The dismal state of housing design in the UK

Posted on 6 March 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago (February 2011), the Education Secretary Michael Gove proposed that new schools be built from a few half-dozen templates in order to save on building costs. When Building Design magazine reported the news on their website, many readers decried such an approach, fearing low-quality designs oblivious to local needs.

The architect Sarah Wigglesworth, writing in The Guardian, described Gove as someone who “counts the cost of everything yet understands the value of nothing.” Gove’s proposal reflects the miserly, cut-price mentality that seems to pervade every aspect of coalition policy nowadays.

Back in November 2010, for example, Housing Minister Grant Shapps announced that core housing standards developed by the Homes and Communities Agency would be scrapped. These standards would have applied to any homes built with Government money.

There’s a legitimate concern from architects here about the danger of poor quality design and its consequences. However, standardised or modular designs can work well if they are flexible enough to fit the needs of different sites.

There’s another type of building that’s often cut from a template (often a very poor one). This type of building makes up the majority of our built environment and arguably contributes more to our health and well-being than any other type of building. (You know where this is heading, don’t you?) Yes, that building type is housing.

The design of new build housing in Britain remains depressingly poor. There’s not much to indicate it’s getting better. Why aren’t architect’s more vocal on this subject? As the foreword to the RIBA book of British Housing states “What more important endeavour could there be than housing?”.

In the very first post on this blog, I quoted from a book called The Prefabricated Home in which the author Colin Davies argued, perhaps provocatively, that the architecture profession deludes itself into thinking it is a force for change in the world when in fact it isn’t. Why? Because the one type of building which has a central role in our lives, is the one over which the architecture profession exerts the least amount of influence.

It would be nice to see a vigorous debate on the quality of private and public housing in the mainstream media, although I think we’re unlikely to get one. Are newspapers fearful of losing the custom of the housebuilders who fill their property pages? Is that why we rarely see anything critical written in the press about new-build housing in this country?

Even CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), a champion for design quality in housing, has exhibited some rather ambiguous behaviour towards the housebuilders it should be admonishing. Last year, it refused to reveal which housing developments had scored poorly on the Building for Life criteria. These scores were applied to housing developments built with government money under the Kickstart scheme. It was only after Building Magazine won a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that the Homes and Community agency released details of the Kickstart scores.

The rapacious appetite of property investors and buy-to-let landlords has helped cultivate a damaging and depressing obsession with the value of property and helped raise house prices to ridiculous levels. One of the consequences has been poor-quality housing built to cater to this gluttonous clientele who care only to make as much money from property as they can.

Encouragingly (and surprisingly), the Government seems to have recognised that it’s time to stop thinking of homes as investments, and instead view them as simply places to live. But is it too late? So ingrained is the notion of buying a home and increasing it’s value by whatever means possible that it seems unlikely we will ever go back to an era of house price stability. Too many home owners, property investors and buy-to-let landlords simply don’t want it; they want rising house prices. Today, every detail or characteristic of a property is measured primarily by its financial worth.

I mentioned earlier in this post about how most homes in the UK seem to be cut from a template. This is most noticeable with flat designs. Pre-defined layouts can be acceptable if they’re well-designed, but is that the case with current and recent housing developments? Judge for yourself by having a look at this collection of one-bed flat layouts from current and recent housing developments. Click the image for a larger view.

A collection of one-bed flat layouts from current and recent housing developments
A collection of one-bed flat layouts from current and recent housing developments. Click image for a larger view.

Housebuilders continue to churn out rubbish homes like these because they know they can find willing buyers. Who are these buyers? In too many instances they are property investors and buy-to-let landlords who don't care about the design or quality of homes like these because they won't be living in them.

Finally, here’s an extract from the book Understanding Architecture by Leland M. Roth. The book is an introductory survey of Western Architecture and in this passage, American author Roth, accurately captures a general attitude to the built environment that seems particularly relevant to housing in Britain.

“In his most influential book on architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), John Ruskin drew a distinction in the opening sentences between architecture and building, making it clear that what he proposed to talk about was architecture.

The tendency since that time has been to assume that some buildings are more important than others, that some are worth detailed deliberation in their design while others are “kleenex”, deserving no second thought in design nor any particular care in their use.

The result has been that we have a few splendid isolated buildings, but on the whole we live, work and play in perfunctory environments, made only as good as it is believed they absolutely need to be.

Perfunctory is the perfect word to describe much of what has been built since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Derived from a Latin root, perfungi, it means “to get through”.

“…we need to view all of our built environment as a whole of inter-related parts. Some buildings may have more public significance than others, being the focus of communal or civic life, but all are important. The act of building should not descend to being perfunctory…”

Update 13 March 2011: Blogger Single Aspect has helpfully pointed out that bathroom doors that open outwards (as shown in the example one-bed flats above) are part of the Lifetime Homes criteria. A door frame that can accommodate a door opening inwards and outwards would be the ideal solution. The door could then be adapted to meet the needs of the occupant. A sliding door could be another alternative, although husebuilders would probably consider it too expensive.


Single Aspect

11 March 2011 21:05 GMT

The flats you have illustrated in your excellent graphic are truly appalling. I thought I had found the worst but these are execrable. The clash of door openings at 3 down 2 across in the hall is beyond parody. Thank you for your research in finding these dreadful plans.

A. Hussein blog author

11 March 2011 22:10 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I wish I could say these layouts were untypical of one-bedroom flats, but somehow I don’t think that’s the case!

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