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Better homes: Can housebuilders and architects ever see eye to eye?

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The AJ asks whether housebuilders and architects can really work together to produce better homes

It’s not quite poacher turned gamekeeper, but architect turned volume housebuilder is a tricky transition to make.

Just ask Nick Rogers, Taylor Wimpey’s Oxford-based director of design. Rogers became an architect 25 years ago but has spent the last 10 years in mass housebuilding and admits he regularly encounters negative reactions from his fellow professionals, given architects’ often sniffy attitudes to the sector.

‘People I get to know eventually realise that I’m trying to make things better and that we as a company are trying to do the best we can,’ he says.

More Homes, Better Homes

Given that many architects are deeply concerned by the UK’s acute undersupply of homes, the suspicion Rogers encounters seems paradoxical, especially when you consider that  Taylor  Wimpey, alongside just two other housing giants – Barratt Developments and Persimmon – produced about  a quarter of the country’s total housing output last year.

So, oversimplifying a little, could a better partnership be forged between the serial dreamers (the architects) and the market-driven pragmatists (the housebuilders)?

Could this help us solve the housing crisis in the long-term? And what do volume housebuilders actually look for in an architect?

Part of the problem with the relationship between the two groups seems to be that most volume housebuilders use what are known in the trade as standard housing types; and architects, on the whole, are less than keen on standardisation.

Designer Wayne Hemingway, who in the early noughties hit out at the ‘Wimpeyfication’ of England but went on to work with Taylor  Wimpey on award-winning housing schemes such as Staiths South Bank in Tyneside, believes that this is evident in architects’ attitudes to larger schemes.

He says: ‘You can find architects who are proud of schemes that have about 30 to 40 houses, but it’s rare to find someone who has produced more than that and will happily revisit a scheme. More often than not they don’t want to go back.  It’s understandable and I sympathise, but it’s worrying. You won’t find an architect who has built a scheme of 300-500 homes who can go back and say: “Wow. This is why I’m an architect”.’

Many housing architects, such as Ben Derbyshire, managing partner of HTA Design, and Andy von Bradsky, chairman of PRP Architects, also argue that the relationship is soured partly by the RIBA’s ‘bashing’ of the big housing developers. This included its chief executive Harry Rich’s statement in 2011, which condemned what he called the ‘shameful shoe-boxes’ being produced by them.

It’s easy for architects to alienate themselves

Von Bradsky says: ‘It’s very easy for us as a profession to alienate ourselves from the discussion.  This is what the RIBA has almost entirely done.’

However, the likes of von Bradsky and Derbyshire also argue that volume housebuilders do recognise the value that architects can bring to a project and emphasise the latent opportunity that exists for designers who do wish to engage.

Earlier this year, an example of this emerged in the Future Homes competition devised by Barratt Homes and run in partnership with the AJ. This hugely popular and ongoing contest asked UK-based architects, architectural designers and architecture and design firms to consider what homeowners will want in five to 10 years’ time and to design a ‘bold and innovative house’ that would both appeal to the mass market and respond to changing demographic, technological and consumer trends. While Barratt is undoubtedly seen as one of the more design-driven housebuilders, this initiative has still been seen as a notable recognition of the creative and problem-solving capabilities that architects can bring.

And despite the sometimes less-than-positive reaction he sometimes receives from other architects, Rogers is also keen not to exaggerate the schism between designers and housebuilders, pointing out that he and his team at Taylor Wimpey are working with architects and urban designers ‘day in, day out’.

The architects we work with are trying to do the best they can in an imperfect context

‘Sometimes it is blown up into a kind of confrontation that just isn’t there,’ he says. ‘The architects we work with are trying to do the best they can in an imperfect context. The way in which we assemble land in the UK and control that land, the way in which we invest in property and housing is not a context designed to deliver the best – it’s a context we have to put up with. But we are working with local authorities to try to make things better and that’s what designers need to do.’

But, while the seeds of a better relationship may exist, could an effective partnership between housebuilder and architect really play a part in solving the present housing crisis? A clue is offered by the analogy that many developers make between the design-driven production line of homes they operate and that of other ‘manufactured’ products, such as cars or electronic goods. In other words, the theory goes, houses are built at volume, the quality has to be consistent and designing each from scratch would be madness.

housebuilders graph

This is more aspiration than reality, given the aversion many consumers have to new build housing along with the well-known performance gap which exists in new homes and other buildings. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this is where the industry is trying to get to as it struggles to produce a more popular product, which can be delivered at well over 200,000 units a year.

One consequence of this is that the standard housing type is being constantly refined by developers such as Barratt using design skills and systems such as the Building for Life standard.

‘All of our standard housing types are extensively tested,’ says Barratt director of corporate affairs Patrick Law. ‘We’ve recently gone through the process of redesigning the interiors and exteriors of our standard housing types. We’ve done a lot of research into how consumers use the interior space, how they use open plan, how they use “sanctuary space”, and this all informs our redesigns.’

And Derbyshire is among those who believe the current climate calls for architects to get involved in areas such as R&D and consumer engagement. He applauds the work of former Barratt chief Mark Clare in trying to better label homes to give consumers more information about what they are buying, saying: ‘This is pertinent to the homebuilding industry but also to the architecture profession. We need to be able to predict the performance of the products we design.’

