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AJ Roundtable: How do we uphold housing design quality in the rush to build?


In the rush to meet the need for a million new homes by 2020, how can quality as well as quantity be delivered? That was the question facing panellists in an Architects’ Journal roundtable discussion held at MIPIM UK and sponsored by Miele

While it is clear that design quality can easily be overlooked amid debate over affordability, land availability and speed of delivery, finding the best way forward is no easy matter. Would more regulation in the form of design codes and standards help to drive up quality? Should more use be made of prefabrication? And what can be done to ensure that the end product matches the original design? While no one is downplaying the challenges, there are plenty of opportunities too, according to our housing design experts. They discussed how everything from modern methods of construction and design templates to community participation could help deliver decent as well as timely new housing.

The panel

Will Hurst (chair), managing editor, The Architects’ Journal; Craig Casci, director, GRID architects; Elad Eisenstein, director for urban design, Mecanoo; Annalie Riches, director, Mikhail Riches Architects; Sam Rogers, commercial manager – projects, Miele; Patrick Usborne, associate, dRMM; Matt Yeoman, director, BuckleyGrayYeoman

Will Hurst What can be done to close the ‘design gap’? Plenty of housing schemes look great at planning stage and may even win design awards. Yet when they are delivered, there’s often something missing. How is this erosion of quality allowed to happen? Is it the fault of the way housing is procured or does the blame lie elsewhere? And what ways are there to address this design equivalent of the ‘performance gap’?

Matt Yeoman This touches on probably the biggest challenge for the architectural profession at the moment and that is the issue of procurement. There’s a massive gap between what gets designed and what’s built.  Buyers of architecture have no interest in going back to architects to help them build that product. They just want planning – that’s where they see design value. After that, it’s purely hard-nosed procurement. So, after planning, architects don’t get a choice in some of the things that really matter in terms of the experience of architecture, because the product has already been sourced.

Patrick Usborne The developer needs to have the appetite for design quality. Our scheme at Trafalgar Place at Elephant & Castle was very challenging but we luckily had the opportunity to work very closely with Lendlease, working with products that had been approved but detailing them very well to make it work. We were able to protect some finer details by significant savings through the use of CLT.

Annalie Riches One aspect of quality that often gets lost is landscaping, which is seen as able to take value-engineering more than buildings can. Landscape can suffer and it’s one of the most important aspects of how quality is perceived.

MY The profession has itself to blame. Trust in the architect has now gone – a large element of the profession isn’t trusted to deliver technically. If we want to change, we have to look at the education process.

Buyers of architecture have no interest in going back to architects to help them build

Craig Casci Architects have lost their position. Since volume housebuilders are actually the builders as well as the client, they’ll make decisions about detail regardless of the advice architects give them. Because they are selling the product, they don’t have a natural long-term interest. Private rented sector clients are much more interested in quality of detailing and specification.

Elad Eisenstein Quality of place brings together many different aspects – such as context and how heritage is integrated – that aren’t covered in the same remit as hardcore housing development. This dimension needs to be considered in a different way.

WH Would alternatives to volume housebuilders, such as SME builders and local authorities, be good for raising design quality? With the pressure on to meet targets, the government is actively encouraging more SME builders as well as volume housebuilders to deliver the 250-300,000 new homes needed each year. How helpful might such alternatives be for ensuring high design standards?

MY In theory, yes, this should make a difference in that quality will be one of the major differentiating factors for SME developers competing against major housebuilders. However, larger volume housebuilders can and do care about bigger picture aspects such as landscape and public realm. The worry is that small developers won’t have the resources to do so.

PU Community-led SME builders could be very interesting in the future by allowing communities to form co-operatives, purchase land and become their own developer, with the focus on the quality of the community. A big driver for improving quality is the expectations of the people living there.

AR A lot of faith is being put into volume housebuilders to deliver the housing when a lot of sites better suit smaller developers. There’s as much potential to deliver small sites in Greater London and reach the same housing numbers as there is with bigger development sites. It needs to be incentivised and encouraged.

Quality of place pulls together aspects that aren’t covered in the same remit as housing development

WH Should the state take a greater role rather than leave it up to the private sector? With maximising profit the main aim of the private sector, where does the state fit in? And how can local authorities promote greater community engagement and better-quality housing?

