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Review - Exhibition - Housing Design Awards 2007

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EXHIBITION
By Alex Ely

Housing Design Awards 2007.
At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until
8 September

Supported by such bodies as English Partnerships and the RIBA, the Housing Design Awards offer a unique insight into government attitudes to housing. They’re also a means for us to gauge how housing design is evolving, and in this year’s awards exhibition, one choice is particularly in evidence – the courtyard house.

This predominance of the courtyard house – or what might be termed the L-house – has resulted unintentionally in pattern-book architecture akin to the Georgian terrace. The plans of such schemes as TADW Architects’ Selwyn Street, Oldham, dMFK’s Guest Street, Manchester, and Proctor and Matthews’ Dale Mill, Rochdale, may not differ much. But they illustrate how architects are tackling the demands of legislation and economics, while still trying to create houses that enrich domestic life, have civic qualities, and offer the range of architectural expressions that help create a sense of place and cultural identity.

The plans are similar for a number of reasons. There’s the need to bring natural light and ventilation into a deep plan driven by high density, but the need too for a fire-protected stair leads to interiors being compartmentalised. A habitable room overlooking the street and an active frontage are necessary to meet the criteria of Secured by Design – the national crime-prevention initiative. Then you have to provide a bit of outdoor space and off-street parking, reducing its presence in the public realm.

As a consequence, it’s hard to see what makes some projects stand out as winners above others. Schemes such as BDa ZEDfactory’s Jubilee Wharf, Penryn, and Julian Cowie’s Melody Lane, Islington, certainly help to move the debate about housing forward, but many of the other winners leave me underwhelmed.

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