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Panto time at Portland Place

Paul Finch

Can we please stop treating builders as the Ugly Sisters, says Paul Finch

Christmas panto time at Portland Place. Act 1: The RIBA produces a report pointing out an inconvenient trend: that many house-builders are producing smaller homes on average than they were four years ago. Moreover the institute has identified, in the form of drawings, the missing area it says should be added to standard house types. It wants minimum space requirements enshrined in Building Regulations. Nothing wrong about this you may think. Too many volume housebuilders are cynical about space standards.

However, things are not as simple as that. Act II: The RIBA Housing Group, a special interest body which operates outside the institute’s formal oversight, has complained bitterly about the report and its tone. It argues that, apart from some question as to the validity of the facts presented, this is no time to be browbeating an industry that provides work for many practices, and which is being courted by the government to do all it can in the battle to provide more homes.

Why demand new regulations from a government that has a fundamental dislike of them, especially when numbers rather than space standards are what matter?

Squabbling about 4m² resembles disputing the number of angels you can space-plan on the head of a pin

The list of names objecting to the institute attack on volume builders is a powerful one, including architects who really understand the industry, and whose practices produce big numbers, often of very decent design. At the very least, you might have thought consultation (or more consultation) should have taken place. Why should housebuilders or the government take RIBA criticism seriously when it lacks the support of major figures in the profession?

It is an unwise organisation that antagonises significant figures among its membership, especially when there is a far broader issue than the simple one of space standards to consider. That issue is this: how can we build the required number of homes without sacrificing design quality (including space standards), at a time of limited construction capacity, a shortage of serviced sites, a tight mortgage market, and more or less uncontrolled inward migration?

Squabbling about 4m² resembles disputing the number of angels you can space-plan on the head of a pin. What should be a matter for further debate, given the RIBA’s good previous research on this subject, is an acceptable strategy that might achieve the required numbers, particularly one that would appeal to a government with a budget problem, and which appears to have very little idea about how to deliver homes on the ground.

The government pretends it is the fault of the planning system. That system has approved 200,000 homes waiting to be built in London. And before anyone repeats the usual claim, it is not generally the case that housebuilders are simply sitting on land.

A good question to ask is how many homes would be built by the private sector if it were freed from the shackles of community infrastructure levy, planning gain, affordable homes, Crossrail levy etc. My guess is it would make some, but not a huge difference, because quite understandably housebuilders are in business to sell to people who can get a mortgage. If you made the same demands of bakers (‘affordable loaves’), you would quickly have a bread shortage.

So can we move to Act III? Public housing is the Cinderella of the industry, and needs to be recognised and promoted. Meanwhile, can we please stop treating builders as the Ugly Sisters. We want their product. But would they mind acknowledging the underlying truth of the RIBA’s report? It is simply not good enough to provide bedrooms so small that a standard-size cat, swung in any dimension, would perish on the first arc.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    Another reasoned and insightful comment on the RIBA's communications by Paul Finch.

    The point I have been trying to drive home at the Institute is that there is absolutely no need for the executive to come up with a PR strategies with which senior members disagree or which are at odds with their interests when there alternative strategies which would be just as effective in promoting architecture and architects. The AJ/Barratt House of the Future competition (won by my practice) is a case in point.

    Anyway, It's clear that Jane Duncan is now, albeit too late to avoid the Rabbit Hutch debacle, doing her best to re-position the working groups in the Institute's organisational hierarchy such that they are the originators of ideas for PR strategies that are can then be fed into the Communications Team to deliver. I hope she succeeds.

    I wrote last year to my fellow Council Members, under the heading of 'Architects Leading' to make the point that it should be Chartered Members who are the well spring of the Institute's communications strategies and that these should be voiced by architects themselves, not by the executive. A substantial proportion (though admittedly not a majority) replied in support. Whatever, the idea is yet to take root.

    And yes, we agree that bedrooms should be fit for purpose. But size is not the only parameter that matters. In the house designed by my father and in which we three siblings grew up, we had tiny study bedrooms that would certainly have brained Paul's cat. But each had built in furniture and storage and we shared a separate suite with our own living area and roof terrace.

    We should take care not to let standardisation overwhelm the designer's ingenuity.

    Ben Derbyshire.
    Managing Partner, HTA Design.
    Chair, The Housing Forum.

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  • I am delighted that the RIBA Communications committee is reaching out to its membership. I am also pleased that I have been asked to get involved. We need to move onto more fruitful actions that improve the lot of architects and focus on recruiting active, engaged and passionate members. Architects are THE best future for our built environment. They will create the right solutions that do not rely on trying to shut stable doors etc. It is not about size, but relevance and appropriateness. You cannot judge design by the square meter. On a slightly different aspect - we have more stuff - but it is getting smaller and more compact...with the noticeable exception of humans themselves...ahem...

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