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'Low-cost' housing could actually cost the same

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It was interesting to see the contestants limbering up for the ODPM/English Partnerships (EP) £60k house competition (AJ 1.4.05). Now the particulars have been published, it is probably worth pausing for a few breaths before jumping out of the blocks.

It has been correctly reported elsewhere that the £60k refers to the build-cost of the house only - excluding land purchase, overheads and developer profit - but the brief now gives some additional constraints that clarify this proposition and perhaps make it seem a little less ambitious.

The minimum unit size for the qualifying £60k homes is 76.5m 2, which works out at £784/m 2. This will sound quite straightforward to most volume housebuilders;

indeed, away from the south-east some will regard it as generous.

Assuming Project Orange's catchily titled '4 x 8 House' has an internal area of only 64m 2, and that it weighs in at, or very near, the £60k target, it could cost up to £930/m 2 - so they have some work to do.

Given that at the 'economy' end of the market many housebuilders will be cheerfully squeezing three bedrooms into a 64m 2 house (the 4 x 8 House only has two), it is also a bit disappointing that the ODPM/EP brief doesn't stipulate what accommodation their 76.5m 2 unit is expected to provide.

So, is this competition misconceived? Definitely not, but it is perhaps misrepresented. The headline publicity around the idea of the £60k house implies that the aim is to produce cheaper housing, but this is not really the case.

The project is about producing better-designed housing at a competitive price. By ruling out improvements involving the small (such as Piercy Conner's Micro Flat) and the expensive (such as Proctor Matthews' work at New Hall in Harlow), the ODPM is now challenging architects and innovative developers to meet housebuilders on their own terms and come up with something better and widely applicable. This is entirely laudable - and, indeed, well overdue.

The interesting bit about this, of course, is one's definition of 'better'. If it has to cost the same as a 'normal' house, just what is it about a modern architectdesigned home that makes it so different, so appealing? I look forward to finding out.

Matthew Wood, Wymondham, Norfolk

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