How to spot the potential of an ugly building plot

By Mark Morris, planning consultant at London-based residential architecture practice, Urbanist Architecture

When you think of a potential building plot, what comes to mind? For some people, it will be that very American image of future development staked out with posts and sometimes ropes around the individual plots, all very regular. For others, dreaming far bigger, it’s rolling fields, a patch of which will generously fit in the house. And for the group that we might term More 4 viewers, the site for a potential home almost anywhere or anything, but the more awkward the better: in a cave, up a tree, in a lighthouse…

What we’re going to talk about here are plots that might not excite George Clarke but that most developers won’t bother with, leaving you with a shot at them.

Good things to look for:

  • Existing but underused or derelict building or buildings. If they are in a built-up area, preferably not fitting in with the rest of the street (but beware of the oddity that has become treasured by neighbours and/or the council).
  • If not a building or structure, then at least a paved area helps. The more unsightly the better, because that means the council will have a stronger reason to welcome building. It may not sound like your dream home, but somewhere people are fly-tipping is somewhere that shouldn’t be left in its current state… and so might be a place to you can create something different.
  • And if you are looking at a seemingly undeveloped plot, the more lifeless the better. Anywhere where you can argue that you are improving what is there at the moment at least gives you a chance.
  • An irregular-shaped plot, one that will put off developers (or even less imaginative self-builders) who have rigid ideas of what a home looks like.
  • Elements that you can retain: increasingly councils are looking for something that isn’t (if possible) a complete demolition, so if you can incorporate some of the existing structure, that can be a big plus.

Things that can sometimes work, but don’t get too excited yet:

  • Useless green spaces: there are a lot of these around, especially dotted around housing developments from the 1950s to the 1980s. Very occasionally, a council will allow one to be replaced with a one-off house. But what’s more often the case is that someone buys 150 sqm of grass at auction that they can do nothing with.
  • The vacant lot that has had boards up around it for 20 years. There’s usually a good reason for this. Again, though, once in a while these suddenly get planning permission.

Things to look out for:

  • Being too close to the neighbouring buildings where you want to put windows or where they have windows: this is one of the most important things to take into consideration.
  • Is the plot even smaller than it looks? Often we look at a building and mentally assume that the space around it must be part of the site, but sometimes it isn’t.
  • Not everything is a potential building site. News reports about tiny houses and TV programmes like George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces have encouraged people to think almost anything can be turned into a house. We’ve had enquiries about supposed sites that amounted to little more than a couple of parking places.
  • According to national space standards, the smallest possible home has a gross internal area (GIA) of 37 sqm and the smallest possible two-storey home must have a GIA of 58 sqm. Bear that in mind.
  • It’s important to realise that a new home – as opposed to an extension or ambitious garden shed – requires infrastructure. It is easy to take measurements and think you have enough room for two bedrooms, a kitchen-dining room and a bathroom… but is there any outdoor space? What about bin storage? You’ll sometimes need to provide parking spaces and you’ll definitely need room for cycling storage.


  • Think vertically: sometimes a small plot can become big enough for a house if you are willing to build down and up, with clever use of courtyards and lightwells. We’ve got a current project that does exactly that.

Warning: this kind of project can stand or fall on the council’s attitude to unusual buildings. Some embrace imaginative thinking in architecture while some have a rigid view of what a house or block of flats should look like.

Still, we think if we are going to tackle the housing crisis and if the government is going to fulfil its promises to self-builders, every plot, no matter how scruffy, triangular or on many levels it is, needs to be considered. And those very limitations are what produce fun and memorable homes, the ones that brighten up our often over-uniform streets. This country needs more of those.