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Third of biggest housebuilders don't employ own architects

  • 7 Comments

More than a third of the UK’s biggest housebuilders don’t employ a single ARB-registered architect, research has revealed

New figures show that the top 25 housing construction firms ‘directly employ’ a total of just 46 architects, with three firms making up half that list.

The statistics, compiled by Robert Guy, partner at Bristol practice Arturus, also reveal that nine firms on the list do not have a single ARB architect on their books.

Guy told the AJ: ‘[The figures] highlight that housebuilders don’t tend to want to work with architects. Outside of London, developers are happy to build standardised Noddy houses which are unoriginal and regressive in design.’

Designer Wayne Hemingway said housebuilders are not currently incentivised to prioritise design, and called for government action to encourage more competition: ‘I am surprised [housebuilders] employ that many, to be honest. The housebuilding industry has got leaner and meaner, which works as a model for them – so there is no use blaming them for it. Their remit is to get maximum return on the capital they have borrowed to fund development and they have done that very well since the crash, delivering less product  and making much more money …a dream for any business.’

He added: ‘It is the system that is broken - there is not enough competition in the UK housebuilding market. The system works in favour of starving the market… [so] design becomes less important. The consumer becomes hungry for anything.’

Hemingway concluded:‘ Governments don’t like to be interventionist but this market needs them to act. Only then will housebuilders have to employ more staff with design skills.’

But David Birkbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, said that the picture was complex.

He said: ‘A lot of the big companies have very good architects and design teams. You can’t paint the industry as monolithic – some take design very seriously, whereas others want to build as cheaply as possible. You would do very well to find an era that didn’t rely on standardisation for mass housebuilding.’

Birkbeck added that there could be some advantages in not employing in-house architects.
‘In business terms it is probably best to get three outside consultants to show you different ideas rather than relying on some guy who has worked for you for 10 years and may be a bit stale.’

Developer Berkeley Group employed almost a quarter of the total number of architects on the list, with 11 ARB-registered architects.

Sean Ellis, chairman of St James Group & Berkeley Homes Eastern Counties, said: ‘Unlike some of our competitors, we don’t do standardised products.
‘We use a lot of design firms but find that the qualified architects we have in house are good managing external practices.
‘We are a design-led business and having in-house architects gives us a competitive edge.”

Steve Turner at HBF: ‘House builders are totally committed to good design and ensuring their products meet their customers’ requirements. In a market environment, if they weren’t, people would not buy.’

Comments:

David Tittle, chief executive of MADE and chair of the national Design Network: 
‘While the employment of an [in-house] architect will generally lead to better quality design it is not an automatic relationship.  And I know one or two unqualified ‘plansmiths’ who have a commitment to quality and professional development that would put many RIBA members to shame. It is a fantasy to expect every volume housebuilder scheme to be architect designed.  Imagine if we employed automotive designers to separately design batches of 200 to 300 cars?  It would be fantastic. There would be some very interesting cars out there.  But it isn’t going to happen.  Given the number of houses that need to be built there is of necessity going to be some standardisation.  It makes sense is and not necessarily a bad thing.  The question should be whether the quality of the standard product is sufficiently high.  Part of the problem is that architects have been dismissive of standardisation and not engaged with the challenge of the standard house-type. 

‘Last week I took part in a Built for Life assessment of a Barratt Homes scheme in Barnet which was architect-designed by HTA Design.  We gave it an ‘outstanding’ accreditation.  I would expect Barratt to employ an architect for a high value scheme in a difficult context like this. I would hope that their experience of this scheme will trickle down to some of their lower value schemes where they chose to use standard house designs and in-house urban designers. That’s why it is important for housebuilders to have some engagement with good quality architects. 

‘The most critical issue with most housing scheme is getting the place-making issues resolved satisfactorily. Therefore I would say that the most important professionals to get involved are landscape architects (and I mean from the beginning, not just to specify the planting) and urban designers.’ 

