ESSAY: London’s housing crisis points to an expanded role for forward-thinking architects, says Finn Williams
The solution to London’s housing crisis is often reduced to one number: the number of new homes we need to build every year. This figure has ratcheted up through successive London Plans from 23,000 in 2004, to 32,210 in 2011, to 42,000 today. Our inability to reach these targets has caused a cumulative undersupply, inflating current projections to between 49,000 and 62,000 homes a year – up to three times more than annual delivery over the past decade. But there is a risk that our fixation with chasing this figure – like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – becomes a distraction from asking deeper questions about the housing crisis. What is it really a crisis of? And whose crisis is it anyway?
Home Economics, the exhibition I co-curated with Shumi Bose and Jack Self for the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, tries to look beyond the numbers. We wanted to understand the housing crisis not only as a failure of supply to meet demand, but a failure of traditional housing typologies to respond to real and pressing changes to the way we live.
What is a home when ownership is becoming an impossibility for anyone without an inheritance? When changing family structures, gender relations and life expectancies mean there is no typical household? When we are sharing our homes, and their contents, with strangers through the internet? Or when populations – from creative classes to asylum seekers – are on the move?
These fundamental changes to domestic life pose new challenges for the way we design and plan homes. Without addressing these questions, would delivering 42,000 more homes a year even represent a ‘solution’?
Home Economics refuses to accept a single definition of the housing crisis. Ask tenants and homebuyers, and they might say it is a crisis of affordability. The government might see it as a crisis of ownership. For housebuilders, there is a crisis of viability, whereas many architects would say there is a crisis of quality. For housing charities, the crisis is about inequality. Whichever way you look at it, the housing crisis is being used as a justification for myriad agendas.
As a result, Home Economics also refuses to believe there is a single ‘solution’. The housing crisis is a complex political and economic construction. Architects are not going to change this situation by drawing more plans. We are only going to make a meaningful contribution by seeing political and economic structures – from policy to viability, and finance to tax – as equally valid subjects for design as bricks and mortar.
While we all have an opinion on the housing crisis, we rarely admit that many of the things that make the biggest difference fall outside our influence. A year’s supply of new build homes still only makes up about 0.6 per cent of London’s housing stock. Approximately 6 per cent of these new homes are designed by architects. And probably about 6 per cent of those architects will be featured in the pages of magazines like the AJ. Architects have too much to contribute to allow ourselves to be boxed into this position. It is time to expand our field of practice back into the 99.99 per cent.
The London Mayor’s Housing Design Guide has arguably been the single most influential piece of design for housing in the capital so far this century. Intentionally or not, it has bred a generation of residential architecture as consistent in character as London’s Georgian squares, or Victorian terraces. Only this time, instead of terraces, there are north-south linear blocks (to avoid north-facing single-aspect units); instead of gardens there are tiers of balconies (to provide each home with a minimum of 5m² private outdoor space); and instead of front steps there are level thresholds (to ensure accessibility).
Architects were instrumental in designing the mayor’s housing standards, both within the public sector and through private practice. Their input shows how engaging with policy can have a significant influence (for better or worse) on mainstream housebuilding. But when the Mayor of London recently consulted on changing these standards, only three architecture practices submitted a response.
The Hours room in Home Economics, by Jack Self in collaboration with Shumi Bose and me, suggests how changes in the way we spend time at home might prompt a reinvention of space standards. Recent statistics show that for the first time we spend more time at home looking at screens than sleeping, and far more time working from home than cooking, eating and washing up. Technology is blurring the boundaries of traditional ‘rooms’, yet standards still prescribe minimum areas as if we need separate spaces to sleep, cook, eat, watch TV and have a shower, all at the same time. Before we try to deliver another 42,000 of these homes every year, surely architects have an interest in putting forward alternative standards that are a better fit for the future?
Many architects know at first hand that the new homes we are building are increasingly out of reach for the average Londoner. First-time buyers will need to earn more than £106,000 by 2020 to afford somewhere in London. At the same time, private renting has doubled over the past 10 years in the UK. The difference between owning and renting your home is becoming increasingly stark.
If you are lucky enough to own a home in London, it is more than likely to earn more than you do – giving a new meaning to the phrase ‘working from home’. If not, you will typically spend 72 per cent of your income on rent, compared with the European average of 28 per cent, with little security of tenure or opportunities for long-term investment. These divergent trajectories of ownership and renting are stretching inequality. What role can architects play in trying to bridge this widening gap?
The Years room in Home Economics, designed by Julia King in collaboration with Naked House, proposes a new typology that challenges the idea of a home as an asset for speculation. They have worked with a high street bank to strip the home back to the bare minimum ‘shell’ required for it to be classed as ‘habitable’, bringing down build costs.
Residents accrue equity ownership of the ‘shell’ over time through monthly payments, giving them a share of rising values without needing a large deposit or mortgage up-front. But, unlike other forms of market discounts like starter homes, these units will remain affordable through a resale covenant that ties their value to a share of the ‘shell’. This is one of many possible alternatives, but it shows that architecture does not have to be the result of a predefined mix of tenures – we can use architecture to redesign the tenures themselves.
Architects, planners and housebuilders work to a currency unit of the new build home. On this measure, we have been building far fewer new homes in London over the past 10 years (about 200,000) than in the 1970s (280,000). But London’s net housing stock is actually growing faster than at any time since the war. In the 1970s, the scale of demolitions meant London’s net increase in stock was only 110,000 homes. In the past 10 years, conversions and extensions have been the unsung hero of London’s housing supply, boosting the net increase to about 270,000.
We need to find new ways of using design to not only build homes from scratch, but to make better use of the building stock we already have. For every home built in London, there are 130 existing, 30 of which have two or more empty bedrooms. Past attempts at increasing density of occupation have used the stick approach: through taxes to penalise social tenants, despite the fact that only 6 per cent of under-occupied households in London are in social housing; or schemes to push out ‘empty nesters’, which risk breaking social networks and threatening inheritances.
The Decades room in Home Economics, by Hesselbrand in consultation with PegasusLife, looked instead at the incentive that genuinely intergenerational housing could offer older people, as well as other households that don’t fit the nuclear family mould, to live ‘together and apart’. A more interdependent model of living could use space in a way that is more intensive, but also inclusive. There are mutual interests in old and young people sharing childcare, helping with DIY, taking deliveries, or paying online bills. Get it right, and there are at least 2.3 million empty bedrooms in London waiting to be occupied.
Through Home Economics, we wanted to show the potential of an expanded agency for architecture – whether redesigning housing standards, tenures, or the way we manage underoccupancy. In the context of London’s housing crisis, we could – and should – go further.
We can limit our role to securing planning consents, or we could find new ways of translating the existing consents for 261,000 homes into completions. We could continue to rely on a few large housebuilders to shoulder so much of the burden of delivery, or we could design new platforms to help many small developers build more on infill sites. We could concentrate on the 6 per cent of the 0.6 per cent of London’s housing stock built annually, or we could look to work with the 11 per cent of households which move home every year. We could assume all the answers lie with the 99.87 per cent of architects in London who work in the private sector, or we could help boroughs grow their in-house delivery teams.
None of these, on their own, represent anything like a ‘solution’. But without any of them, London stands no chance of delivering both the quantities – and qualities – of homes that we really need.