Quality street: how to improve housing design

Words:
Ben Derbyshire

If the government really wants to do something about housing quality, it should embrace these nine principles

I have reported previously how RIBA is working with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on improving housing design quality. While quality may be improving in some metropolitan areas, equipped with design standards, review panels and powers of mayoral call-in, in most suburban and rural districts there are few tools capable of influencing the speculative homebuilder.

So the endlessly undifferentiated carpet of standard product that everyone, including now the Prime Minister, abhors, is rolled out across the nation. No use blaming the housebuilders. If we want something else, we have to do something about it.

When I visited housing secretary James Brokenshire, he endorsed the government’s desire to see improved design quality. I invited him to visit some RIBA-award-winning housing schemes to see what good looks like.

No use blaming the housebuilders. If we want something else, we have to do something about it

We have an opportunity to articulate the characteristics of place that might provide a more attractive alternative to the retail land model. If government is in the mood for some interventionist disruptions of this seemingly inexorable process, I offer nine principles:

Placemaking

A sense of place demands a mix of scale and uses that responds to access and transport infrastructure. A classic example is Bedford Park in west London by Norman Shaw, where scale builds up towards Turnham Green and Chiswick Common, and the structure of streets leads away from these focal points in a branching pattern.

A landscape of layers

Roads and pathways around homes should respond ­sensitively to the landscape. Connectivity to context is critical to the economic and social sustainability of new neighbourhoods.

Domestic scale

Frank Lloyd Wright, George Bernard Shaw, Parker and Unwin understood that elements of two-storey homes can be used to ensure that more substantial built form has accessible human scale. 

Consistent materials

One weakness of the housebuilder model is the ineffectual overuse of ‘character areas’. The best suburban neighbourhoods convey a sense of unified vernacular using local materials and craftsmanship.

Group composition

Generic simplicity and repetition of familiar typologies should be ameliorated with combinations of types, and occasional specials, carefully composed for spatial and picturesque effect. 

Iconography of home

Symbols of warmth, protection, privacy, safety and retreat: the arch, the hearth, the doorstep, the porch, the garden gate, the chimney breast. The best of recent schemes deploy these signifiers without resorting to pastiche.

A verdant setting

We should allow the natural world to dominate, deploying every opportunity for plants, shrubs and trees as part of the composition, at a practical level (for example as boundaries) and poetically in the composition of open space.

Occasional extravagance

Self-expression is occasionally indulged, providing a punctuation of unique features, special adaptations such as gateposts, gauged arches, twisted chimneys, oriel windows, turrets, balconies, arcades and roof terraces. Larger houses and apartment blocks should control and conclude vistas and create an interplay of deliberate symmetry or asymmetry.

Environmental sustainability

As RIBA argues, meeting Building Regulations is simply not enough. The cost of applying standards is more than compensated for by the additional value to be achieved and sustained from places with individuality and locally inspired character.

Many have been concerned that the revised NPPF fails to make specific requirements for the definition of quality. Unless we do, and local planning authorities are equipped with an appropriate armoury, the uniformed army of identical invaders will continue to overwhelm us.