The profession needs to stop continually bashing the housebuilders and use smarter ways to improve housing quality, says the chair of the Design Network David Tittle
‘It has been a popular rallying call at conferences of built environment types over the last decade or so to say that ‘we have to make the ordinary special’. The implication is that in the UK we are good at designing iconic buildings or high-profile bits of public realm, but that the majority of what gets built around the country is poor. In the Design Network we run design review panels and other services to improve design quality across the country, including the less glamorous parts of England, and we can testify to the enormity of the task.
‘The model of Design Review that we inherited from the old CABE, where designers prepare for a week to go to London to be mauled by starchitects has had to evolve or die. In the new world, without Regional Development Agency (RDA) subsidies, where developers pay for design review we have to make it relevant and approachable: a conversation between stakeholders and independent experts from which all can gain.
‘On the whole this has worked although take-up remains worryingly low; too few schemes are getting the benefit of the world-class expertise our panellists offer at a knock-down price.
‘We need to take the same sense of realism into our approach to house builders. The UK’s house building industry undoubtedly has a uniquely high level of concentration, as well as some particular ways of operating which do not always lead to the best design outcomes. But there is no use sitting around wishing we had a Dutch or German house building industry. At our regional base in the Midlands, MADE, we like to encourage independent innovators in housing, but we also recognise that the top 10 volume house builders will build the vast majority of our new homes. We have to work with the industry we have got.
We don’t get house builders to raise their game by berating them
‘One thing we have learnt from the last decade is that we do not get house builders to raise their game on design by berating them. The CABE housing audits of the noughties may have been fair assessments but in the words of one house builder* they ‘caused the industry to get defensive’. Nobody is deliberately designing bad homes and neighbourhoods. We may disagree about some aspects of what makes for good quality but all major house builders have a corporate commitment to delivering it. However, there are processes that militate against quality and cultural change is tough in large organisations, with multiple offices and teams.
‘Over the years I have sat in design review meetings and seen architects laying into house builders for using standard house types. It is water off a ducks back. At MADE we now discourage this approach. Standardisation is how the industry works. It is inevitable if we are ever going to deliver over 200,000 homes a year.
‘So we were pleased when the new Building for Life standard (BfL12) launched a couple of years ago; it concentrated on the important place-making in new housing developments like connectivity, the quality of streets and how car parking is dealt with. BfL12, with its plain English approach has received a much warmer reception from the industry and when we have delivered training on it for house builders it has allowed us to have constructive conversations about simple improvements that can transform new neighbourhoods.
We were also pleased in the Design Network to be given the job of providing an assessment service for Built for Life, the housing quality kite-mark, allied to BfL12, that developers can use for marketing purposes. Built for Life exemplifies the realistic and incremental approach to improving housing quality that works with and for the industry. It is not the Housing Design Awards. We are not recognising the most exemplary developments. We are rewarding those that have achieved a good standard of placemaking, giving consumers a steer towards the better developments and setting up some competition in the industry on quality.’
David Tittle is chief executive of MADE, an organisation dedicated to improving the quality of cities, towns and villages in the West Midlands and beyond. He is also chair of the Design Network and a trustee of Civic Voice - the national organisation for Civic Societies.