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RIBA’s report on homes is a Gerald Ratner moment, claims property consultant

McBains Cooper has likened the RIBA’s contentious Case for Space report to a catastrophic gaff made by jewellery tycoon Gerald Ratner in the early 90s

It came shortly after key members of the institute’s housing group resigned in the wake of the report which accused housebuilders of creating ‘shameful shoebox homes’.

McBains Cooper director Mark Leeson said: ‘Somebody’s been reading their management books and come up with the light bulb moment that if you want to make something happen, then make somebody uncomfortable – but they’ve lost sight of the fact that the housing construction sector is facing unprecedented challenges right now, and just about everybody involved is doing everything in their power to meet those challenges.’

Calling for a ‘much more supportive approach’, he added: ‘This could go down as RIBA’s “Gerald Ratner moment”.’

The Ratner Group chief executive slated his own jewellery store’s products in a 1991 Institute of Directors speech which resulted in significant losses for the company. He famously remarked the shop sold earrings that were cheaper than a prawn sandwich.

Leeson said the RIBA’s time ‘could be better spent re-establishing architects’ reputation in the industry rather than alienating powerful industry people’.

He added: ‘They should be spending their time working with the housebuilders to establish a position for architects to add value, and influence the process with the housebuilders rather than confronting them. The fact is the desperate need for new housing stock in this country can only be delivered by a collaborative approach and by housebuilders.

‘The real issue is that homes are not sold on a square footage basis, they are sold according to numbers of bedrooms. A larger three-bed house will sell for no more than a smaller one, so there is no real incentive for developers to build bigger. The bigger one may sell faster, but value and revenue are based on sale price, not necessarily speed of sale.

‘The right way to add value and improve our stock in the industry is not to moan about the housebuilders, but to point to and look at ways in which good design can make the best use of space, rather than focus on how much space is created.’

Design for Homes chief executive David Birkbeck and Homes and Communities Agency head of design and sustainability Jane Briginshaw both resigned from the RIBA’s housing advisory group following the Case for Space report.

The document claimed the average new three bedroom home was 8 per cent smaller than the recommended minimum size.

Readers' comments (7)

  • Er - but Gerald Ratner said his own products were rubbish, not someone else's!

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  • Hang on a moment. I'm sure 19th Century capitalists could justify to themselves and their share holders the construction of back to back houses made of soot bricks, which were later condemned by progressive legislation as the cause of severe health problems to the poor people who had to live in them because they could afford nothing better. We seem to be returning to the bad old days here.

    With regards to the question of good design, compare the example of food:quality of food is important as well and quantity, but this argument becomes irrelevant if you are actually hungry through not having enough to eat.

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  • Mark Leeson is not quite correct when he says the selling price for housing is based on number of bedrooms. At the upper end of the housing market
    both flats and expensive houses a major factor in setting the selling price is the floor area being provided. However that housing is unlikely to be classified as shoe boxes!

    While I support the RIBA being involved positively in creating a public debate to improve mass housing design to concentrate only on size ignores other important issues which make so many spec housing estates so dismal in architectural and environmental design. Also it does not promote our unique skill as architects to maximise creatively the use of three dimensional space.

    And to allieniate such an important section of the industry and so many architects clients is a high risk strategy. Good at attracting headlines and getting emphatic media coverage but I suspect a lot of architects working on low and middle income housing will be feeling uncomfortable with the headllines the RIBA created.

    The alternative is to work for improvement within the house building industry and with government to raise the standards of housing and not to attack house bulders so publicly. The reason I guess why members of the RIBA Housing Committee have resigned.

    Yes there are restricted sites over developed with too many very small houses. But my concern with much of mass spec housing to argue for improving the architectural design and the quality of the environment created on dismal housing estates.
    Floor area is just one factor. The biggest houses are not necessarily the best. The smallest not necessarily the worst.

    Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA

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  • Paul McGrath

    I could not agree more with Mr Leeson that the RIBA should concentrate on how architecture 'adds value' rather than moaning (yet again) at circumstances they think they have a 'right' to 'control'.

    You would think the RIBA's advisory group would have the intelligence not to bluntly criticize mass housebuilders. The RIBA’s report asks, How much space do we need? It then answers the question based on the obvious preconception of blindly supporting minimum space standards as the solution and in the crudest of terms by rehashing existing research. Everyone would like a larger home wouldn’t they!

    From my own experience of keeping stuff in my home that I haven’t seen (let alone used) for years is not sufficient reason to provide more storage in new homes! Why build extraordinarily expensive space simply to store old shoes? These are the sorts of questions I would expect the RIBA to address; with creative intelligence. Not that 42% of buyers consider the size of rooms important in their purchasing decisions. Just look at the single page of conclusions and recommendations to see how lacking the RIBA’s report is in creative thinking.

    This lack of creative leadership is perhaps why politicians are so keen on the sledgehammer of one-size-fits-all space standards. So I for one line up behind Mr Leeson in his call to look at ways in which good design can make the best use of space, rather than focusing on how much space is created.

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  • John Kellett

    Since most homes are not designed by architects how can it RIBA's "Ratner moment"? Architects have had very little to do with the low design standard of most new housing.
    The fact that homes are sold on the basis of the number of bedrooms and bathrooms is a purely artificial construction of the sales teams. To sell on the basis of sqm and running costs would be just as easy to implement.
    It is often claimed that it is the cost of land that is the biggest factor which determines the size of houses. Again the price of land is artificially determined by how many houses the vendor thinks will fit on the site, the more the developer actually gets on the site, the larger the profit.
    To return to a situation where our new homes are large enough to live in, the whole process needs a rethink. Government, house builders, estate agents and architects should be resolving the problem together.
    Since nearly all of the badly designed new houses are designed by unqualified incompetents and/or developed/built by 'cowboys', requiring all buildings to be designed and built by those suitably qualified and trained would be a start!

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  • John Kellett

    PS for "unqualified" read "under-qualified"

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  • Sounds like a case of "Shoot the Messenger".

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