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Let’s solve the real housing crisis

Paul Bulkeley

The short design lives of new builds combined with a lack of love for post-war homes could see the housing shortage becoming far, far worse says Paul Bulkeley

How long do you think your house was designed to last? Let me put it another way. When do you think your house will be demolished? Houses generally get replaced when it is cheaper to replace them than it is to maintain them or when more money can be made by knocking them down.

Would you knock your house down if the roof finish or kitchen needed replacing? Probably not. What about when it no longer meets your requirements? It’s likely you would move or extend, borrowing against the value of your home. But what if the kitchen, carpets, decoration and heating, roof and facade all needed replacing at the same time? It would not make economic sense to keep it, particularly with VAT pushing up any repair bill. You might well consider knocking it down – a developer certainly would. The only thing stopping you would be how much you love your (probably old) house.

As an industry, we are not currently solving a housing crisis, we are creating one. The true crisis is that our houses are not being built to last. Instead their construction is defined by speed, cost cutting and skin-deep branding. It is not that houses necessarily need to be built to last: where I grew up in the Congo, you and your neighbours could build a house over a long weekend. It was a basic mud hut, fit for purpose, cost next to nothing and was cheap to maintain. You might need to build yourself a new one every 15 years but that required very limited resources, so no problem. The rate of production easily kept up with the rate of replacement.

In the UK things are very different. Our houses often take over two years to build, including the full development process; they cost around 30% of our lifetime income and take 30% of our life to pay off. For these reasons the UK needs houses that will last.

  • Coates House, Nailsea as office block before work takes place.
    Coates House, Nailsea as office block before work takes place.
  • Coates House, Nailsea redesigned by Snug Architects with 55 flats – but this is only part of the solution.
    Coates House, Nailsea redesigned by Snug Architects with 55 flats – but this is only part of the solution.

Let’s look at the big picture. There are approximately 25 million houses in England. Since the 1950s we have been adding on average 220,000 houses to the housing stock annually, and in 2016/17 we build 227,000, including 37,000 conversions, largely under prior approval. House building peaked at 350,000 homes annually in the mid 1930s and 1960s. It has been estimated that 240,000 houses are currently needed each year for the increasing number of new households. Critically, this figure excludes any reductions in the housing stock. In addition to catering for new households we need new homes to replace those that are demolished. How many more houses might that add to the figures? 

There is very limited data and no apparent consensus on the rate of demolition and what that demands in terms of a rate of replacement. In the past, during times of slum clearance it has been as high as 100,000 a year. Records suggest that around 21,000 houses were removed from the stock annually in the 1980s and since 2006/07 this has been steadily falling from 22,000 to just under 10,000 in 2016/17. This is an historic low but the removal rate is likely to accelerate as ‘young’ housing stock – the 50% of our homes built in the past 50 years – ages.

If we assume that only 10,000 houses a year are demolished, as they are currently, we would need a replacement rate of 0.04% of the total housing. Follow this through and you can see that on this basis it would take 2500 years to replace all of our current housing stock. Few houses will last this long. As the oldest houses in Britain are little more than 500 years old and limited in number this seems a ludicrously low figure to assume in perpetuity. Over 75% of the housing stock is now well over 50 years old. But these long lifespans don’t predict what will happen to more modern buildings. Historic homes, often of masonry construction, are buildings that survived. In Britain, we love our period properties so we care for them and they last. Can the same be said of more recent homes?

Historic rates of replacement are a poor guide to the future. Most demolitions today are of post-war homes. The simple truth is this: when we don’t love where we live its life expectancy drops dramatically. Modern methods of construction, unsurprisingly, don’t come with 2500-year warranties. We are not even looking at a century’s lifespan. Today we build for speed. We too often build with materials that only have a 15-20 year manufacturer’s warranty, and all them will need to be replaced at roughly the same time. In many cases it will make more economic sense to start again, not least if there is a shortage of land and little love for the house itself.

This may sound like good news for architects like us who specialise in housing, and very good news for our developer clients, but it is not sustainable and wouldn’t be even if it were economically viable. The challenge is that the vast majority of our current housing stock was built post war. That is 15M homes that are less robust and less loved than our historic housing stock. If, instead of assuming our houses will last for 2500 years, we assume a more realistic 200 years, the required rate of replacement increases to 0.5%. This would demand an additional 125,000 houses a year on the housing target – half again on top of current projections. In the worst case scenario the unloved pre-war home’s chance of being demolished demands a replacement rate of 1% or 250,000 houses a year. That would more than double current targets.

And this is still not the true measure of the crisis. What if, in addition to this, it turns out that today we are constructing buildings with even shorter lifespans? When all warranties expire and modern houses need many essential components replacing, all at the same time, one may well find it more economical to replace all these snazzy new homes. If so we might need to rebuild a far higher proportion of our new housing stock and within as little as 40 years. On this basis we could need to build as many as 625,000 houses a year just to maintain numbers. This is an unsustainable legacy to leave to future generations.

Our rush to build houses quickly is in danger of creating a scenario where houses need replacing faster than we can construct them. This will result in a significant number of households becoming homeless. At current rates of construction and on the basis of these projections some 400,000 households a year could be homeless by 2060. Now that is a real crisis. These assumptions may be overly pessimistic – we hope so, we would rather know so.

The act of building houses must become more than a short term economic activity

What can be done? We must build houses that last at least a lifetime and most importantly build above the true rate of replacement.  To solve a crisis you need to know the true source of the problem. Our problem is the same as it has always been: Vitruvius’s Firmitas, Commoditas, Venustas. We need houses that are cost effective to maintain, adaptable and loved. At Snug Architects we are currently repurposing a lot of offices though office to residential conversion. This may double the life of those buildings. They may even make it to their 100th birthday.

This is part of the solution but it does not solve the crisis. It is suburban housing that we must tackle. Legislators, planners, designers, lenders and developers must work together to establish a viable approach to the delivery of houses that are built to last. The act of building houses must become more than a short term economic activity. It must become a generous act and an investment in our collective future; more national infrastructure than asset class. Perhaps we should even be receiving tax breaks for maintaining our homes.

If we can’t expect this through developers’ own inclinations we must make it in their interest. If those who deliver houses had ownership of the future things might be different. We have found it is always the case that those clients who retain some measure of ownership invest more in quality. We need those who create to have ownership of the consequences. Then they will take responsibility and generosity will become self-interest. This approach is high capital cost but long life. The Congolese option of low cost, short life seems unlikely to work in our drawn out, costly and highly contested approach to planning, though post-war prefabs shows that it can be possible – and many outlived their extended design life.

Whichever approaches we take we need to focus on solving the real crisis. This is a crisis we are still busy creating. By all means let’s build fast and we certainly need to build more, but let’s build houses that people will love. This, above all things, will delay their replacement.

Paul Bulkeley is founding director of Snug Architects



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