A recent journey around the bypasses of rural England confirmed how it is always nice to blame someone else for the mess we see around us, and volume housebuilders seem to be the new estate agents.Everyone is having a go at them.Perhaps it is because they have so successfully dominated the housing market.
The first question I ask myself is who are these housebuilders? That they normally have the adjective 'volume' placed before their generic title is especially ironic.Volume as a description of space within buildings, and between or defined by groups of buildings (ie design), is something they show little interest in; 'volume housebuilder' is an oxymoron.
Certainly they think of square footage, units per acre, land banks and land values, but volume? No! I always think of volume as a measurement of space rather than area and, as such, it is a measure of the quality of inhabitation on offer.The only volume that they are interested in, however, is one of production (and, importantly, its control).This is their forte and their raison d'etre.But it is also what we are all interested in, for if we don't think in terms of capacity and volume of production, there is no chance of meeting the target of 4.4 million new homes.
But what about the registered social landlords (RSLs); why aren't they being attacked? Is it because we don't associate them with houses anymore, as opposed to flats? Is it because they deal with 'key workers'and the other groups so beloved of the Rogers Urban Task Force? Is it because they are now perceived as a force for good backed by government funding? After all, they now go hand-in-hand with housebuilders, as they are the beneficiaries of Section 106 agreements, which put housing for the greater good in the developments of housing for profit.
As you look critically, you discover the good work that some housebuilders are doing.Next to Vauxhall Bridge, a leading housebuilder's super-dense urban scheme - built quickly - is a testimony to the manipulation of planning constraints to answer need.That it is wrapped up in a cartoon Modernist cloth of glass and butterfly roofs is surely the architect's problem.
So why attack the volume housebuilders?
Is it because they provide the homes people want that we architects, so trapped in our search for an aesthetically startling future, are unable or unwilling to provide?
Is it because they move into an area and become so important that they take over the planning department? It may be that housebuilders are successful because they have invented their own vernacular. I have worked in villages in England where I have been told that a dormer was part of the local vernacular, when in fact the first one appeared in a new estate in 1991.At times, the only way to extend a 17thcentury listed cottage is to build a side extension that looks like a three-car garage and replace the front garden with a tarmac forecourt for half a dozen cars.
The reality is that housebuilders take a bashing because they control land and production quotas so there is no choice.
And that is why their defence of sales figures means next to nothing - the dreary product sells because there is no alternative.
We have a chronic shortage of new housing, so of course the current product sells.You buy a Chatsworth, a Constable or a Connaught or you don't buy at all.Ladas and Trabants were purchased in the old Eastern bloc, not because they were the marker for customer satisfaction, but because they were the only option.