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Rethink: How Covid is rearranging the design of homes

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Josephine Smit

Coronavirus has thrown into sharp focus wellbeing, home working and healthy building in housing design. Four practitioners in the field discuss the impact of the pandemic on their thinking

Last month the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government allocated £900 million to more than 300 ‘shovel-ready’ projects to drive economic recovery and deliver up to 45,000 homes, as well as infrastructure projects. But Covid-19 is still expected to have an impact on overall numbers delivered, with a report by property consultant Savills for housing charity Shelter estimating that this year 171,000 new homes will be delivered in England, around a third down on last year’s total. The report, Impact of Covid-19 on social housing supply and residential construction, says that ongoing economic ripples from the pandemic could see 15% fewer homes built over the next five years and points to such possible consequences as increased overcrowding in both the social and private rented sectors.

This warning comes as research increasingly assesses the effects of living conditions on physical and mental health during the pandemic. The London Borough of Brent’s Independent Poverty Commission, which was led by Lord Richard Best, last month issued its report A fairer future – Ending poverty in Brent. This points to emerging evidence indicating a higher death rate from Covid-19 in more deprived areas, among lower paid workers and in areas with higher rates of household overcrowding, with those from BAME communities most affected.

The Homes at the Heart Campaign, which is backed by the National Housing Federation and other organisations, presented its own analysis of overcrowding, drawn from the English Housing Survey and a YouGov survey. Its report, Housing issues during lockdown: health, space and overcrowding, concludes that almost a third of adults in Britain have experienced mental or physical health problems because of the condition, or lack, of space in their home during lockdown and that 30,000 people spent lockdown in a home comprising one room.

‘We have become more acutely aware of how well or not our homes enable us to function – to work well, care for others, stay connected with friends and family, and keep healthy and happy. The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the critical importance of homes in meeting both our physical and emotional needs,’ wrote Sarah Weir, CEO of the Design Council, in A public vision for the home of 2030, a report looking at what the public want from their future home. The report informs the Home of 2030 competition, an initiative driving innovation for future affordable, efficient and healthy green homes, which is backed by the government, managed by RIBA Competitions and has an overall programme managed by a consortium led by BRE.

A study by the Quality of Life Foundation, based on research carried out before and during lockdown, has also highlighted how neighbourliness and community contribute to wellbeing. The Quality of life at home report joins the wealth of evidence being gathered from the pandemic to inform the creation of homes and neighbourhoods.

Here, practitioners working in housing give their take on how the sector is emerging and could evolve, and the part architects could play. Russell Curtis, founding director of RCKa, sees potential for greater diversity in the urban housing mix and re-intensification of the suburbs. Marianne Heaslip, associate principal at URBED, considers how the pandemic and home working are changing people’s experience of their home and community. Eugene Marchese, co-founder and director of Guild Living and chairman of Marchese Partners Architects, outlines a new model for later living for a sector hard hit by Covid-19. And Manisha Patel, senior partner of PRP Architects, gives a preview of some of the features of new housing typologies that could enable more flexible living and sets out the opportunity for architects.

Russell Curtis
Founding director, RCKa

We work across residential, community and public sectors at a range of scales, from a hostel for the homeless to suburban infill to mixed-use and masterplanning. We have specific expertise in community engagement and thought we’d encounter a real problem in not being able to meet people face-to-face. But rather than trying to replicate conventional community engagement online we’ve been working in different ways, and have developed a new toolkit for remote engagement. We’ve found we can achieve greater reach than we might in physical workshops as online engagement allows people to choose their level of participation. We will go back to face-to-face engagement, for sure, but it’s likely we’ll be supplementing it with online methods.

I can’t see London suffering as a result of what’s happened, but it will stimulate discussions about the future of the city centre and where we accommodate housing growth generally. There are some questions over density and location in the market and already there seem to be projects coming forward with fewer apartments and more family homes. There should be more diversity in the urban housing mix, although I’m not sure that will necessarily lead to more families living in central London. What we really need are more nuanced responses to accommodate different ways of living, perhaps evolving space standards to ensure all bedrooms have their own bathroom to allow for alternatives to the nuclear family. We also need to re-think internal space to enable home working, so people aren’t having to work on their laptop while sitting on the end of their bed.

