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Feature: Will build-to-rent transform the UK’s housing supply?

Essential living 2
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Characterised by communal facilities and a longer-term approach to finishes and detailing, the private rented sector is establishing a new building type. But can it solve the housing crisis? Rob Wilson reports

The private rented sector (PRS) is predicted to grow by up to 40 per cent over the next 10 years, transforming the UK rental market as well as the culture, not just of housing delivery, but of housing itself. A new study from the British Property Federation shows there are already 40,000 PRS homes in the planning pipeline. 

As always, it is economics that has driven the rise of the sector: soaring house prices have wiped out any ability to buy for most of those now coming into the housing market, while institutional investors have been looking to park funds for long-term yields, given low interest rates elsewhere. 

But where economics leads, politics usually follows. The government launched its Build to Rent scheme in 2012, and last year Theresa May’s government signalled a shift in tone away from the mantra of home ownership and towards private rental.

While communal facilities may be PRS’s most distinguishing characteristic, they are often the first element sacrificed

Now the first crop of schemes is beginning to complete. In this week’s AJ we examine three PRS projects: GRID architects’ Vantage Point, a 118-unit conversion of a 1970s north London office building for Essential Living, at the higher-specification end of the market; and two new-build schemes, Rehearsal Rooms in west London by Newground Architects for HUB; and Hodder + Partners’ considerably larger 282-unit Cambridge Street scheme in Macintosh Mills, Manchester, for Renaker. Catherine Slessor, Owen Hopkins and Jay Merrick provide the respective critiques. 

So what are the architectural characteristics that define this emerging building type? 

One element of PRS schemes is their shared communal facilities, ranging from lounges, games rooms and gyms, to projects in the pipeline with private dining suites and even cinemas.



Source: Jack Hobhouse

Rehearsal Rooms, North Acton, by Newground Architects

But the developing conceptual model for these varies widely. It’s either a warm cuddly one of communal, Continental-style shared living, designed for the long term, in a loose-fit style for communities to grow into; or it’s a kind of high-end, long-stay boutique hotel, offering facilities as add-on lifestyle benefits and with out-of-the-ordinary flexible packages for tenure. 

Looking in more detail at the three featured schemes, other characteristics can be identified. While they all have relatively unremarkable exteriors, internally two main design aspects are clear, and this is borne out by my conversations with all three architects. 

First, is the ability to offer more imaginative and better-laid-out plans – witness the multiple outlooks of flats in Hodder’s Cambridge Street scheme and the relative equality in the size of bedrooms. These are schemes that are led more by livability than the strictures of generic criteria. ‘We have tried to steer the design in the direction of a demand-based product as opposed to a supply-based product,’ is how Jordan Perlman of Newground puts it. 

Second is the relative freedom to assign budgets more strategically on quality fit-outs and robust detailing. Take for instance the tiled floors and frameless doors of the Rehearsal Rooms interiors. As Craig Casci of GRID explains: ‘We are working for operators who have a long-term interest, and that means better finishes, detailing, budgets, maintenance and control.’

PRS could evolve into an architecturally distinct housing classification

But the economics also work the other way with, as Stephen Hodder highlights, a diversity of regional variations in the PRS model, owing to rental values varying far more sharply nationwide than build costs. This means it is much more difficult to make the economics stack up for schemes in some smaller cities like Manchester, where rents are lower.

So, while communal facilities may be PRS’s most distinguishing characteristic, they are often the first element sacrificed. Witness the one potential communal space in the Cambridge Street scheme, which has for now been earmarked for retail. And, as Hodder describes it, there is pressure to cut back even on the private amenity space of balconies on some schemes. 

Overall, the variation and freedom of internal planning bodes well for a developing sense of long-life, loose fit, which could see PRS evolve into an architecturally distinct housing classification. 

But for the moment it seems the economics are against wide provision of PRS developing anywhere outside larger metropolitan areas – let alone rural ones – as an effective valve to relieve pressure on housing. 

This feature was published in the Built to rent issue – click here to buy a copy 

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