TV review: The Secret Life of Buildings

Posted on 9 August 2011 0 comments

The Secret Life of Buildings is a three-part series on Channel 4 looking at how buildings affect our mood, our health, our comfort and wellbeing. Presented by Tom Dyckhoff, the architecture critic of The Times, episode one was shown on Monday 1 August 2011 and looked at the design of our homes. Here’s the episode description from Channel 4:

“Dyckhoff explores how the design of our homes works secretly to influence our behaviour. Light, room size, layout, proportion and materials all have measurable effects on our lives. So why do we accept the smallest windows and the smallest room sizes in Europe? And what can we do about it?”

Much of the information in the programme wasn’t particularly surprising or revelatory. In fact, it often felt like stating the obvious. For example, who wouldn’t have known that raising the height of a ceiling would give a less claustrophobic feel to a room?

However, Dyckhoff was attempting to show that there is now scientific evidence to prove what architects and others have instinctively known for centuries i.e. how buildings can amplify (or dampen) our feelings of comfort and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, much of the science in the programme felt like pop science rather than real science. Still, the programme-makers deserve much credit for highlighting the dreadful state of housing design in the UK, a subject that receives astonishingly little coverage on TV or in the press.

The importance of natural light

There were some interesting facts from Professor Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at Oxford University: on a cloudy day there’s about 20,000-30,000 lux (lux is a measure of illumination or light levels). Go indoors, and the equivalent inside your home is 200-300 lux. A very dramatic reduction in light levels.

To understand the effect of light on our health, Dyckhoff had the windows of his 1950s flat covered for a week so they matched the smallest average window size.

Tom Dyckhoff's 1950s flat before and after the window transformation
Top picture: Tom Dyckhoff's bright and sunny 1950s flat. Bottom picture: the same flat with the windows covered to match the smallest average window size.

He took a series of health tests to measure his health before and after the test. He was also forced to stay indoors for a whole week.

This is where the experiment fell down. Not only was it unrealistic to stay indoors for a whole week, but the window coverings were all in black. That must have been an additional influence in the experiment (why didn’t they use white window coverings instead?).

Few of us need convincing that light affects our mood, and to their credit, the programme makers were clearly trying to make an important point about how low light levels can have an adverse and measurable effect on our health. It’s clear that the smallest average window size is shockingly unacceptable.

Perhaps because of time constraints, the programme-makers didn’t explore the reasons why window sizes are so small in new build housing. Is it cost? Is it the need to meet minimum insulation levels? (Windows can be a source of heat loss.) What can be done to improve the situation? Can larger, triple-glazed windows solve the light vs insulation conundrum? (They also provide additional sound insulation). The volume housebuilders will claim triple-glazed windows are too expensive. But what would you rather have: larger triple-glazed windows or an en-suite bathroom?

What would have made a great – and more realistic – experiment is for Dyckhoff to have stayed a week in a recent new build home. Adelaide Wharf in Hackney would have made a good choice. (I’ve written about Adelaide Wharf in a previous post: Space standards for new homes.)

Why Adelaide Wharf? It’s an award-winning, architect-designed apartment block with an entire side of north-facing single-aspect flats. The floor plans for the one and two-bed flats are no different from what you’ll find in poor-to-mediocre apartment blocks from the volume housebuilders (for examples of what I mean by poor-to-mediocre floor plans, see this graphic of one-bed layouts).

The experiment would be to stay in a north-facing flat for one week and then spend a week in an identical south-facing flat in the same block. There would be no restriction on staying indoors for a whole week. After all, walking from a glorious bright sunny day outside into a north-facing flat where bright, direct sunlight never enters is gloomy enough.

The golden ratio

I’m fascinated by the idea of harmonious proportions in the design of our homes. But how do we calculate what is harmonious or inherently pleasing to humans? The golden ratio could be an answer but the programme wasn’t at all convincing when it explored this subject. Dyckhoff ended up measuring some windows when he should have looked (in my opinion) at room proportions (the ratio of width to length).

I’m not entirely convinced the golden ratio is the only or even best way to create harmonious room proportions. What I do know is that many new build homes have terrible proportions: narrow rectangular rooms that allow developers to cram as many homes as possible into available plots of land.

Relaxed planning laws and more self-build

Everyone complains about the planning process: architects, developers and individuals wanting to self-build. Dyckhoff visited Almere in Holland, a new town where a substantial area of land has been given over completely to self-builds. After his visit, he was convinced that relaxing planning laws in the UK to allow more self-builds could be one solution to poor quality housing.

Realistically, self-build will only ever help a small number of individuals. It will never be a solution for mass, high-density housing. What’s more, the self-builds in Almere are all clustered together. In the UK, urban self-builds are more likely to be built on infill plots tucked between existing buildings. An “anything-goes” approach to design, as followed in the Dutch example, just wouldn’t work here.

There is much that we can learn from Holland on the subject of high quality, high-density housing and it’s a shame the programme makers didn’t pick some high-density examples to showcase. That would have allowed us to make a more realistic comparison with volume housebuilding in the UK.

Sound insulation

Sound insulation was a major omission from the programme. Intrusive noise from outside our homes can be incredibly stressful, but it’s more than just a question of sound-proofing walls, ceilings and floors (although that is essential). The proximity of neighbouring windows, doors and balconies can also affect how noise enters our homes, and it’s essential that designers and architects consider this in the design of new homes. (I’m doubtful, however, that many actually do.)

Housing is not a commodity

At the end of the programme, Dyckhoff expressed the sentiment that housing is not a commodity and it’s something I completely agree with. But how did we ever get to this point in the first place? I believe that property investors and buy-to-let landlords have played a significant part in helping cultivate the idea of housing as a commodity. To them, housing is nothing more than a profit-making exercise and this has caused irreparable damage to the housing market in the UK.

To the volume housebuilders, buy-to-let landlords have been a boon to their business. Suddenly they have a whole horde of undemanding buyers who have no intention of living in the homes they purchase, but of simply renting them out. The quality of the homes matters little to these buyers as long as they feel assured they can find a tenant. (No wonder two bed flats with two bathrooms are so common in new builds because they are particularly attractive for renting out).

Unless we introduce mandatory national standards for housing, the volume housebuilders will never raise their game. The evidence is all around us. Any standards must cover space requirements, ceiling heights, light levels, sound insulation, privacy etc. Property investors and buy-to-let landlords who purchase property intending to carve it up into the smallest possible units they can get away with should also be forced to adhere to these standards.

The profit-making zeal from buying and selling a home has seeped so deeply into the public consciousness that I’m doubtful we’ll ever go back to an era of truly affordable housing. A steady, but affordable increase in house prices simply has no appeal to many homeowners. They want rapidly rising prices, as of course do buy-to-let landlords and property investors.

The final word though goes to Professor Russell Foster who appeared in the programme. When asked of the consequences of living in badly designed new homes, he replied “you’re more likely to be depressed”.

Watch the programme

Watch The Secret Life of Buildings on YouTube (UK only)

Update 12 September 2011: Unfortunately, episode one of this series is no longer available to watch through Channel 4′s catch-up service.

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