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Row hits 'templated' first-time buyer homes drive


The prime minister’s pre-election pledge to fast-track 200,000 first-time buyer homes with the use of ‘exemplar’ designs has revealed deep divisions among its architectural advisers

Two key members of the coalition’s housing advisory panel warned yesterday that the adoption of national templates could result in swathes of ‘generic’ properties which fail to fit with their neighbourhoods.

The warning from RIBA president Stephen Hodder and Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer comes after minsters said they wanted housing designs drawn up by its own panel members - most notably Terry Farrell - to become the ‘default approach’ for starter homes.

However, Hodder and Farrer said it was ‘vital’ that pressure to tackle the housing crisis did not lead to ‘sub-standard and unsuitable homes’.

In a joint statement the institute leaders said: ‘The use of national ‘design templates’ for starter homes could result in generic properties that don’t fit into the area in which they are being built. This will make it much harder to gain the support of existing and future residents.’

‘As members of the design advisory panel we will be urging the government to carefully balance the desire for fast and low-cost delivery with the need for sustainable development and high quality contextual design,’ it adds.

The comments are at odds with an official statement by Terry Farrell, who helped establish the advisory panel last year (Farrell hits out at balance of own housing design panel). Two of the three ‘exemplar’ schemes showcased yesterday were by his practice Farrells (pictured). The other was designed by Richards Partington Architects.

‘The templates developed by the government’s housing design panel will raise the design standard of new-build homes as well as raise the expectations of those who buy and live in them,’ Farrell said.

In addition Farrell’s practice insisted the government announcement was ‘the start of a journey’ which could see ‘many more architects get involved and submit exemplars to use as templates’.

The starter home template idea is supported by fellow panel member and director of Create Streets Nicholas Boys Smith, whose built environment charity issued a stinging attack on architects who put ‘artistic liberty’ over producing popular homes.

In a statement backing the government’s ‘template’ drive, Create Streets said that ‘something had gone very badly wrong with what we do to the built environment in Britain’ and warned against ‘sacrificing the liberty to have an affordable home of your own on the altar of the artistic liberty of the architect’.

Boys Smith told the AJ that the focus of design quality should be linked to ‘what people like’. He added: ‘These exemplars and templates must be proven to be popular.’

‘We should be far more interested in providing streets and homes and houses people want to live in rather than privileging architectural integrity.”

‘Many of the most popular and high density neighbourhoods such as those in Notting Hill, Pimlico and Islington were built by jobbing builders using templates – pattern books- by great architects.’


Sally Lewis of Stitch:
‘I am concerned about the apparent disregard for isssues of quality in this intiative. Pointing to a few Terry Farrell house types is not doing the job. It doesn’t even tick a box.  In my opinion this is not the place for templates : we’re talking about highly constrained sites that will demand, as always, collaboration between partners and stakeholders with architects who are used to finding responsive solutions to delivering high quality homes. 

This is not the place for templates

‘The assumption some schemes by an individual architect - in a privileged position - is the answer to the housing quality question is alarming. Firstly it does not recognise that good housing is responsive to each individual site. Secondly it dismisses the wealth of great housing typologies being delivered on the ground right now. This is on the ground experience with innovative ideas being put to the test on a site by site basis.’ 

Gary Young, partner at Farrells:
‘We’re delighted to contribute to the Starter Homes initiative, providing well designed examples for new homes, which, along with placemaking principles in Building for Life 12, will help the process of design development and engagement with local people.

‘Building on the valuable experience we have gained through working with A2Dominion as the lead developer of the largest development of true zero carbon homes in the UK, we are confident in the creation of well designed, affordable homes, that can follow the example set by the pioneering work at NW Bicester.  

‘The examples cited within this initiative can be adapted to reflect regional materials and characteristics, and act as a benchmark of quality and choice for future housing developments around the UK.’


Readers' comments (8)

  • What they want is "housing", what people want is "houses".
    Much better to dole out the land to individuals and let them get on with it, rather than this top-down life-style choice imposition.

