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What is stopping architects selling homes directly to house-hunters?

Essex Mews by Solidspace with MW Architects
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A new book by architect-turned-developer Roger Zogolovitch argues the case for wresting control from volume housebuilders

Few would disagree, Londoners least of all, that the UK’s housebuilding system is failing us. The responsibility for building homes currently rests with a handful of large, privately-owned companies, which exert a stranglehold on land supply and fail to deliver on quantity or quality. It need not be this way, according to architect-turned-developer Roger Zogolovitch in his new book Shouldn’t we all be developers?

Over 190-odd pages, Zogolovitch examines different cogs in the housebuilding machine – design, land, planning, money – explaining how these drivers have created the current stranglehold and, crucially, how we might break it.  

His provocation is that an independent spirit is needed to wrest control of our housing from volume builders. The solution is manifest in the ‘gap sites’ of cities, where smaller, independent developers can lead a design-led densification process.

It is here, in the Georgian terraces and Victorian warehouses of London’s unfashionable areas, ‘the backlands and badlands’ that the author first turned his hand to development. Back in the early 1970s, the sort of architectural dentistry Zogolovitch was performing – renewing or replacing decayed housing stock – was welcomed by local authorities. Today, developers are viewed with a degree of suspicion by both local government and existing residents wary of what might be thrust upon them. This resistance is understandable but, unless the city rekindles the boldness that saw it recover from traumas such as the Blitz, which destroyed one in six London homes, the housing shortage will continue, the book argues.

The obsession with period property illustrates a deep-seated dissatisfaction with what the market offers

Our labyrinthine planning system, examined in the opening chapter, is stifling this entrepreneurialism. Our default setting is to oppose change, Zogolovitch suggests, drawing an historical contrast between Paris’s embracement of IM Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre and our own timid approach to the National Gallery extension. Given Paris’s reputation as museum rather than a city, some might find this comparison hard to swallow, but Zogolovitch’s point stands.  

Layer upon layer of legislation, plus ever-present concerns over conservation, have led to a ‘theatre of the absurd’ where planners are frightened to allow any changes to an approved scheme post-consent lest they end up in court. Designs are therefore never allowed to evolve and improve significantly from a prototype stage, which ultimately impacts on finished quality.

Planning is just one of eight issue-led chapters (the ninth is given over to case studies) and sets out the formula that carries through the rest of the book. Each breaks down into easily digestible chunks: My Point of View, History and the Current Context, Propositions and My Dream Scenario. Though rigid, the format is a useful device in simplifying a complex subject.

One of the most interesting chapters is Branding. In it, Zogolovitch asks a rhetorical question ‘What if John Lewis made homes?’ going on to pick apart our estranged relationship with volume housebuilders. Brands like John Lewis, for example, work hard to gain the trust of their customers through good service and a quality product. You would be hard pushed to find a consumer with a particular loyalty to a major housebuilder.

In backing up his point, Zogolovitch refers to a survey that found three quarters of us would not consider buying a new-build home. The obsession with period property cannot be boiled down to nostalgia, but illustrates a deep-seated dissatisfaction with what the market offers.

Though he avoids endorsing it as a repeatable model, Zogolovitch references Poundbury’s clearly defined target audience as an example of what a housing brand could look like. As custodians of a brand and its associated values, independent developers can build a degree of trust with the public that volume housebuilders have not.

Returning to Zogolovitch’s fundamental question, ‘Shouldn’t we all be developers?’ it is worth looking a parallels from other industries. Print publishing is undergoing a grassroots renaissance driven by individuals tired of working for large organisations that fail to match their own enthusiasm. Ditto design, with new production methods allowing graduates to make and sell products directly to the consumer rather than relying on an established furniture brand to do it for them. Even the unregulated free-for-all that is estate agency has seen smaller, boutique operators spring up to challenge the status quo. It seems natural that architects take on the housing challenge directly rather than attempting to precipitate change from within a broken system.

Undoubtedly, many architects will agree with Zogolovitch’s stance. However, the risks for architects embarking on such an adventure cannot be swept aside by mere prose, no matter how persuasive. But it can be done. Indeed, in his foreword, Paul Finch describes the author as an idealist and romantic, and this sensibility is plain to see throughout Zogolovitch’s book.

However, as evidenced by the success of his own company, Solidspace, there is business acumen underpinning the dreaming. The challenge, as Zogolovitch sees it, is for others to follow suit

Shouldn’t we all be developers? by Roger Zogolovitch

Shouldn’t we all be developers? by Roger Zogolovitch

Shouldn’t we all be developers? by Roger Zogolovitch • Artifice • £19.95

 

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