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Words:
Julia Park

The government’s response to rising complaints by new homes buyers is, like the homes themselves, a step forward, but one that doesn’t go far enough

When Henry Ford said, ‘Quality means doing it right when no one is looking’, he wasn’t talking about housebuilding but it’s a maxim the industry could do well to adopt.

‘More Homes, fewer complaints’ is a critical new report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment. It was prompted by a rise in complaints from the buyers of new homes. Concerned that improvement in delivery is adversely affecting build quality, the select committee has made 10 recommendations:

  • DCLG should initiate steps to set up a New Homes Ombudsman.
  • Housebuilding sales contracts should be standardised.
  • Buyers should have the right to inspect properties before completion.
  • Builders should be required to provide buyers with a comprehensive information pack.
  • There should be a review of laws governing the rights of those buying new homes.
  • DCLG should commission a thorough review of warranties.
  • Housebuilders should adopt a new quality culture by adopting quality systems to ISO standards.
  • The industry should significantly increase skills training programmes.
  • A minimum standard should be set for compliance inspections.
  • Housebuilders should make the annual customer satisfaction survey more independent to boost customer confidence.

These are all very sensible, but could have gone further. Ideally, the information pack (recommendation 4) would be available to buyers before they complete. It should set out exactly what they can expect - which bits are guaranteed for two years, and which for five, 10, 20 and 60. It should offer a single point of contact when things go wrong and include details of the homeowners’ responsibilities too – the need to clear drains, gutters and traps, get the boiler serviced, change filters in MVHR units etc. It could wrap in the EPC, state the level of accessibility and water efficiency that the home has been designed to meet, and say whether the Space Standard was applied. Ideally, customer satisfaction surveys (number 10) would be supported by proper post-occupancy evaluation.

Prevention is better than cure. It would have been good to place more emphasis on the systemic causes and less on the remedies. Faced with a shortage of labour and materials, the big developers remain reluctant to embrace modern methods of construction (MMC) despite its potential to improve quality and delivery. The upfront cost is an issue, but a glance around the country reveals an industry that is stubbornly resistant to change. MMC would demand new ways of operating and a new house types. Political backtracking on zero carbon has caused developers to sit back and see whether the government really means it. Effort is usually geared to finding the cheapest way to ‘pass’, rather than rising to the challenge, and competition works against sharing knowledge.

As housing gets more complicated, responsibility is spread more thinly. The buck passes between the client, the designer, engineers, planners, building control, the builder, product manufacturers, suppliers, sub-contractors, insurers and the customer. It’s become too easy to say it’s someone else’s fault when something goes wrong. Occasionally a problem is genuinely unavoidable, and sometimes more than one party is to blame. When architects are involved (not nearly often enough) we have a responsibility to make our designs ‘buildable’, but design and build has detached us from the build process; not enough architects now come face-to-face with a cavity tray.

It’s easy to see why the select committee chose to narrow its focus, and it’s right to say that responsibility for build quality lies with ‘the builder’. No doubt the ISO Standards (number 7) are extremely good, but instilling a culture of ‘doing it right when no one is looking,’ feels like a less bureaucratic way to restore customer confidence and professional pride.

Julia Park is head of housing research, Levitt Bernstein


 

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