Jane Duncan, RIBA President elect:
‘The RIBA’s HomeWise campaign to improve Britain’s housing, includes a call for a greater focus on design in all new homes’ to ensure they meet current needs and are fit for future generations.  Architects bring an understanding of how to design homes to meet current and future needs of households and can innovate to better accommodate homes to meet current challenges and to be accepted within communities. RIBA would welcome greater investment in the design and innovation of new homes.  Working collectively, architects, housebuilders and local authorities can stop the blight of poorly designed homes.’

  • 7 Comments

Readers' comments (7)

  • Su Butcher

    "Guy told the AJ: ‘[The figures] highlight that housebuilders don’t tend to want to work with architects."
    No it doesn't. It suggests that some house builders don't want to employ architects in house. That in no way means they don't want to work with architects.

    Did Robert Guy really say that? I'm surprised.

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    Recent coverage of the RIBA's HomeWise campaign gave cause for concern especially amongst architects involved in the design of housing, including myself.

    A lot of spec housing is poor but not all of it is so that it's inappropriate and unhelpful to tar all developers with the same brush. Many architects have been working for years to persuade homebuilders of the value of good design and the record of awards success testifies to the progress being made here. But the hyperbolic language of this campaign is counter-productive to these efforts because it's perceived by these clients to be antagonistic.

    The housing currently being developed without the benefit of input from architects represents huge upside marketing potential for RIBA members. But it's going to get harder to reach this market as a profession in order to both improve, and profit from, its design so long as we set ourselves at loggerheads with the house builders.

    We should be collaborative and acknowledge the contribution of others, both in moving the policy agenda forward and also in planning, regulation, design and production. It's a team effort.

    We should commend industry and Government for coming to the right conclusion in deriving a platform of nationally applicable standards which have been supported by many homebuilders and can be adopted by Local Authorities who can make the case in terms of viability for minimum standards.

    We should be careful to acknowledging that many homebuilders do achieve higher standards, including space standards, and stress that the RIBA is keen to make the case that the value this adds to the housing stock is not always reflected in formal methods of valuation.

    Ben Derbyshire.
    Managing Partner HTA Design LLP

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  • Maybe it also shows that it is cheaper for the house builders to use external architects rather than their own staff for the actual hours involved? Many private practices - desperate to stay in business - may well reduce fees just to keep a flow of work.

    With a purely profit-driven developer as the master of a necessarily submissive architect, this can only contribute further to the Noddy Box plague.

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  • I probably did say what has been reported (and, hey, it has got a response!) but without the circumstances in which it was said, I agree, it doesn't sound correct. Many schemes using standardised house types have never seen an architect. A planning consultant will plan the scheme and obtain the consent (and I can understand why, given the current planning system) using house types which are developed ‘in house’ by the housing developer. I made the comment in relation to this type of scheme. If the developer does not directly employ an architect then none will be used in the process. I also made the same points as Wayne Hemmingway and added that most housing through history has been built without using architects.

    I looked up the ARB figures to see if it helped inform the the housing debate instigated by the AJ where standardised solutions, whether they be city towers or bland estates built on green field sites are rightfully being questioned. Direct employment of architects may say something about the particular companies. I think the response from Sean Ellis sums up the situation very well and it is interesting that he sees using non standard designs as giving St James and Berkeley Homes a competitive edge.

    I agree architects have produced some excellent innovative housing schemes for some of these developers however I have also seen many housing ‘estates’ built by those same developers which are bland, unimaginative and which could be anywhere.

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  • A developer's job is to maximise their profit.

    A planner's job is to control the quality of the buildings that are allowed to be built in this country.

    If planners insisted on good quality, relevant and contextual solutions to house design then developers would have no option other than to employ designers who new what they were doing.

    Andy Ramus
    AR Design Studio

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  • A developer's job is to maximise their profit.

    A planner's job is to control the quality of the buildings that are allowed to be built in this country.

    If planners insisted on good quality, relevant and contextual solutions to house design then developers would have no option other than to employ designers who new what they were doing.

    Andy Ramus
    AR Design Studio

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  • Industry Professional

    Planners insist on new houses looking the same as the adjacent houses and the houses in the surrounding area, therefore no real design is required.

    It would be nice to be able to put forward innovative design solutions not just basic red or buff brick square houses with very little character or Architectural design.

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