Former commodities trader sets out to improve housing design

Theo Backhouse is a man on a mission to tackle poor design in the UK’s housing market while simultaneously re-establishing the standing of smaller housebuilders in the sector.

The former commodities investment banker – Backhouse spent a decade with Deutsche and Citigroup in Singapore – moved back to the UK in 2016 to set up the eponymously named housebuilding company, Backhouse.

His business will operate from Box near Bath and he hopes to apply lessons from his experience in commodities to the residential sector.

“House prices are never far from the top of the UK agenda and it struck me how similar conditions in the UK housebuilding market were to commodities when I entered the business 12 years ago,” says Backhouse, who began seriously looking at entering the housing sector in 2014.

A key aim for Backhouse is to boost the position of SME developers in the housing market. “With planning becoming more proactive, outcomes more predictable and land availability improving, that creates a huge opportunity for people to deploy capital productively in addressing the housing shortage and for businesses like ours to rise to the challenge that our housing needs set us.”

As well as flying the flag for small housebuilders, he also hopes to “bring back good design” in a bid to move away from “identikit Britain”.

“We approach each site individually, aiming to look at our developments as a whole, designing streets – rather than plots – focusing on public space and looking to create a real sense of a new place, with its roots in the local area,” he explains. “We challenge our architects to look at how people will live, comfortably and efficiently, across the plot as a whole…. [with homes having] an emphasis on light and space.”

To bring these ideas to life, Backhouse has put together an experienced team including Steve Russell, the former managing director of Devonshire Homes, who has joined as managing director. “[When Theo approached me] I wasn’t looking for a new challenge, but I was told that I should talk to this guy because he had ideas that were a refreshing way to look at the housing market,” says Russell.

Schemes in the pipeline

With all the pieces in place, the company now has three schemes in the pipeline: Castle Cary in Somerset, a 74-unit scheme designed by AHMM, of which a third will be affordable – the first homes are due to go on sale in 2019; the redevelopment of the former Westbury Hospital site in Wiltshire into 56 affordable homes; and 21 units in Calne, Wiltshire, for which planning is expected imminently.

Initial financing has come from 10 individuals – six of Backhouse’s ex-colleagues and four friends – and from Housing Growth Partnership (HGP), the JV between Lloyds Bank and Homes England, which Russell worked with at Devonshire Homes.

And growth is on the cards. Backhouse hopes his first schemes in Somerset and Wiltshire will be followed by others further east along the M4, with a second office being mooted to aid expansion. He says 500 houses a year is a “reasonable year’s worth”.

This article first appeared in Property Week.

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