meet the group building rear-garden micro-homes

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Bristol-based collective WeCanMake describes itself as a ‘neighbourhood test space’. For official purposes it is a registered Community Interest Company (CIC). Among people living in the redbrick semis on Bristol’s inter-war Knowle West housing estate, the organisation has become known for its socially embracing approach to creating affordable homes for Bristol’s most needy in rear gardens.

WeCanMake is an evolving collaboration with a growing roster of cutting-edge architects, estate residents, DIY enthusiasts and construction workers. Its core staff of seven includes three architectural assistants and it is currently recruiting a project architect.

Aerial view of a WeCanMake prototype micro-home in a Knowle West estate back garden

The group’s mantra is ‘gentle densification’ through ‘urban acupuncture’, squeezing much-needed new homes into existing communities – with their help and consent.

At Knowle West, WeCanMake is looking to add a further 150 homes in among the estate’s original 5,000 homes. And it is this scaling-up of its ambition, a prototype initiative with the potential to be implemented nationwide, that is making headlines. At its heart is an opt-in scheme whereby eligible social housing tenants gift a ‘microsite’ from their garden to someone with a housing need (which could include homelessness and overcrowding). Their tenancy is transferred via the local authority to a Community Land Trust set up to manage the land and property on their behalf.

Side-on view of a second prototype home

Conventionally, local authority policies have guarded against so-called ‘garden-grabbing’ to deter property owners from selling off garden space at the expense of the existing built and natural environment. But now even die-hard sceptics from council planning departments are having their heads turned by WeCanMake’s way of working.

The micro-homes are built using design collective BlokBuild’s modular timber cassette construction system, made from structural OSB board. Every home is designed specifically for its particular back garden site.

Two prototype single-storey affordable homes have been completed on the estate so far. Another two are in planning and a further two are in the design pipeline. There are ambitions for a development of 15 connected homes on a single, larger site on the estate.

New resident John Bennett in the fabrication studio

WeCanMake says its approach, if adopted at scale, would offer a radical solution to the housing crisis that is also environmentally sustainable. But in order to be rolled out on a wider scale, it will have to prove it can overcome pitfalls such as the potential for planning policy exploitation, risks to back garden ecology and issues surrounding funding.

Since the AJ last spoke in 2019 to Melissa Mean, the director of the then-fledgling WeCanMake, the multidisciplinary group has worked with a growing list of architecture practices across the UK. Studio Bark and White Design worked on early designs for the first batch of  housing alongside the city’s University of the West of England. Meanwhile, APPARATA architects, Transition by Design and Emmett Russell Architects have drawn up early designs for small sites with between six and 20 homes; Knox Bhavan Architects has prepared concepts for sites of around 50 homes, and Automated Architecture has designed a community pavilion.

WeCanMake is also currently overseeing the completion of a cricket pavilion in Leeds, designed by deputy head of the Leeds School of Architecture Keith Andrews, and built by his students using the same modular system.

Development visualisation showing outline massing

More recently, following a belated ‘official launch’, the group has been inundated by nearly 200 requests from individuals, community groups, councils and housing associations keen to get involved.

According to Mean, the WeCanMake model requires three conditions in order to work: a community-driven ‘anchor organisation’; an ambitious and innovative local authority; and an engaged professional community – including architects – willing to work with communities in a new way.

Mike Rogers, a former urban design officer for Bristol City Council, confesses he once shared the apprehension of planners elsewhere in the UK that such projects might ‘open the floodgates’ for exploitation and says he had even helped draft rules to stop homes being constructed in garden spaces.

Aspiring architect George Fisher modelling a design

He says: ‘There are unscrup­ulous people out there who will take advantage of this sort of precedent. They will start flogging off back gardens and we will start losing garden-based green infrastructure.’

He also had worries about the potential for impacts on light and views for neighbours and the ‘host home’. But, after seeing the architect-designed micro-homes in action, Rogers was convinced and did an about-turn. Whereas he once created policies to obstruct projects like WeCanMake’s, today he works with them, describing the model as a ‘game-changer’. Rogers is now keen to encourage other local authorities to adopt the ‘soft densification’ ethos, while warning against a ‘free-for-all’ approach that might threaten the ecology of existing gardens or compromise the amenities or comfort of either the new or the existing dwellings.

Money is another big concern, he adds. The small-scale, single-storey houses are pegged as ‘affordable’. But Rogers warns that the hitherto one-off projects have yet to benefit from economies of scale.

WeCanMake confirmed that funding for its first two homes was achieved through a combination of Bristol City Council affordable housing grants (available for 100 per cent social housing) and social finance loans – which will have to be paid back through the rental income over many years. The organisation is hopeful that more funding will be unlocked as people come to appreciate the scheme’s social benefits.

John Bennett has lived in a WeCanMake micro-home on the Knowle West estate since June 2022. He says it is ‘probably the best house I’ve lived in.’ Recently he had become homeless, living in a shed in a scrapyard with no running water. Under the WeCanMake scheme, Bennett was matched with a family facing eviction due to the severely overgrown state of their garden.

The former bricklayer agreed to help manage the garden, clearing five feet-high brambles and adding new garden borders and easily manageable plants before helping to build his own 45m2 Passivhaus on the land with WeCanMake. His micro-home uses electricity generated by two air source heat pumps, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, and his energy bill is less than £1,000 a year.

Micro-home interior view

It also features flooring recycled from a local school retrofit. It is a touch that is indicative of a sustainable, ‘source-local’ ethos that WeCanMake wants to apply on its next batch of housing, where it aims to source all biomaterials from within 100 miles of the site.

Bennett, who admits he ‘felt really isolated’ before joining WeCanMake, said the community project has been transformative for his social life, with regular design meetings and the group-focus on skill-sharing.

He says: ‘We all get involved in the decision-making. People start throwing things together, and by the end of the day they’re building like professionals.’

Meanwhile, George Fisher, the project lead on WeCanMake’s second prototype home, is using the system to set a new precedent route into the profession for aspiring architects. The designer is currently completing his ARB Part 3 with WeCanMake, after studying as an undergrad at Sheffield University, working for two different London practices over the course of two years, then completing his masters at Central Saint Martins. Fisher is now designing the second batch of WeCanMake homes, again using the BlokBuild system.

WeCanMake director Melissa Mean

He says he believes the community-led approach is challenging the ARB system’s ‘regimented set of criteria’ with an openness to an ‘expanded role of what an architect is’. What’s more, Fisher feels his architectural ‘learning curve’ has been steeper than through a conventional route, thanks to having to do all the problem-solving himself. He says: ‘My Part 3 interview is in May and, if I pass, hopefully it will be proof that architects can qualify through unconventional pathways.’

WeCanMake is certainly unconventional. It is shaping policy for its radical new housebuilding direction and has shown in Bristol it can take the local community along for the ride. Roll that out to all of England’s inter-war estates and WeCanMake’s research suggests this softly, softly densification has the potential to create 33,000 homes – and with little resistance from the Nimbys.

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