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Revitalising social housing The design of social housing has suffered from narrow costing exercises. But Scottish initiatives may show a way forward

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At a time of economic downturn, there appears to be no sign of recession in the industry of initiatives: the Egan report, Housing Forum, Brownfields First initiative, detr Innovation in Standardised Systems in Housing project, Zero Energy Developments all make the headlines in the architectural press. And a good thing too, in principle at least: if there is a common theme running through all these it is a millennial sense of disillusion with an industry in which mediocrity is king and all notions of inventiveness see the bean-counters clutching their pacemakers in Pavlovian terror.

This is true as much of clients (especially most in the public sector), qss, and, dare one say it, of the architectural profession itself, as of contractors. However, one element is in danger of slipping through the net of all the reports and pilot projects. It is the most elusive one of all - holistic good design.

Social housing in the inner cities seems to me to encapsulate this problem. All too often pilot projects seeking to demonstrate how new targets can be met in terms of energy consumption or contract times through prefabrication result in banal plans with a general failure to respond to the challenges of specific site conditions and to urbanism itself. I am especially wary of current building-industry initiatives which the government may mistake for panaceas: are the time gains offered by full prefabrication achieved at the expense of long-term restrictions on the maintainability and adaptability of the new stock? The Japanese concept of 'just-in-time' delivery of components may be appropriate to production lines under factory conditions: the notion that it will automatically work on every muddy inner-city building site seems to me to be highly dubious (the Japanese themselves tragically discovered the theory's limitations when the Kobe earthquake left rescue workers pitifully short of fire-fighting and excavation equipment, with disrupted communication lines preventing new supplies from being brought in).

Similarly, I am worried by the impression being conveyed to government - by Egan in particular - that the cost of all types of building supply can be cut further. If John Prescott were to be presented with a few 'We've Hit Bedrock' reports it might give his department some defensive ammunition the next time the Piranha Brothers from the Treasury try to shave a few billion off his allocations without anaesthetic.

Costing exercises are generally flawed by their limitations. In these matters, common-sense tends to be a more reliable guide than expert opinion. Egan quite correctly places great emphasis on the need to account for the lifetime expenditure of buildings, but beyond this is a range of barely quantifiable costs: as John Cooper of Avanti Architects asks: 'What is the drain on London's efficient functioning of having an inadequate stock of high-quality affordable rented housing? For a world city the lack of exemplary new schemes is a disgrace.' In housing the blinkered perspective is similar to that of transport, where for half a century the wider social costs of a car-led policy were ignored; unlike with transport, however, we have yet to see much understanding of how things might be ordered differently.

In England, in the absence of any apparent vision from the Housing Corporation, it is left to a handful of individual housing associations, often those with atypical resources, to experiment where they dare. Dickon Robinson, the Peabody Trust's admirable director of development (unsurprisingly an architect by training) has initiated a range of projects in London including the scheme for 30 flats at Murray Grove in Hackney which are being craned into position not only prefabricated but also pre-decorated.

My own firm has recently handed over a car-free new-build in Covent Garden, comprising general-needs and disabled-use flats, to the Soho Housing Association. Getting this small brownfield development built required more than five years dogged perseverance by all parties - including two abortive attempts to obtain an acceptable tender for the development under the d&b procurement route favoured by the Housing Corporation.

In Scotland, where housing associations tend to be more locally based and the committees of those associations have a more hands-on role in decision-making, there are signs of more methodical approaches to innovation. The highest-profile current project is Glasgow's 1999 Homes for the Future initiative (aj 7.1.99) - a showcase for a range of medium-rise, mixed- tenure blocks of flats, some incorporating exploratory technology. Despite the unique circumstances of its commissioning, this flagship venture would have been unlikely to make it on site without a shifting culture north of the border, partly inspired by the rias and by Scottish Homes, which is beginning to make itself felt in a range of ways.

At Slateford Green on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Canmore Housing Association is building a competition-winning scheme of 120 flats by architect Hackland and Dore which takes advantage of the site's location between two main roads with good bus links to create what will probably be Scotland's first major car-free development. Refreshingly, this is far more than a single- issue scheme, in that it also incorporates the competition brief's lengthy wish-list of environmental targets (with long-term savings to offset capital costs anticipated to be around 20 per cent above average). It then goes further by incorporating a kindergarten and using another site-specific condition for heat generation - the superheated waste water from a nearby distillery.

Part of the incentive for Canmore ha to take the plunge on this development came from its committee's visit to car-free schemes in Bremen and Holland. European study trips are also made as part of the 'Designs on You!' course run for the last five years by share (the Scottish Housing Associations' Resources for Education). These 10-evening courses tackle a range of topics, including methods of briefing architects, green design, and aesthetics (a word hitherto defined in most housing association lexicons only as 'See Under Noddy'): as part of their homework for aesthetics those taking the course bring in a favoured object and attempt to justify its visual qualities to their colleagues.

It is in these courses that we can see some real signs of hope for the wider movement. A developing culture in housing associations and funding authorities that demands high standards of inventive design from architects can serve as a partial counterweight to endlessly trimmed budgets. Reidvale, one of the Scottish associations whose committee members have been through share's course, makes a point of encouraging dialogue between its architects and in 1997 signified the importance it now attatches to its own working environment by commissioning Elder + Cannon to redesign its head office: the resulting conference area with views on to a new external sculpture demonstrates a panache that is a world away from the hand-me-down housebuilders' thinking that tends to characterise much of the movement.

Dick Cannon makes the point that in Glasgow there is actually no great shortage of affordable sites and properties for social housing (unlike London and other English metropolitan areas). It is the scarcity of available funding which has recently forced housing associations and architects to explore new strategies, and is leading to a range of more sophisticated approaches to key issues such as tenure, building types, communal facilities and links between housing co-ops. This climate of plurality seems to me to be crucial.

Inner-city social housing constitutes a unique form of building provision, in that its end users are effectively powerless to influence the main design and constitute a trapped clientele once their flat has been allocated to them. If for no other reason, architects and commissioning associations therefore owe them a special duty of care in loudly cautioning those holding the purse-strings that costs can rarely be cut without concomitant long- term problems. At Slateford Green, for example, Canmore made a crucial decision to divert the site area saved by the elimination of site roads and parking spaces into outdoor amenity spaces, rather than attempting to reduce unit costs by maximising density. The more that social housing is enriched by innovation, the clearer it becomes that such trade-offs between two or more potentially beneficial ingredients will often be the order of the day.

Housing associations are nervous of developing a reputation as troublemakers with funding agencies. This understandable concern could be mitigated if, as proposed by Edinburgh practice Ewen + Fiona McLachlan, channels existed for direct representation from architect to funding authority to explain design elements of importance to the urban fabric which could otherwise only be financed by sacrificing core facilities. Such a move would be part of a new mentality that once more addressed housing in a wider frame of reference: we used to call this 'planning'.

The programme of constructional experimentation and monitoring currently being implemented by Scottish Homes' strategy and performance directorate should be an exemplar for the rest of the uk. Current initiatives barely begin to address many deep social shifts: key problems such as how work facilities can be integrated with social housing remain largely unexplored. Successful visionary social housing schemes carry a resonance that even the most lavishly funded commercial projects rarely match: where are they all?

Jeff Kahane is an architect with Jeff Kahane + Associates

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