While the centre of London emptied during lockdown, the suburbs have become busier as former commuters started working from home. That has focused attention on the outer boroughs, where there is an increasing demand for new housing. Planning policy needs to adapt accordingly. We could achieve higher densities with mid-rise buildings in the suburbs if we challenged restrictive separation distances between habitable room windows. This could also give residents a better connection with their neighbours and help combat loneliness and social isolation.

Too little consideration is given to mental health in residential design, but that has been brought to the fore now. Schemes that provide tiny homes without balconies, offset by shared communal space – something we’ve always had concerns about – now need a rethink.

Urban infill sites will remain as hard to bring forward as ever. The pandemic has provided further ammunition for those wanting to resist housing close to them, but we need to reframe the discussion from whether homes should be built, to what they should be like when they are.

Housing is in a state of flux right now because we have expanded permitted development (PD) rights and have impending changes to the planning system and we’re all still getting to grips with what it means. PD can be a useful tool in the right hands, but there is always the question of how responsibly it’s used by developers.

There will be buildings looking for new uses because of the pandemic and there is the potential for reusing these in different and creative ways. But that will rely on a sophisticated response and the risk is, of course, that some will exploit the new legislation to create substandard homes, as we have seen under existing PD powers.

Marianne Heaslip
Associate principal, URBED

Having gone through the 2008 recession when work fell off a cliff, I was braced for the same thing to happen this time, but so far it hasn’t. In our area of work – urban projects at all scales promoting environmental and social sustainability – clients are being cautious but projects are happening.

A number of existing clients have used this time to review projects and work on improving their funding position, while waiting to see what the implications will be for tendering and building work. Some householder clients who are planning to have their homes retrofitted are thinking about doing more or better integrating it with other work that will make their homes more comfortable as they age. The government’s announcement of the Green Homes Grant in July has also – perversely – prompted people to pause and review what work they will do.

We’re working, alongside Carbon Co-op, on the People Powered Retrofit community programme for homes in Greater Manchester. Through the national lockdown we stopped doing home surveys but we restarted in June with enhanced procedures. We used to interview householders at home about their experience of living in their property. Now we have a video call ahead of the survey and I think we’ll carry on doing that as it has worked quite well. It gives householders time to reflect and means we aren’t making judgements from sitting in their living room.

Through the pandemic there has been talk of poor housing conditions and that has generally meant overcrowding. There often seems to be an acceptance in the UK that our housing is a bit cold, damp and badly ventilated – which are all risk factors for Covid-19. 

Those who have been going out to nicely heated offices and are now working from home may be sitting next to a single glazed window and noticing the draughts in their homes. There is generally an upsurge in enquiries for retrofit as soon as weather gets colder and people switch on their heating. We have already had an increase in enquiries from householders since the Green Homes Grant was launched, but it hasn’t shifted the demographic so far as far as we can see. Generally our home retrofit clients are either approaching retirement or slightly younger and keen to make their family home an environmentally sound and better place to live.

If we have a boost in retrofit activity, it will have to be carefully managed. There is a concern that if retrofit isn’t done right it will damage the reputation of the industry as well as people’s homes. The Green Homes Grant alone won’t pay for a full deep retrofit, which makes it even more important interventions are carefully planned.

I live in Liverpool 8 and through the pandemic I’ve seen local neighbourhood centres like food, arts and environmental social enterprise Squash – who we’re working with – doing food deliveries and keeping communities going. Personally, it has been really pleasing to see organisations like Squash demonstrating their value and resilience in a situation like this. I think we have gained in our appreciation of home and our local environment and I hope that will result in more positive decisions about neighbourhoods like mine in the future.

Eugene Marchese
Co-founder and director, Guild Living, and chairman, Marchese Partners Architects

Credit: Guild Living

Covid-19 highlighted how, in many respects, UK models for later living, such as care homes, are not working – with tragic consequences. Rather than hindering our plans for Guild Living in the sector, the pandemic has reinforced the need for what we’re doing; Legal & General launched Guild Living just over a year ago to address and change the model.

