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Designing quality homes

Felix Mara introduces the AJ’s selection of exemplar housing projects

You might argue that the AJ’s campaign phrase More Homes, Better Homes is a logical impossibility; that with limited financial, land, material and energy resources, housing quantity and quality are inversely related.

Add to this the often ruthless idiosyncrasies of the housing sector, where risk-averse builders, lenders and insurers are king, where marketing strategies encourage disproportionate bathroom sizes, and where relationships between developers, contractors and end-users are poor, it’s understandable that quality is not a foregone conclusion.

And that’s before we take in the quagmire of standards and codes which architects must negotiate – the Building Regs, the Code for Sustainable Homes, Lifetimes Homes and NHBC standards – as well as the hurdles of town and country planning departments and policy.

Quality is not a foregone conclusion in UK housing

What do we mean by quality? We mean housing where private and public spaces, circulation, adjacencies, seclusion and views, tectonics, light levels and performance have been thoughtfully designed. Needless to say, there’s plenty of housing out there that would never have made it onto our list.

But, with space for 12 exemplars, there was also a great deal of innovative work that we couldn’t include. It was also difficult to reconcile our criteria with an even spread of regions and procurement types, so most of our featured projects are from Britain’s larger conurbations and none involved changes of use, self-build or bricolage. As in our selection of essays, we were also looking for the movers, the shakers and the creative mould-breakers in housing design, the people other architects are watching and listening to.

We were looking for the movers, shakers and the creative mould-breakers in housing design

We’ve selected three typologies suited to higher densities: terrace, courtyard and high-rise, which we define as over 12 stories high. Taking a loose definition of the three typologies, our shortlist includes six predominantly terraced projects, five which involve courtyards and one high-rise. ‘Loose’ because we feature developments that are mixtures of typologies, as well as hybrids that meld them: Peter Barber Architects’ Beveridge Mews is a terrace-courtyard hybrid, Alison Brooks Architects’ Newhall Housing mixes courtyards, terraces, villas and low-rise and Tony Fretton’s Vassal Road Housing, with maisonettes above a medical centre, looks like a terrace but actually stretches the definition of this typology to the limit.

So the section names only indicate their dominant typology. These ambivalences and overlaps are unsurprising. Although the notion of a typology allows a level of freedom in the interpretation and pursuit of Platonic models, applied too rigidly it can pre-empt creative design, whereas for many of the examples that follow it was only the starting point. This approach gave our 12 architects more flexibility and enabled them to draw on traditional typologies, regarded by many as essential urban archetypes, to arrive at ingenious responses to demanding briefs and contexts.

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