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.’
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.’