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The real housing crisis is a good design crisis

Architect designing

Solving the housing crisis is not just a matter of getting the right numbers, says Dean Clifford – developers, policymakers and planners need to be emphasising the quality of housing, too

Last month’s release on projected household growth by the Office for National Statistics, which has downsized the number of estimated additional households required annually from 210,000 to 159,000, has led to questions arising regarding the urgency of new house builds.

Regardless, the housing crisis is still in full swing – household growth is still positive, and also unevenly distributed between the regions. As one might expect, even with the downturn in predicted growth, London is leading the charge in a household rise, with an increase of 24 per cent over the next quarter century, from 3,447,000 to 4,292,000.

However, the housing crisis cannot be seen simply through a lens of ‘quantity’. Sky News’ recent report on how the housing crisis is constituted of five separate crises, discusses supply, demand, distribution, cost/credit, and quality.

"Everyone wants buildings that are well-designed – especially those who live and work in them"

However, it is the last crisis, and within it the lack of focus on quality of design and the renovation of existing buildings, which constitutes an important, yet often underappreciated, issue. Everyone wants buildings that are well-designed, which provide social, environmental and aesthetic value – especially those who live and work in them.

However, with so many poorly-designed buildings being consistently developed, something is clearly not right with the way that we approach building design and construction. Why is there apathy towards considerations of good design?

When sites are put forward for development, a set of complicated planning rules often delays the pace at which progress can be made. Developers have to focus on the unwieldy planning process while also walking the tightrope of political demands. Is it any wonder so many larger developments have to be determined at planning appeal? Through all of this gymnastics, it is no surprise that little time is given to long-term considerations of architecture and great design.

Policy changes to help streamline the planning process and emphasise the social value of design and built environment would help to overcome ambivalence or even flat-out local antagonism to projects. Additionally, providing high-quality homes built with flexibility for both today and the future could create greater movement in the market while enticing first-time buyers to part with their deposits and take their first step onto the housing ladder.

"A decline in standards of design for housing could lead to a slowdown in the housing market – people do not want to buy boxes, they want homes"

Predictably, a decline in standards of design for housing could lead to a slowdown in the housing market – people do not want to buy boxes, they want homes. This is not a revelatory point, with the government recommending ‘quality over quantity’ in housing last spring. In turn, this was followed by the endorsement by the government of Policy Exchange’s Building More, ‘Building Better report (pdf). The paper provided a strong case for good design, suggesting that the majority of Brits want homes on new developments to fit in with existing houses, and that traditional design – terraced houses on tree-lined streets – is highly popular.

Even if projected household growth has shrunk, we are still in the midst of a housing crisis. Solving it will involve not just improving the quantity of homes available, but improving the quality of them, too. Good design can help reduce nimbyism, create communities and improve standards of living. It’s what everyone wants. So why can’t we deliver it?

Dean Clifford is a co-founder of Great Marlborough Estates

Photo | iStock


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