The home of bad design

The shoddy quality of many British new-build houses is a disgrace—but one that has begun to be addressed. Now, cuts and a loosening of regulations could make things worse
November 17, 2010
Pleasing development: the Accordia project, in Cambridge, became the first housing scheme to win the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling prize in 2008

Given the choice, which would you rather have, a new book or a used one? Some new pairs of socks, or old ones? A second-hand car or the latest model? New every time, right? But now try this: a brand new house or an old one? If you’re like most of us, you’d prefer an old house to a newly constructed one. Only a third of Britons will even consider buying a new-build.

It’s tempting to put this down to old-fashioned snobbishness. But, when polled, the reason most people give is that they think modern houses are featureless and mean, and new housing estates lifeless. But are new homes really that bad? And, with the government busily recasting the planning system—a flagship localism bill will be published any day—will they get better or worse?

Four years ago Cabe, the government’s architectural watchdog, published an audit of a sample of new homes by the big housebuilders—Barratt, Wimpey, Persimmon and so on—between 2004 and 2006. This used a now well-established national measure, Building for Life, to score the homes against a range of criteria, including architectural integrity as well as sustainability, quality of public realm and social mix. Its findings made for depressing reading. Only one in five were assessed as good or very good, and 29 per cent were poor—meaning, in Cabe’s view, that they should not have been given planning permission. Two years later, the exercise was repeated for “affordable” housing association homes built between 2006 and 2008. Again only a fifth were assessed as good or very good, and another fifth were poor. And last year, a Building for Life audit of new homes found that a shocking 54 per cent of the schemes backed were poorly designed. Some wit rechristened the programme “Building Slums for the Future” and it stuck.

It is worth comparing these findings with audits of “core” public services—after all, while private housing is a market good, providing affordable housing is a public service in the same way as education, healthcare or policing is. Where a fifth of new affordable homes were judged poor, only 7 per cent of councils and 4 per cent of schools were, on last inspection, deemed poor or inadequate (the equivalent measure).

Yet these housing audits went almost unnoticed in the national press. Why? For one thing, many journalists who work on national media live in comfortable old houses, in areas where the little new housing is of above-average standard. They may drive past a new development and shudder, but it is not an issue that affects them. And most architectural critics on national newspapers consider covering anything as banal as “volume housing” beneath them. Their sights are fixed on the newest architectural icon or latest prize.

Metropolitan journalists also tend to have little sense of how much has been built. It is true that last year, fewer homes were built in England than in any peacetime year since 1924. With 5m individuals on local authority waiting lists, and the proportion of the population owning a home now declining for the first time in a century, we desperately need to build more, especially in the southeast, where demand is greatest. A significant number have gone up nevertheless. In 2007 alone, nearly a quarter of a million new homes were completed across Britain—that’s more homes than there are in Manchester. Even last year we completed enough homes (150,000) to build a city the size of Coventry.

A couple of new housing developments have recently made an impression on me, though in contrasting ways. The Accordia scheme in Cambridge, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley, is not perfect, but it is good enough to have won the 2008 Stirling prize. It is a mix of nearly 400 terraced houses, semi-detached villas and flats, nearly a third “affordable.” The scheme is varied enough not to feel uniform but, through a thoughtful layout and consistent use of materials, remains of a piece. The design, mainly in rough yellow brick, is modern, but unflashy and full of vernacular and classical echoes. The homes are light, solid and generous, and the houses provide an ingenious mixture of private, semi-public and overlooked public space. Cars, parking spaces and turning spaces are the bane of every house designer’s life. Almost any scheme that caters to them comes to feel slightly suburban. But here the architects have made the best of a necessity, merging roads and pavements into “shared spaces,” and hiding cars in rear garages or tucking them under first-floor rooms.

In Birkenhead, I stumbled across a development of a different kind. Around 40 terraced homes put up by a small developer who, I was told, went bust before finishing them. These were narrow, uniform three-storey homes, with tiny rooms and blank, cheap redbrick facades. Each house had a minuscule grass back garden surrounded by high wooden fencing. No provision had been made for bins or recycling boxes, which slouched aimlessly beside front doors. With kitchens placed to the rear, narrow pavements and onstreet parking, close to a busy road, this was not a place children could safely play. A few of these homes have been sold, some rented, though others remained boarded up. Alain de Botton described homes by Barratt and co as the Turkey Twizzlers of contemporary architecture. These, produced by a cowboy developer, were the equivalent of a fatty, roadside burger.


Why does this matter? Many of the reasons are utilitarian. Family life is harder to enjoy when you can’t fit a dining table and a couch in the living room (and we are building plenty of homes where you can’t); where there is nowhere to keep a bike or store a suitcase; no place for children to do their homework; no way of adapting a home if someone becomes ill or disabled. And the costs of developments with no links to public transport, shops or amenities, or that hemorrhage carbon dioxide and hurt the environment, are obvious.

Our relations with others are also shaped by our homes. There is a small library of research suggesting that layout and traffic management affects how well neighbours get on, the extent to which children play outside, and anti-social behaviour. Simple things like ensuring public spaces and common parts are overlooked to provide “eyes on the street” can make a huge difference to the feel of a place and its crime levels.

Architects are inclined to overestimate the elevating impacts of good design. Couples in Holland Park mansions still quarrel. Dons, cloistered in medieval serenity, still get depressed. But design does have an effect on our wellbeing—and where an individual or family is living close to the edge, poor architecture can help push them over it.

There are also less utilitarian reasons why we might care about the way new settlements are designed. We value Venetian palazzi, Georgian townhouses, 19th-century Parisian apartment blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright homes and modernist steamship villas not just for their functionality and durability (modernist homes notoriously tend to score poorly on these), but for their aesthetic character: their beauty. Architectural quality is as good a measure of a culture or civilisation as any.


