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Why aren't architects trusted to solve the housing crisis?

Market forces alone will not lift the design quality of the national housing stock, says Richard Waite

waite

The germ of an idea for a housing campaign began, as most campaigns do, with frustration. Two years ago my train got stuck opposite a stalled, beyond-bland development near Grantham. Even if the money re‑emerged to finish it, I thought, the completed scheme would be a dreadful, lifeless, boxy, anywhere-estate.

In late 2012 the AJ launched its More Homes Better Homes campaign. Since then the world has changed. The country still faces a huge challenge to make up the 1 million shortfall in homes estimated by the Home Builders Federation, but things are on the move. With the economy recovering and the government’s opinion-splitting Help to Buy scheme bolstering new-build construction, the ‘more homes’ element of the AJ’s campaign is slowly being tackled, if not yet fully resolved. Making those new homes better - larger, better-lit, less flimsy, more energy-efficient and generally ‘homelier’ - is a much tougher challenge.

The national minimum space standards in the government’s Housing Standards Review were a start - even though many greeted them with caution. Challenge Panel architect Andy von Bradsky warned there was little to prevent developers sidestepping the rules, by marketing box rooms as bedrooms, for instance.

But to tackle design, you need designers. Architects have to be at the heart of this new wave of homes. Future homes must be resilient, flexible and cherished by their residents. Building something with a 10-year lifespan is pointless. Tomorrow’s housing needs long-term custodianship and that requires quality to be designed in at the outset.

To a degree this is happening in places - for instance where accomplished architects like Maccreanor Lavington, Alison Brooks and Karakusevic Carson are working for the more enlightened clients - the likes of Peabody, Berkeley and Barratt, who are upping their game. But across the board, certainly outside London, design excellence in new housing is not considered central to solving the housing crisis. In West Yorkshire my sister is choosing to move out of her barely three-year-old, off-the-peg Bellway Home for something older, something with more soul and thicker walls.

In one respect, the problem starts with an architect’s education. As Alan Dunlop points out: ‘Too many architecture schools no longer consider housing a worthwhile or challenging enough program for students. They focus instead on cyborg cities, labyrinthine pleasure palaces, water museums, dystopian futures and other meaningless fantasy projects, when housing should be a fundamental part of all architectural education.’ This focus on the imaginative and fantastical enforces the perception to those on the outside that housing is not a cause architects are really interested in any more. And when architects do get involved, there is the danger of a continued ‘re-invention of the wheel’, as Sam Jacob points out this week in his thought-provoking tour of housing spanning a century in east London.

Above all else, there is a lack of connection between the architecture profession and government, the real driver of change. As Tony Fretton, who presented his practice’s Molenplein housing scheme in Holland at this week’s More Homes Better Homes conference, laments: ‘At each change of [UK] government policy all expertise is thrown away. The experience of my practice in Belgium and The Netherlands is that developers’ housing is promoted by public bodies and situated in coherent plans, while in the UK there is an unwarranted belief in the market.’

As long as demand outstrips supply, the market has no real incentive to champion good design. It needs intervention from government.

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