long way to go. What can we do better to advance the cause?  

You’re right to think this – and this is partly why I’m interested in exploring retro-fit as a concept. Unfortunately, some people just don’t get it. The problem is that it’s not an immediate benefit to an individual – it’s a longer term and societal problem. I think that in the building industry we have a responsibility to leave a lasting and sustainable legacy – how can we really sleep at night if we are building poor quality homes or not doing the best we can for buildings which will be around for the next 100 years?

 

Blenheim Grove, Peckham, photograph courtesy of Unboxed Homes

It feels like Unboxed Homes are a bit of an outlier in London development (and that’s a good thing). What one piece of advice would you give to budding custom builders / architect developers stating out? 

You have to have passion, belief and persistence! It’s a long game – but eventually it will all come good!

Lastly, you’ve recently completed Blenheim Grove in Peckham. What is it about the finished project that most excites you?

It’s been a long and rather arduous process, but Blenheim Grove is really experimental and that’s to be expected. It’s a prototype and I’ve learned so many things along the way. It’s the first shell terrace in London. Residents are moving in and doing the shells up in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of myself which I find fantastic and proves that you can still do so much with a shell and your own fit-out.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the terrace changes and adapts over time and how long people stay there.  My hunch is that with custom build, people invest a lot more of themselves and get their dream home – so why move anywhere else? I’m still in my self-build house 13 years later and can’t see myself moving very quickly unless another plot comes on the market!