It was a day for airing some home truths. On Monday last week the Popular Housing Forum staged its first conference Housing Design: Action for Improvement.
The forum was founded a year ago as the news broke that 4.4 million new homes were mushrooming around the country. Its aim is to unite all building professionals to improve design. Architects were the first to shift uncomfortably in their seats as representatives of the market research company BRMB presented highlights from its report Kerb Appeal on public attitudes to new housing - the pitch-roofed, porticoed and pedimented scored a massive hit, while the contemporary 'architect designed' type was rejected.
Housebuilders in the room were hoping for insight into government thinking from Urban Task Force advisor Martin Crookston of Llewelyn Davies. He wasn't giving much away but wagged the finger at everyone, saying there had to be a paradigm shift in thinking to curtail greenfield gluttony and switch attention to improving cities and suburbs. One housebuilder said he'd be happy to build in cities if there were better schools and amenities to ensure he could sell.
Next in the dock were local-authority planners and planning law. Delays and overenthusiastic meddling in detail were named as the enemies of better design by speaker David Richards, architect and town planner, of Barton Willmore. Highway engineers and safety audits formed the bete noire of David Taylor of Alan Baxter & Associates.
Both planner and engineer were singled out by architect/developer Trisha Gupta of Countryside Properties who said 'boring but safe' design was favoured by many builders because it dodged hold-ups in the system.
In a neat conclusion, Professor James Barlow of the University of Sussex spared no-one and advocated change by all professionals to a customer- focused approach that delivered diversity, adaptability and better quality.
Conference chairman, forum founder and architect Robert Adam took the conference towards its common goal of improving design. Far from hardening attitudes, the open debate had a cathartic effect by making it clear that unity in tackling problems must be the way forward. The conference provided inspiration for several strands of research into aesthetics, the planning system and highways. Announcements on these can be expected in the coming months.