As for what housebuilders seek from architects, Taylor Wimpey’s Nick Rogers believes it is a simple case of finding a designer prepared to fully understand and work with a mindset which can be radically different from his or her own.

He mentions a ‘speed dating’ event for architects and developers organised by lobby group Design for Homes several years ago which he attended.

‘Almost every architect I met presented me with a sales pitch,’ he says exasperatedly.

‘Only two or three actually sat down and refreshingly asked me: “What are your problems and what can we do to help you?”’

‘We’re looking for people who understand who we are and how we work. What we don’t want is someone who thinks they can change the business model.’

‘David Wilson’ standard housing types by Barratt Developments

house plans

  • 6 Comments

Readers' comments (6)

  • Over three storeys builders need architects. Under three storeys they do not.

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  • This is a perfect example of where architects total focus on design is not serving them. The housebuilder has a set of problems or 'pains' to solve that has little to do with architect's obsession with applying their version of 'architectural taste' to everything whether it needs it or not.
    The volume Housebuilders are correct - they are producing a consumer product whether architects like it or not. It is a fundamentally different market to high end bespoke housing design where people are looking for originality and even 'quirkiness' - a signature product as opposed to an efficient product range with predictable production costs and profit targets.
    Architects have two choices - either understnad this and help the volume housebuilders deliver their business model or allow alternative service providers to gain revenue from the work. Trying to persuade housebuilders they are 'wrong' or creating 'shameful shoe boxes' is both arrogant and frankly suicidal.
    Hopefully this obsession with 'architecture' as some nebulous form of elitism will subside and we can start selling the services of architects as high quality strategic problem solvers.

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  • I also work for one of the big three and couldn't agree more. I trained as an Architect and work with Architects, designers, engineers and planners on a daily basis.

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  • An interesting article, however it seems unfortunately timed as [both at a suburban scale (ie most sites outside of London) and urban scale] architects and housebuilders seem to be working fantastically well together already. This was illustrated earlier in the week with projects that the HDA's esteemed judges [RIBA, RTPI, HBF, Landscape Institute & HCA] commended as being examples of hugely successful design.

    http://www.hdawards.org/archive/2015/winning_schemes/project_winners/cottam_meadow.php

    http://www.hdawards.org/archive/2015/winning_schemes/project_winners/barnet_southgate_college.php

    Therefore the shortest answer to the article's title question seems to be: "Yes architects and housebuilders can cooperate, and it is for the benefit of all when we do".

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  • Paul McGrath

    This article demonstrates how far removed the AJ has become from being the Architects' Journal.

    The real story is who is building and collaborating on the 75% of houses not delivered by the 'Big 3'.

    If the AJ reported on football, nobody outside the top 4 of the Premiership would get much of a look in.

    The "More Homes Better Homes" campaign appears devoid of any in-depth reporting on complicated issues and pushes against an open door.

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  • AJ letter
    Following the AJ article – Better homes: Can housebuilders and architects ever see eye to eye?
    Published 17 July 2015
    Part of the cultural conflict between architects and house builders rests in their different understandings of people.
    Typically architects will design with a belief in ‘human utopias’: That through their work one can lift the quality of life for all those who experience well designed places. Although there are many schools of thought, there is a shared belief that has an imbedded optimism about a future where people can flourish. Architects believe they can provide this environment.
    On the other hand housing developers build based on their interpretation of ‘human nature’: That as well as the basic needs of good economics, of functional homes and of the cultural recognition of friends and family groups, there is no other human needs to be met.
    I once challenged a main stream house builder by asking why they didn’t provide 70sqm two bedroom flats rather that 60sqm two bedroom flats. The answer of was not a surprise in that they sell for the same price. “Who is going to pay me for that extra 10sqm of build costs, are you?” was the retort. If you can mask this size difference in a property owners, human nature has a long way to go.
    On the other hand we have the potential to innovate, which for convenience we might call the ‘Apple Steve Jobs’ factor. He consistently managed to provide a product that the market did not know it wanted. He ensured that what was offered was technically advanced and beautifully detailed. It was considered fatal by many of Apple’s competitors, but it was taken up by people, so what emerged was a new culture which realises there is a whole new world out there. We now know in hindsight, people could not get enough of it.
    It is possible to be cynical about the architect – house builder conflict. One can suggest that they both carry a form of delusion, one base, the other of grander principles; no wonder an adversarial relationship can result. But equally one can dig a little deeper and find some cross pollination of their cultures would benefit both.
    To support the house builders, architects have to belief in the economics of house building, at lease in our current circumstances of land supply. This means the embracing: of the ‘standard types’ mind set, of systematised robust detailing, of well-rehearsed technologies and with an appearance that marginalises novelty.
    To support the architect, house builders need to venture outside their comfort zone and ask the “what if” of research and development. If only to make sure they are not left behind by their competitors; in particular, if the competitors have moved the human nature goal posts as Apple had found. In this context, it is the expectation of people who buy homes that should worry house builder’s more than an architect’s cultural persuasion. Greater awareness of real design within real home buyer’s minds could embed itself as the norm of human nature. Equally, in keeping their savvy customers under nourished they too risk losing out.
    Is it possible that without risk takers like Apple’s Steve Jobs, we would still be using Bakelite phone; Unthinkable now. So if it is possible that with main stream house builders refuse to ask “what if”, we will be slow to depart from housing design as we know it.
    Paul Drew – Iceni Projects

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