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How can we reach quality housing in quantity?

Kieren Majhail

From POE to MMC, via context and inclusive places, RIBA West Midlands tackled various routes to better housing

Speakers at the housing debate including organiser Kieren Majhail and Sadie Morgan of dRMM
Speakers at the housing debate including organiser Kieren Majhail and Sadie Morgan of dRMM Credit: Kalpesh Patel

Artificial Intelligence, algorithms and the use of personal data to customise prefabricated modular housing technology all sound exciting solutions for the challenges facing mass housing in the UK. But such innovations seem a long way off. What about the more immediate, pressing issues of quality or quantity in the housing market – and how to achieve both? As Urban Splash, Homes England and Sekisui House announced their new partnership, an expert panel gathered to discuss these pressing issues at BDP in Birmingham.

The discussions explored how the drive for innovation in the market creates potential to quickly raise quantity. But could it also improve quality? Or will that suffer as a result of the pressure to deliver numbers quickly, as the effort to industrialise housing did in the 1960s?

Ben Derbyshire, president of the RIBA and a passionate advocate for quality in housing and placemaking, asked the panel what their silver bullet would be to fix it.

Pooja Agrawal, co-founder of Public Practice, was quick off the mark, highlighting the lack of resources within local authorities to deal with greater housing demand. ‘Local authorities are struggling to reach those targets and under that pressure often feel they have to push quantity over quality,’ she pointed out. Her silver bullet would be to build capacity in the public sector to deliver the homes. Could that be achieved by having a public practice cohort in every major city or region, I wonder?  Watch this space.

Local authorities found a defender in Andrew Fuller, Birmingham’s city design manager, who explained that it’s not purely about resources. The issue is compounded by many problems, he said, the main one being that local authorities are charged with delivering a certain number of homes within a certain period and have to rely on developers to build them. That involves negotiating on timings, costs and so on. His silver bullet would be to rebalance planning policy more in favour of design quality rather than numbers.

The meeting agreed that the quality of most new housing in the UK is an issue, so Derbyshire probed the panel on how best to bridge the gap.

Invaluable work has been done by the Design Council, with over 4,000 design reviews and strategic design services across the country, reported its director of architecture and built environment Sue Morgan. She explained how it uses its national network of over 450 built environmental experts to support and balance the quantity/quality conundrum. However, she noted the need look at the big picture and the importance of designing inclusive environments for everyone – particularly with an ageing population. To achieve this, she believes professionals and communities must work beyond the ‘red line’ of the site – across administrative boundaries and between disciplines – to change the industry’s focus, saying: ‘[To build more homes ]the industry doesn’t need to think in terms of units and dwellings, but about inclusive places where people want to live.’

Can we have quality and quantity of housing? Attendees gather at BDP’s Birmingham office.
Can we have quality and quantity of housing? Attendees gather at BDP’s Birmingham office. Credit: Kalpesh Patel

BDP head of housing Steve Marshall added: ‘Good homes need to be in good places, we need to think beyond the four walls of the building and … collaborate with different professionals to achieve this.’ He described BDP’s recent experience with the re-emergence of local authorities acting as developer clients and showed how this allows councils to use the developments to demonstrate exemplar design and to reinforce their own policies. Leading by example they can help to raise quality. Hopefully, the West Midlands can realise its aspirations and policies through such exemplar developments, and can achieve its ambition for a collective definition of high quality design through its design charter, which focuses on higher density and healthy, sustainable, inclusive growth.

The discussion turned to modern methods of construction and the use of MMC to create a standard high quality product. Ensuring quality is particularly important at scale, said Andrew Taylor, head of planning at Countryside Properties, who went on to how the developer achieves this with its closed panel, timber frame, factory homes. The house as a standard product is only part of creating a quality place, he added. ‘A standard template as part of the internal shell that can be used anywhere in the country allows you to achieve consistent quality while the local feel of the area can be provided by the external facade. Retain the standardised approach as much as possible to ensure the consistency of quality and build – but you also need to consider the setting and streetscape to create the place,’ he concluded

Dave Sheridan, executive chairman of Ilke Homes, looked at how modular and prefab homes can be adapted to work in any location or neighbourhood: ‘A standard core building can be dressed in whatever shape or form meets the local requirement’. He emphasised how modern methods of construction are not to blame for the perception of poor quality homes, pointing out that innovation actually provides better quality homes. However, he acknowledged there is generally a ‘race to the bottom rather than a race to the top as price is the priority – quality comes at a price and until that’s recognised in procurement, we’ll be bumping our heads against a wall.’

