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Too quiet on the home front

Simon Baker

While numerous initiatives have simply seen the housing crisis get worse, an RIBA event heard the call for revolution

Listening to the presentations.
Listening to the presentations.

It is clear that Britain needs a revolution in the scale, quality and funding of home building. England’s population is set to exceed 61 million in the next 20 years and by 2032 our life expectancy will increase by four years. Yet the think tank the King’s Fund reports that the number of new homes built each year is close to its lowest level for 60 years.

The Future Homes Commission report, How to Build the Homes and Communities Britain Needs, offers revolutionary answers to solve the crisis. Last November, the national RIBA conference in York set out to establish how the industry could meet the challenge of delivery and raise quality of life, a resonant argument in a region with the smallest new homes in Britain.

Sir John Banham, chair of the commission, challenged the industry, including local authorities, ‘not to waste a good crisis… we know what to do, how to do it and can afford it, without spending a cent of public money!’ 

The number of new homes built every year needs to treble from 100,000 now to around 300,000. But Britain’s need cannot be met by private house builders alone. The commission believes the country needs to build 150,000 affordable and privately ­financed homes for rent and shared ownership every year for a generation. 

With two million families on council waiting lists for affordable homes and annual expenditure of over £20bn on housing benefit, local authorities have the planning ­powers and land to kick-start a major building programme. Building 300,000 homes a year would add at least three percentage points to annual GDP growth.

Architects Alex Ely and Andrew Matthews.
Architects Alex Ely and Andrew Matthews.


Separate development

Separating development of homes for rent and shared ownership from market housing would benefit both sectors: market housing would not be compromised by the need to accommodate a percentage of ‘affordable’ homes; while towns and villages would have the number of new homes they need.

New homes-for-rent and shared-equity developments could be sold to institutional investors to generate significant returns. These funds in the UK are under-exposed to residential property compared to other Euro­pean economies; the Netherlands has the best pension fund system in Europe, with half its property assets in housing. The commission identified a potential funding stream of £220bn, with £40-50bn available now –­ primarily from local authority pension funds.

Kevin McGeough of the Homes and Communities Agency championed a collaborative approach with local authorities to identify land opportunities and develop strategic masterplans (see graph). Sustainable ‘place-making’ at scale should be comprehensively planned and strategically led to create distinct places, not just numbers of houses. 

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has added weight to this situation, saying: ‘We can either condemn ourselves to haphazard urban sprawl – the surest way to damage the countryside. We can cram ever more people into existing settlements, concreting over gardens and parks. Or we can build places people want to live: places which draw on the best of British architecture and design, which have their own identity and character.’ 

Large scale development needs long term investor involvement. Public sector orchestration of such initiatives could provide ­development-ready opportunities, allowing for multiple private sector partners. This would help secure both quality and speed of delivery, influencing value and ensuring variety. The UK has a significant legacy from which to learn. We can build on what we know works but we need to work collaboratively. 

Chris Thompson of CITU.
Chris Thompson of CITU.


Embedded quality 

Barry McCullough of Levitt Bernstein showed how such a collaborative, partnered approach between the local authority and the developer for Bermondsey Spa ensured that quality ran through the development from the first principles of urban strategy to the negotiation of the Section 106 agreement. This was supported by Andrew Matthews of Proctor and Matthews, who discussed context-specific masterplans as neighbourly extensions to existing conurbations. He described his practice’s approach through several schemes, demonstrating the importance of understanding how people live in order to create desirable homes with an emphasis on quality. Quality was a dialogue based not on aesthetics but value and the desirability of potential occupiers and neighbouring communities countering their opposition to new housing development. 

Only one in four people would consider buying a new build home and 29% think new housing is poor. We need to shift the public perception and encourage re-evaluation of new build homes. The Future Homes Commission strategy would diversify housing supply, giving developers such as CITU and Igloo more opportunity to influence design and develop a more consumer-responsive market to redress the balance with mass house builders.

Chris Thompson of CITU said consumers wanted space, light, considered and inspirational design, and certainty of cost in use. The developer is committed to providing a differentiated product where consumers are informed enough to make their own value judgements. Providing accessible, consistent and recognisable data about the efficiency of homes would empower consumers and move their decision-making away from location and number of bedrooms. The current system of valuation is a force for conservatism which restricts innovation. John Long of Igloo set out a mission to establish a new market and values. Its Green Street development in Nottingham provided the broader choice of homes the council required in an ‘impossible area’ of the city. Its marketing campaign: ‘What would you do with £50?’ used the £50 monthly saving on running costs to boost sales. 

Nigel Ingram of the Joseph Rowntree Trust acknowledged the ‘pioneers’ that influence the market. The Trust has three aims: to identify the root causes of poverty; support resilient communities and places; and ­respond positively to an ageing society. As design and as-built performance often diverge, we need replicable models that achieve the performance criteria they claim. 


Conflicting instructions

The industry is saturated with information on how our homes should perform. Many standards are confusing, overlap and even contradict. They are designed to protect and help the consumer, but are applied so differently that they are difficult to understand.

Alex Ely consolidates this thinking in  Mae Architects’ work to update the London Design Housing Guide. The firm aimed to embed a best practice benchmark in planning policy to cut out duplication and conflict. The guide sets out a minimum requirement but is not restrictive. The practice’s work in housing shows how these principles can be applied without constraining ingenuity. Providing future homes and communities requires a macro to micro approach resolving issues of appropriately sized efficient homes in well planned urban environments.

To build the number of quality homes and communities Britain requires, a collaborative approach with consumers, local authorities, land owners, developers and house builders is needed, and a shift in language to communicate the challenges and benefits effectively. 

Consistent factual information, greater transparency and better dissemination of research will help joined up thinking. Speakers at the event demonstrated the industry’s ability and expertise to design and deliver this, but to achieve the quantities of homes without losing quality will require leadership, creativity and fresh thinking. Each discipline needs to take responsibility for their actions and not wait for others to move first. 

Simon Baker is director at Chetwoods Architects and chair, RIBA Yorkshire



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