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  • A depressingly predictable response from some quarters of the profession to an overdue endeavour to increase housing supply and cost. The fundamental space and environmental needs for the majority of our built environment is relatively consistent, certainly within our cities. The construction industry needs to embrace the sort of standardisation that has transformed manufacturing in the last 50 years, providing an opportunity to improve quality, cost and speed of delivery.

    Complaining about “generic” design misses the point that much of the background architecture that makes up our most popular and enduring environments is generic, ie “characteristic of or relating to a class of things”. The abiding popularity of the terraced house is a testament to the success of generic design. Architectural freedom and autonomy must find its place by raising the quality and sustainability of buildings and neighbourhoods across the board, not by clinging to the inalienable right to pursue bespoke solutions for each project.

    There are millions of people who would give their right arms for an opportunity to live in good quality generic buildings and it’s about time the construction industry improved its focus on meeting this need.

    Julian Stock, Partner Stockwool

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  • Julian, I agree, but are boxes with bolts on's, and stacked flats, really good enough to be hailed as exemplars? …..

    Brendan Tracey

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  • Julian
    No problem with standardisation, if there is true choice between a number of systems. Not just Farrell's design.
    The main cost of any dwelling nowadays is the land, inflated beyond belief by planners, builders and NIMBYS holding back.
    And terrace housing is OK - not what you design though, and not quite what is being proposed.
    … and people loved tower blocks when they were first built…

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  • These first buyer homes are all very well but the fact is, the majority of renters will still never be able buy them until the housing crisis is fixed or wages improve. Since you won't convince developers to stop building luxury flats in London, I agree with Julian. Standardising construction methods will reduce costs, this have doesn't mean a reduction in quality - there are plenty of poorly constructed new builds already. Why not use a modular prefab method (plenty of German companies doing this) where components are made in a workshop. The new owner can design the layout and have the house built in a matter of weeks.

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  • The modular prefab argument is valid, as an architect I would like to see this option explored more to address the housing shortage we are being told we face. We are, after all, living in the 21st century, and despite the governments best efforts (Code for Sustainable Homes, Building Regulations etc.) developers are still building dwellings that are utilising techniques developed in the 19th century ...

    However, there is a downside ... most LPA's are now driving their design guides to have 'local distinctiveness' in major housing schemes. How does this fit in with standardised or templated design? Does the facade just get reclad in whatever suits the LPA's needs or are there specific templates designed for all parts of the country? It's a very difficult balance to strike I feel. On the one hand as architects we are trained to always look at context, on the other are lots of external factors away from the design process that influence and shape how housing is delivered; namely economic forces.

    I don't know what the answer is, but a lot of this bluster from the powers that be just seems to be reactive and, to a certain extent old ideas coming full circle (again).

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    We should not lose sight of the most important overall goal for housing - increasing the supply of affordable homes. This initiative is unlikely to do that because it favours one kind of affordable home (the mortgaged starter home) at the expense of another (rented social housing) because the discount is achieved by dispensing with section 106 contributions that pay for the latter.

    And it's questionable whether colonies of young families clustered on 'commercial and industrial land that is either unusable or surplus' (to quote the DCLG press release) is desirable from their point of view or society's either. As one senior industry figure put it to me, quality housebuilders are heading in the opposite direction, towards integrating diverse mixed communities.

    We need an overarching plan and a minister of housing in the cabinet - not more of these myriad politically motivated housing initiates that suffer from classic conflicts countering the stated objective.

    Notwithstanding these reservations, we at The Housing Forum and HTA did contribute to the quality discussion - responding to a request from Farrells for our work on 'The Case for Home Performance Labelling' as well as examples of starter home designs from HTA's award winning Officer's Field' development, both of which we would hope to see adopted as benchmarks of quality in addition to Farrell's work featured in the press release. There are lots of other good examples and we should seek diversity, not standardisation.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP
    Chiar, Housing Forum.

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  • I believe that "swathes of ‘generic’ properties which fail to fit with their neighbourhoods" is exactly what most major housebuilding delivers. This initiative offers some respite from the developer spec standard solution but I agree with the other contributors - we need more choice, more housebuilding to increase stock and help kerb house inflation and much more opportunity to self or custom build. That would offer real choice and variety.

    Philip Waddy Partner West Waddy-ADP

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