Louise Wyman, design lead at West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), brought the conversation back from the micro focus of the home as a unit to a wider, more strategic view, using her public sector experience as part of the senior leadership team at Homes England. Also recently appointed to the National Infrastructure Commission Design Group, chaired by Sadie Morgan, she said: ‘Collaboration and partnership are key words across government – however investment models and trusted relationships matter. Partnerships take time to develop; for example the Sekisui House/Homes England/Urban Splash investment partnership took two years to form.’ She commented that as the WMCA does not have planning powers – they remain with the  local authorities – it’s even more important to work collaboratively and creatively to build business confidence, establish trust and secure investment for the West Midlands. There’s a clear desire from the WMCA for the public, private and social sectors work together to optimise the environment for the people that live and work there.

A perfect example of partnerships and collaborative working in the West Midlands is the development of Icknield Port Loop. Adam Willets, associate director at Urban Splash, echoed Wyman, explaining how the developer works with people who share its values. The joint venture between Places for People and Urban Splash, with Canal and River Trust, Birmingham City Council and Homes England, has allowed the team to transform a significant brownfield site in Birmingham to create an exciting new neighbourhood. Willets explained the benefit of the other important partnership with Sekisui House, saying: ‘It will help us scale up the house concept to provide thousands of beautiful modular contemporary homes, allowing us to disrupt a little bit of the industry.’

The discussion was steered towards the issue of viability and being able to enforce quality, as Mary Parsons, group executive director at Places for People, explained that the National Planning Policy Framework encourages quality but viability seems to be an issue. ‘Once a site gets housing allocation and planning consent its value is multiplied enormously,’ she said. She went on to suggest: ‘We need to make sure that when we strategically plan the country there is no compromise on quality. If you want planning consent, quality should be a starting point.’

Birmingham’s Fuller described how the city is fortunate as many large sites delivered by the council are on land it controls. The problem arises when there are multiple land owners, and quality can become subordinate due to increases in land value. Wyman stressed the importance of the masterplanner and master architect as keepers of quality, and suggested a shift to larger scale developments would allow better control of both value and quality.

Derbyshire highlighted one of his key concerns – predictable performance and how the profession is not doing enough. ‘Shame on us in the housing sector! We don’t test, evaluate or provide performance information as compared to other sectors.’ Derbyshire has recently written about how post occupancy evaluation will be embedded in the RIBA Plan of Work. But Andrew Taylor and Mary Parsons both said POE doesn’t do enough to understand the long term effects on people’s health, wellbeing and happiness.

The profession talks a lot about people but actually do we really care about the benefits to people and communities? Sadie Morgan, founding director of dRMM, told the audience not to worry, as she has a plan. She explained how she is in the process of setting up the Quality of Life Foundation. ‘It has significant funding and will set out principles that developers will sign up to covering what actually matters and what actually delivers quality of life. Then the developers/developments can be rated by consumers, similar to hotel ratings.’ With Morgan’s role as chair of the Independent Design Panel for HS2 and as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, as well as her drive for design quality, is there anything she can’t fix?  Hopefully she has a soft spot for the West Midlands.

Can we recreate the quality and social value provided by historic examples such as Cadbury’s Bourneville Village? There is certainly the drive and ambition in the West Midlands to do so, both in the public and private sector, it just requires a bit of creative disruption.

Kieren Majhail is an architect with BDP and was one of the RIBA Journal’s Rising Stars of 2018

RIBAJ Rising Stars in association with Origin is a scheme to recognise and reward up and coming construction professionals. Rising Stars 2019 is now open for entries


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