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Leading the way with designs on home improvement

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With a string of projects by high-profile architects, UK housing associations are having an impact on design and helping to improve standards across the board.

Or are they? David Taylor reports

Have housing associations overtaken volume housebuilders when it comes to design? 'I think there are beacons and stars in the housing regeneration area but there is still a lot of mediocrity, ' says Simon Allford of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. 'We've been fortunate to work with some of the best in Rowntree and the Peabody Trust, who have been caned in the press as being innovative but over-budget, but who have set new standards or, in a sense, returned to old standards in terms of offering bigger, better flats.

Pankaj Patel of Patel Taylor agrees that housing associations such as Peabody have been an 'incredible influence' but that they are 'a rare example, putting money in and trying new methods out, as at Murray Grove [in London's Hackney], which was fantastic.'

Housing associations and private developers are still neglecting external space, says Patel, and one has to look abroad for exemplars of high-density living. 'There are enough examples of Span housing and Edwardian blocks - we need to pump up the density to make it work again.'

David Birkbeck, chief executive of pressure group Design for Homes, reports that many housing associations 'remain very conservative about what they do', fearful of finding unconventional property difficult to let.

New Housing Corporation chief executive Jon Rouse plays down the role of radical design innovation in new affordable housing.

Yes, outfits such as Peabody have scooped architecture awards but they have been scolded by regulators for spending too much on innovation and too little on existing housing stock. 'There is a question about how far we step out in innovation in a sector that aims to provide people with places to live, ' Rouse has said.

Peabody development director Dickon Robinson feels that organisations such as his have pushed housebuilders into producing better schemes, but that CABE has also played a key role. Peabody projects such as Lillie Road and BedZed have scooped awards, but the bigger fish have also turned to better products and, overall, housing has improved in the past five years.

Sign of the times Robinson suspects that the emphasis on design is simply a sign of the times. Economic conditions in the 1990s meant not much was built and the 1980s were still in the shadow of unsuccessful housing from the previous decades. Now we are seeing innovation in both housing association schemes and commercial projects.

David Levitt of Levitt Bernstein hails the improvements in developers' output, but both he and Robinson agree that the better schemes are concentrated in the major urban centres, and that it has been an urban, rather than a suburban or rural, change. He points to 'incredible successes' such as Coin Street, perhaps possible because of the high value of the land, but also exceptions, like St George's unfortunate 'flirtation' with Broadway Malyan at Vauxhall. Patel expects other, bigger developers to muscle in on more residential work in the future. Chelsfield, not renowned for housing, has developed extensive residential schemes at Paddington Basin using architects such as Munkenbeck + Marshall and Jestico + Whiles.

Brand values This is what Birkbeck characterises as developers differentiating themselves by the standards of architects they use - which stems from consternation in the boardrooms over how to sell to a new market.Where before the traditional housebuilders were aiming their products at Express or Mail readers, says Birkbeck, nowadays their buyers read The Times and the Telegraph - even the Guardian. So the product has shifted from the standard boxes to 'places', large developments and marinas.

Simon Allford points to Berkeley Homes' Brewery Square scheme in London's Clerkenwell, 'inspired' by Erick van Egeraat and designed by Hamilton Associates, as a prime example of product differentiation.

Berkeley prides itself on the architects it uses - including Sheppard Robson on a new residential joint venture with the Royal Bank of Scotland near the Bank of England, and Ian Ritchie on the Potters' Fields site, stuck at appeal stage on 'political' grounds. Berkeley's managing director Alisdair Chant denies that this is a bid to keep up with an agenda set by housing associations. Berkeley, he maintains, was always 'one step ahead of the game anyway'. 'I'm aware of Dickon Robinson's agenda, ' he says. 'Whether or not it's been a success I couldn't say - whether it's generated profits, whether people enjoy living in them or they are a good investment in terms of life-cycle costing, I don't know.'

What Chant has noticed is a shift to largerscale mixed-use urban developments during the past five years, where architectural quality has 'lifted considerably.' Berkeley is involved with another scheme which should advance housing quality further, having been shortlisted against four other teams featuring developers including Quintain Estates, Countryside Properties and Stanhope to look at sites, probably using architect PRP and others, in a London-wide initiative being run by English Partnerships. The pilot scheme aims to create a development mechanism capable of fast-tracking more than 15,000 new key-worker homes in the next five years.

So there are developer beacons for innovation. There are concerns too, however, such as Robinson's, that UK housebuilders are actually building smaller properties. The RICS survey which said that internal space has diminished by 10 per cent since 1980 (when the Parker Morris standards were abolished), is only part of the picture, however.According to Birkbeck, Berkeley, for example, used to build two-beds at 60-65m 2, but now does so at 100m 2, and one association - Downland Housing Association - builds at Parker Morris standards plus 10 per cent 'on the sly'.

Sunny outlook?

On balance, Robinson claims to be 'reasonably optimistic that the quality of product is improving', adding: ' I like to think that housing associations like us have been influential, but whether we can make excessive claims - CABE has been just as influential.' Birkbeck's view on associations having an effect is different. 'It's crap', he says. 'Absolute crap.'

True, Peabody has excelled in looking at sustainability to progress things such as BedZed. But, in reality, although Birkbeck took Bill Dunster to talk to more than 80 developers about the scheme and they understood it, they were far too 'cut-throat' to form the necessary cooperatives to build similar schemes in bulk.

In the end, Countryside, Wimpey, Crest Nicholson, Berkeley, are all lifting quality - but only where they have good development directors. 'At least we've got to the stage where they're not questioning fido we have to use architects? fl but fiwhich is the right architect to choose? fl, ' says Birkbeck. 'That's pretty good news for consultants.'

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