Standards and guidance need to be consolidated into a single national framework, says Andy von Bradsky
For those of us specialising in housing, these are interesting times. Last year housing starts fell below 100,000 and there is an increasing shortfall in the affordable and middle markets.
Policy-makers have identified increasing housing supply as a means to kickstart our struggling economy and they are doing all they can to bring this about, including rewriting planning laws, incentivising local authorities and underwriting loans to developers and purchasers. Viability is a key concern for developers and, as a result of the reduction in public investment in housing, registered providers are changing their financial models to become more market-attuned in order to maintain their social housing programmes. This could lead to the biggest changes in housing delivery for decades. We are now seeing new tenure models, as renting is more feasible than owning for many, new public/private partnerships and new council housing as alternatives for increasing supply. The release of more public sector land and the necessary investment in supporting infrastructure for large-scale development will be crucial to delivering housing of all tenures and for all sectors.
Architects are continuing to deliver high quality award-winning projects in a financially straitened market
One may expect that in the current financially straitened market design quality would be compromised, yet architects continue to deliver award-winning innovative projects. Many developers seek market differentiation through high design standards – deliverable in a competitive tendering climate – and use ‘place-making’ as a means of achieving best value. Others take a long view, putting sustainability at the heart of their programme and recognising that improving performance above baseline requirements is financially attainable and offers market advantage.
However, not all is well. Valuations have yet to reflect higher building performance in general. Many clients and contractors mistakenly equate quality with additional cost and view value engineering as a cost-cutting exercise rather than an opportunity to enhance value. Space is squeezed and buildings are designed to minimum standards, reinforcing the view that the UK builds to some of the lowest quality thresholds in Europe.
The current government led a cross-industry review of national housing standards, due to report in spring, offering the potential to both underpin quality and increase the efficiency of supply. The new policy enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework states that good design is a key aspect of sustainable development and we have a national objective to reduce omissions for new homes to near zero or zero carbon. We now need a rationalised set of regulations to deliver these objectives.
The plethora of standards and guidance needs to be consolidated into a single national framework
Over many years the industry has developed a plethora of well-intentioned standards and guidance, sometimes masquerading as regulation and applied inconsistently by local authorities at planning stage. These need to be consolidated into a single national framework to provide clarity and certainty. We need simple performance standards embedded in Building Regulations, while allowing variations for specific local conditions. This could help simplify the process for achieving statutory consents and speed up the supply of consented land, enhancing prospects for a vibrant housing market.
Better information provided to the customer can also promote quality and sustainability. For example, energy performance of new homes should be expressed in easily understood metrics that relate to energy consumption and space standards should be clearly stated to demonstrate the ability of their homes to accommodate current and changing needs. Developers should introduce a degree of self-regulation by devising a labelling system that enables market comparisons and benchmarking against good practice, to stimulate innovation, drive down cost and improve performance – a potential win-win for customers and housing developers. This should lead to a reduction in regulation and a better functioning market over time.
Finally, it is not possible to regulate for good design. A new national housing standards framework must offer freedom for architects to innovate, particularly as niche products, such as the emerging private rented sector, require different standards. The housing market needs a balanced, sensible framework of performance standards that lead to sustainable and quality outcomes. Ultimately, delivering quality requires clients that take a visionary, long-term view and talented architects committed to creating attractive, enduring housing and distinctive places that stand the test of time.
- Andy von Bradsky is chairman of PRP Architects, representative of the Housing Forum and 4Housing Architects, and a member of the Challenge Panel