Faced with multiple crises and rising prices, an increasing number of Europeans are exploring alternative housing solutions.
In the past, self-construction was mainly adopted by environmentalists who wanted to reduce the negative impact traditional houses can have on the natural environment.
But today the phenomenon has reached the middle classes, with many novices trying their hand at building their own homes in an attempt to cut costs.
Eliminate builders to cut costs
Darren Chambon is one of nine trainees learning straw and wood frame building in Mosnac-Saint-Simeux in southwestern France. He was offered an estimate of €600,000 by a construction company to build his perfect home.
“Initially, we went to the builders. We did what everyone else does, to get a signed contract and take care of everything. And then you look at the costs and you realize that’s not a viable option anymore.”
“In practical terms, we will be able to do what a manufacturer would have done. Maybe not at half the price, but at least a third less.”
Darren thinks he can complete the project for €240,000, building the house himself with the occasional help of craftsmen.
A growing phenomenon
André de Bouter is a straw construction specialist who conducts the training. Speaking to Witness, he explained that the profile of autobuilders has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the beginning, when we talked about straw buildings, people looked at you like you were crazy! People didn’t understand. If you didn’t show some photos, people found it hard to believe that straw bales could really make a serious building,” he said.
“Since Covid, more and more people have decided they want a more autonomous, more resilient, more natural and more efficient place to live. And they said to themselves: if I don’t do it now, it’s possible that in ten years, we won’t be able to do it.”
Housing crisis problems
André’s self-made trainees are all very concerned about the climate crisis. But what’s more, they’re also making the leap into a tough time for the housing market.
With interest rates on the rise, 45% of mortgage applications were rejected in March, according to data from French brokers.
Darren, a full-time chef, has been designing the plans for his future home with his partner, who is a surgeon. Their situation is fairly stable yet they were refused a dozen bank loans before agreeing to accept this project.
“When we looked at the percentages of the richest people in France or the world, we were already at the top end,” Darren told Witness.
“Who does a bank lend to if it doesn’t lend to the top? I was really fed up, I almost gave up at least once or twice,” he added.
Inflation has hit Hungary more than any other European country in the last year. In the town of Fegyvernek, István Bajnok and his wife Kinga are putting the finishing touches to their mud house.
To raise their three children, the family depends on Istvan’s salary and often rely on his grandparents’ farm to feed everyone.
István spent all of last summer digging the earth in his garden and making bricks by hand, mixing the earth with water and straw.
“I made a total of 17,500 bricks, with about ten friends,” he explained in front of his house, which he recently cordoned off.
Inside the house, the couple have installed a wood-burning boiler which not only keeps them warm but fuels the radiators in the bathrooms, the boiler and even the stove.
“It’s a convenient method,” István said. “We should save about 40% on energy costs.”