The founder and managing director of emerging West Country-based housebuilder Backhouse talk about their drive to improve the design quality of housing in the UK – and their ongoing search for good architects
What is your background?
Steve Russell: For my sins, I’m a housebuilder. I’ve worked for a number of the major companies across the industry, from technical roles to land and planning. My last role was managing director at Devonshire Homes.
Theo Backhouse: I’m a lawyer, turned commodities banker, now turned housebuilder.
Why did you decide to start Backhouse?
SR: Theo approached me to set up a new housebuilding company, with an ambitious growth plan and a focus on delivering better housing in the UK. It’s fair to say that from the outset I was hooked.
TB: Britain needs better housing. I see housing as a combination of commodity and consumer product. As a commodity we aren’t producing enough. As a consumer product, we have failed to make the progress that other products have made over recent decades, mainly due to a shortage permitted land, which has meant that housebuilding has been a competition for land and not for quality of product. We now feel this changing, which gives us the potential to build something very exciting – a business which leverages design talent to deliver better British housing.
What are you hoping to achieve?
SR: To build better houses in Britain. In general, the housebuilding industry is process-driven and repetitive. But there are changes coming to the market and as a new player we can take a fresh look, without the baggage.
TB: We aim to build a business of scale to compete with the existing housebuilders, using design as our USP. We want to prove the concept in the South West and take it national. There is a huge opportunity for quality SME housebuilding to recover [its ground].
What will differentiate you from other developers?
SR: The land market is changing and this will allow people to ask more of housebuilders. We want to create both homes and places that are more useable for the way people live now. Great architecture is fundamental to that process.
We will spend more money on design
TB: We will spend more money on design, using the best architectural talent in Britain to create a sense of place and to produce efficient spaces which are user-friendly, maximising space and light.
How do you go about finding architects?
SR: We initially ran a competition for a few London and West Country firms and charged the architects to create a collection of homes fit for the 21st century without too many other restrictions. The results that came back were really interesting as the interpretation of the brief was so varied. Too often housebuilders and developers use architects as draughtspeople rather than for their design expertise. We have used a similar briefing document for our other schemes, with equally exciting results.
TB: The competition platform really has delivered, and it’s been one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. Finding and working with the right architects has been fascinating, helping us to think about how space is used and to develop a product in which we have real confidence.
What do you want from architects?
SB: I’m frustrated that we live in some of the smallest homes in Europe, and that successive generations live in worse housing relative to their personal success. We want our architects to give buyers a home that makes them feel that someone has really thought about how it was put together.
I’m frustrated we live in some of the smallest homes in Europe
TB: We want sensitivity, alongside innovation and ambition. And a focus on efficiency and practicality as well as generosity of space and light. We also want commercial awareness. Our mission is a revolution in the quality of British housing, but progress will have to be incremental and driven by what the market can support if we are to build a profitable and sustainable business.
Are you currently looking for architects for forthcoming schemes?
SR: Always. Design is everything, so why restrict yourself?
TB: Yes, as the business grows we want to ensure we are using the best people to deliver great homes.
What would you like the government to do for you?
SR: Be consistent, speed up, reduce uncertainty and deliver the land that is needed. Recent reform is positive, but everything takes too much time. Only now are we seeing the increase in consented sites coming through from the introduction of the NPPF and five-year housing land supply.
TB: Focus on land and infrastructure, and volume of houses and quality will follow. Countries which deliver adequate development land deliver better quality living spaces, and we are way off the pace. Having lived in Singapore and travelled the world for more than a decade it is very clear that we are falling behind on infrastructure in this country. A change of mindset is needed to deliver a big investment in this area. Doing so would improve the quality of life across Britain dramatically.
What scheme by another developer inspires you?
SR: I draw inspiration from elements of lots of developments – from what I’m seeing now I really believe standards of housing can be raised and that we can build a better product. I’m excited by the technological advances and will watch off-site construction with interest.
TB: Accordia in Cambridge by MaccreanorLavington, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Alison Brooks Architects, and Newhall Be by Alison Brooks in Essex are good examples of the residential developments that inspire me.
Who is your favourite architect and why?
SR: Having ‘grown up’ professionally in the 80s I feel everything I say might sound like a cliché! But I’ve recently been extremely impressed with AHMM, who is designing our Castle Cary (pictured below) and Westbury schemes, and also by Feilden Clegg Bradley and Formation Architects.
TB: I am also a big fan of AHMM, particularly what director Simon Allford calls their ethos of ’extra-ordinary, ordinary’, which seeks to create extraordinary homes and places from relatively ordinary ingredients. Other people on my radar include Amin Taha, who is a genuine innovator, but with a strong commercial understanding.
Castle cary backhouse