In the UK later living developments either tend to have independent living for the healthy elderly or care settings for the more frail, with no bridge between them. That’s the way it used to be in Australia, where we’ve been focusing on the sector for around 15 years at Marchese Partners. But over the last five years we’ve seen the emergence in Australia of developments that combine independent living and care and that’s what Guild Living is bringing to the UK. We have developments in Bath, Epsom, Uxbridge and Walton at planning stage and are looking to bring forward six more next year as we want to deliver more than 3,000 homes over the next five years.

We haven’t needed to rethink the design of our schemes due to Covid-19; instead it has validated our approach. Each scheme has around 250-300 homes: a mix of independent living apartments, care apartments – which are independent but can provide care – and full care suites. Homes are broken down into a series of communities of eight to 12 people. By breaking the scale of the development down, we create family groups so residents are less likely to be lonely and it is easier to support them and potentially manage any virus outbreak.

Our developments have been designed with amenities – such as a café, restaurant, wellness centre and children’s nursery – which will be open to the local community. If there were an outbreak in one of our small community groups, they could lock down within the building, although the group would still have safe access to lounges and outdoor areas. We can enable people to live in isolation in our developments, but we don’t want them to feel isolated. In March we launched a research partnership with the University of Bath looking at healthy ageing to inform what we’re doing, and most recently that has been looking at loneliness and social isolation.

We’re already testing wearable technology with the aim of assessing 12 key biometrics for physical and emotional wellbeing in a single device – most devices currently available measure a few aspects at best. We’re also looking at voice activation, which could benefit less able residents and help minimise virus transmission by reducing contact with surfaces.

Whenever there is an event like this it affects the way you’re living. Older people will want more choice in how and where they live in the future. Moving into a retirement community is a big step for people and our online focus groups are showing us that people’s key concern now is to find a place to live where they or their loved one can be safe. We have a lot of work to do to help the market understand the priority being given to safety. We know we have got to convince people that we have addressed the issues.

Manisha Patel
Senior partner, PRP Architects

A lot of housebuilders that have been active in the cities have slowed the pace of development, so we’re seeing a shift to activity outside town centres. The pandemic has got a lot of people thinking about quality of life, physical and mental wellbeing and access to both private and communal space. Open space is as important to the home as internal space now.

For schemes that are on the drawing board we are introducing wider corridors for flats and reviewing private amenity space. We are incorporating workspace into layouts, but not within the bedroom because the research we’ve done has indicated that can be negative for mental wellbeing. Instead we’re looking at how areas like hallways can be utilised or spaces temporarily closed off. There is the potential for product designers now to come up with screens or folding walls to close off space for working.

Lockdown has given us the opportunity to think about how society will change and that needs to be reflected in housing. Previously, the market wanted grand bedrooms, but now the bedroom has a secondary function, while day-time living spaces – which are often open plan and don’t easily allow for separation – matter far more. So will there be demand for smaller bedrooms with workspace elsewhere in the home? These issues need to be debated by industry and policymakers, as there should be an impact on space standards.

We have come up with a number of typologies for future new-build housing. They include features like a studio space in the garden for working, where you can still make a short ‘journey’ to work. Ideas like this shouldn’t be retrofitted by homeowners; they should be incorporated into a new home for flexible use. The front garden became more important for social activity through lockdown, so we’re looking at designs where you can put a chair or bench there, rather than the usual car.

Streets have also become important for social interaction. Liveable streets programmes have taken off in many places, while forms like the mews and the traditional cul de sac have shown themselves to be quite successful in terms of community interaction.

In order to retain communities in cities we’ll have to think about the ability to access open space. We’ve worked on a lot of developments with pocket parks – which are an efficient, but limited way of providing open space – but we have to think about substantial spaces in high density housing developments that will make places attractive and let people exercise and relax in distinct groupings. It’s my goal to bring more open space into cities and optimise the spaces we already have.

I hope we’ll come out of this creating a lot more flexibility in housing design. The architect’s creativity and space planning skills will be even more important. There is an opportunity to bring open space into buildings and to look at how enhanced private amenity can improve conditions for people living vertically at high density. We’ve got to ensure no-one loses out and particularly that urban flat living is future-proofed and takes on board the learning from this extraordinary experience, so that improving the living environment becomes mainstream.

Illustration by Jason Lyon

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