AR The state should take a greater role. We are working with local authorities in Norwich and Croydon and quality is very much on the agenda for both. They have in mind the bigger picture for the whole area. I think we’ll see a massive change as more local authorities do their own development. In my experience, there’s a big desire for quality and sense of place.

EE The resurgence is interesting. We’re seeing different mechanisms going back to bottom-up, grass roots, where community is more important in terms of prioritising the sort of development.

CC We need a more civic input to masterplanning and public realm like that in Amsterdam. In Manchester and Liverpool, for example, there are thousands of potential development plots, including many surface car parks. 

WH Are design standards the answerto maintaining and driving up quality? How useful are standards for achieving higher quality in reality? Can they avoid the fate of the Kickstart housing funding programme of New Labour in which applicants who weren’t achieving the required Building for Life standards were still getting funding because of the pressure to deliver? And how can design standards and codes be policed in an era of post-statutory Cabe and low council resources?

AR The problem is that you can design a very poor-quality building yet adhere to all the design standards. These aren’t really a measure of quality. The question is: what is design quality? It means very different things to different people. I wonder what volume housebuilders think it is.

Quality will be a major differentiating factor for SME developers competing against major housebuilders

PU The onus shouldn’t be on an organisation or policy document to police space standards but on the community where the housing is being built. It should be a joint effort working with the developer, people on the ground and suppliers to make sure the quality is specific to the area.

WH Can prefabrication and designing by template drive up design quality? A design panel for starter homes including philosopher Roger Scruton and architects Quinlan Terry and Terry Farrell recently came up with the idea of template designs that can be rolled out. This wasn’t received positively because it was felt it would impose generic designs.  But is there a place for templates if used appropriately?

MY Templates already exist, whether it’s official or not. Every major housebuilder has their template, driven by procurement. Then façadism deals with local context. It’s hard to deviate, but maybe we shouldn’t – Georgian and Edwardian housing was pretty much a template. And consumers might well be delighted with the quality.

WH If you were living in homes highlighted by Shelter recently you’d welcome a template home off the conveyor belt. 

AR I recently saw the prefabricated HoUSe project by Urban Splash in Manchester, which was impressive and high-quality. You can choose your own layout, and the internal quality is amazing. They’d worked with a really good architect, ShedKM, to develop it.

PU There’s a lot of investment in factories for modular housing from organisations such as Legal & General. If we can progress from producing high-quality components in a factory to ensuring that the whole house, once built, maintains that quality, that would be very exciting.


Readers' comments (2)

  • It's hard to imagine a clearer image of the ivory tower (or in this case bouncy castle) in which architects live and think than this photograph of the AJ roundtable of white men (and token woman) sitting down to sort out the challenges facing the profession. But with unerring (and typical) accuracy, you've identified the wrong question for debate.

    The crisis in housing is not one of quality, which is another euphemism for the high-cost, unaffordable, luxury housing that is making such profits for builders like Berkeley Homes and (as Patrick Usborne of dRMM will know) developers like Lendlease - it's a crisis of affordability.

    If you look up from your Bento boxes long enough you'll find that a recent report by the charity Shelter showed that 43 per cent of homes in Britain fail to meet their newly launched ‘living home standard’, and that, unsurprisingly, 73 per cent of these homes are in London. But 56 per cent of London homes fail the living home standard not on the criteria of their quality, the amount of living space, the stability of tenure or the surrounding neighbourhood, but on the fifth criterion – their affordability. Across the whole of Britain, the homes of 41 per cent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and 31 per cent of skilled workers, fail to meet the standard of affordability.

    Still, I've no doubt that if you order another mineral water you can turn this problem into a challenge and, with a sake for the road, an opportunity.

    Enjoy the sushi boys.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • Well said Simon. We (an all female architectural team) have just produced a residential design guide for a city in Yorkshire, and we could have made a great deal of useful comments in this debate.
    But we are only a not for profit social enterprise, and cannot afford Mipim.
    We can only dream of sitting around that table, with the Bento boxes, and the arched roof.

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