The UK is in desperate need of new homes. But the insatiable thirst means developers are able to spew out of pokey, monotonous properties, safe in the knowledge they’ll still be snapped up.
Demand is greater than ever: New households are forming at nearly twice the rate as new homes are being constructed. And the lack of supply has been blamed for soaring house prices.
However, the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) fears that more developments built in haste could increase the number of badly designed new homes.
"The UK is blighted with unimaginative, poor quality houses that people don't want to live in but have little other choice," warned president Angela Brady.
“In their rush to build the Government must avoid the temptation to reduce current standards and give the go-ahead for builders to produce another generation of poor quality homes,” she said separately.
The high-rise concrete blocks, which were the typical answer to providing new homes quickly during the 50s and 60s, illustrate what happens when the needs of households aren’t adequately considered.
As well as being considered an eyesore, the developments quickly became synonymous with social problems and defragmented communities.
What kind of homes do people want?
At the moment only one in four people would actively choose to live in a new home.
Among the biggest reasons for dissatisfaction with new homes today is lack of space and natural light, according to research from Riba, while there is a common perception that homes built more recently are of lower quality.
Riba is campaigning for minimum space standards to be implemented for new homes in England. It points out that British homes are already among the smallest in Western Europe.
As a relatively small island, a lack of space is one of our biggest issues. As a result developers are often under pressure to guarantee a certain number of new homes in scheme. And the temptation to maximise profits can lead to a reduction of size in order to sell as many units as possible.
But there are ways to create new housing developments where people aren’t packed in like sardines.
Space to live
“It’s not about having as many houses as possible, it’s about creating a great sense of space,” comments Tom Bloxham MBE, chairman of Urban Splash.
He agrees that people tend to prefer older buildings because they are more spacious, but is against regulating for minimum standards: Let people decide what they want, he comments.
Part of the solution to cramped homes is to sell property by the square foot or square metre, rather than the number of bedrooms.
This would help to solve the problem of new-builds cramming in as many bedrooms as possible to create the illusion of a larger home, said Bloxham.
The best way to create a feeling of light and space within limited means is to open up the house completely, according to Tony Dowse, chairman of Environ Communities: “It makes a difference to how big the house feels... Hallways and landings are a waste of space... Space needs to be functional.”
Small tricks such as large windows and doors can help to make the garden and outdoors feels like an extension of the house, he added.
New shouldn’t mean bland
Too many developers look backwards when they create new homes or ignore the needs of people by failing to factor in crucial aspects of living such as storage, according to Dowse.
And he’s not wrong: 69% of people moving into new-build homes said there wasn’t enough space for their possessions, according to Riba’s research.
Therefore, many people buy with a view of selling up in four years, rather than investing time and money in a quality home to live where they can live in the long term.
It’s a mindset Environ Communities aims to alter by providing quality ‘lifetime’ homes with added flexibility, so that people can adapt and change their home in line with their lifestyle.
For instance, each house in the new development Keepers Court is designed with ‘pocket doors’ so that the dining and living rooms can be separated or kept as one larger space.
Bloxham agrees that more developers should be looking to break the mould to create homes with character and enough room.
“New-builds can be interesting buildings and have interesting floor-plans,” he insisted.
Indeed, Chips in Manchester is just one example of Urban Splash’s refreshing approach to new development. The scheme is made up of three shipping containers stacked on top of each other. And rather than boxing up the apartments into segments, the bathroom and kitchen are centred in the middle, to create a larger are of living space around the edge.
Old to new
While lack of land is commonly cited as the reason behind Britain’s teeny tiny new homes, there are plenty of large buildings and areas crying out for regeneration.
As such Urban Splash specialises in such projects and works within the different building constraints to create exciting new homes.
Phase 1 of its regeneration project Park Hill in Sheffield, which has breathed life back into a 1960s block of almost 1,000 flats, has recently been shortlisted for a Riba Stirling Prize. But it has also tackled a number of dilapidated factories and mills.
Other developers are following their lead and creating thoughtful housing in place of decaying estates.
The Ferrier estate in south London has seen a transformation from anti-social large cement buildings of insular and inward design, at the hands of Berkeley.
The new Kidbrooke Village has been specifically designed to become an extension of the wider community rather than a separate estate. Rather than cramming in housing, only 35% of the land is to be developed with 136 acres of open space, including parks and sports facilities. Housing has been designed with courtyards and views of the parks.
Green as well as pleasant
Building on undeveloped land is unpopular and contentious but, as creating new housing is one of the biggest issues for the country, it’s arguably an inevitable consequence.
The Ecogrove is a development of 89 homes that has recently won planning permission within London’s Green Belt. Its approach shows how sensitive design can create a solution to housing demands while supporting green spaces.
Sustainability is at the scheme’s core alongside support and improvement of the local community farm.
All homes on the development are designed to be zero-carbon, through reduced energy use and energy loss, alongside micro energy generation technology. They will use solar orientation to maximise daylight and warmth in homes.
The scheme also ensures that each home will have private outdoor space and will be provided with a Garden Growing Kit, which includes advice and tools to grow a garden and food.
Riba says that it expects new homes to now factor in sustainability as standard. It is also supportive of schemes, such as the 10 year award, that encourage long-term design and functionality to be at the heart of planning.
But it says that ultimately the Government must introduce minimum space standards or else it will fail an entire generation of new-build homebuyers.
With such a great need for housing, we can’t afford today’s new homes to turn into tomorrow’s unsalable slums. But unless builders put real people's needs at the heart of planning and design, that’s a real danger.
What do you think? Do we need minimum space standards for all new housing?