New homes have tended to take one of two forms. The most common, outside city centres, is redbrick, pitched-roof houses. At best these have a picturesque, backward-looking charm, just as they are meant to. But the huge majority don’t attain this. The brick is uniform throughout the country, shiny and synthetic. Elevations and interiors are monotonous and unbespoke, the detailing historically illiterate. Cabe’s analysis has shown that many of these schemes are so stupid that they don’t even work for the developer—more thoughtful layouts could allow them to get more dwellings onto a site.

The other form new housing takes is the block of “luxury flats.” Advertised as “offering stunning views and all the benefits of inner-city living,” these have proliferated in once-rundown city centres, industrial wastelands and abandoned docks, though smaller versions have taken hold in poorer suburbs, seaside towns and on the edge of university campuses. Generally a standard steel frame construction, though sometimes unusual in shape, their boring engineering is disguised with patterned cladding, and/or zany balconies.

For all their outward differences, these new types of home have a lot in common. For one thing, both tend to be mean. It is hard to think of any consumer product that has declined in quality over the last century. But, in Britain at least, this is true of housing. A hundred years ago we were building the most generous dwellings in Europe. Now we build the smallest. According to the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), the average room size in a new English home is 15.8 sq metres, whereas in almost all other EU countries, rooms tend to be 20 to 30 sq metres, with some, such as Denmark, getting close to 40 sq metres. And even better quality schemes tend to be marred by ugly roads—local authority highway departments are less interested in the look and feel of streets than their efficiency and safety. Many still look askance on trees.

What can be done? Improving the design of housing turns out to be a hugely more complicated business than the unsuspecting homebuyer might think. There are a range of “players” who shape how housing turns out. Let’s distinguish five.

First are the politicians: from government ministers down to local councillors sitting on planning committees. The degree of commitment and understanding that they bring to housing policy and planning makes all the difference.

The second set of players is made up of design and development professionals: architects, planners, urban designers, transport engineers and experts in environmental construction and conservation. Some work in or for the public sector, others for developers. But the quality of new housing depends crucially on their training, ability and engagement.

Then there are the commercial developers. Most new housing in Britain is built by them. Some ten national companies are responsible for around half of all new homes, the rest are built by smaller national, regional or local businesses. These days, affordable housing tends to be delivered as part of larger commercial schemes. But sometimes housing associations also play the role of developer.

The fourth group shaping the quality of new housing is consumers: people who buy and rent new homes. Here, as elsewhere, supply responds to demand. At least in theory.

Finally, you have the government and semi-governmental bodies—government departments, funding bodies such as the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), and expert organisations like Cabe and English Heritage—who, along with ministers, determine policy, regulate development, set standards, dispense advice and distribute resources.

You only have to identify these groups to see the problem. New housing is one area where the simplistic terms of a lot of policy debate—Tory localism versus Labour centralism, regulation versus choice, freeing up professionals versus making them more accountable—are decidedly unhelpful. As one senior government expert put it to me: “If creating lovely neighbourhoods was simple, we’d have fixed it by now.”


Labour’s legacy in domestic architecture is not the sort of thing to make you renew your party membership. It began well, with Tony Blair and others affirming the importance of good design. But their commitment appeared to wane. It became a struggle to get a cabinet minister, let alone the PM, to attend the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building awards, set up in 2001, not to mention housing awards. By the time of the economic crisis, Labour had reverted to default: rightly committed to increasing the number of new homes, but too ready to see an emphasis on “quality” as detracting from this.

Labour did boost support and training for elected planning committee members, and introduce reforms to make relations between developers and planning authorities more constructive. Yet the calibre of planning committees remains patchy. Planners and architects love to trade horror stories about this: major plans rejected because the councillors on the particular planning committee don’t like patterned brick, or do, or favour onstreet parking, or don’t.

There are also issues with the professionals. Leaving aside the question of whether we have the ability to build beautifully on a wide scale anymore, local authority planners, architects and other housing professionals tend to be overstretched and under-skilled. Britain does not have a strong tradition of urban design, as opposed to architectural education. And perhaps the greatest challenge is simply that architects and the related professions only have a minimal input into many new housing developments—they are either not engaged at all, or asked to add a few flourishes to a standard design.

Most architects and planners, however, will tell you that the real problem lies with the developers. The big national “volume” housebuilders appear to have a much larger share of the market in Britain than they do in other comparable countries. And most work with a model that does not prioritise quality. This can be partly explained in economic terms. Because demand for housing is much greater than supply, developers can get a good return on a poor product. The huge boom in blocks of flats was fuelled partly by buy-to-let investors who often bought in bulk before construction had begun, and showed little interest in quality. The best developers in Europe tend to take a long-term stake in their properties, as landlords and service providers. This gives them an incentive to invest in well designed and built neighbourhoods—but British developers almost all aim to build, sell and move on.

But developers’ attitudes feel as much a matter of culture as economics. Many experts insist the volume housebuilders could make more money if they invested in innovation and quality. As one long-time observer said to me: “Imagine the British car industry before the rise of Japan. That is where British housebuilding is today.” The industry, he adds, invests almost nothing in customer insight: “There is a huge market of wealthy consumers who right now will never even look at a new home. The housebuilders make next to no attempt to change that, to understand what these potential buyers want.”

Ironically, consumers are likely to remain the least powerful of the groups influencing the quality of new homes. Part of the problem is that most of us are relatively inexperienced at buying homes. Anna Scott-Marshall, head of public affairs at Riba, cites research that shows that while many first-time buyers report being satisfied with their purchase immediately after it, their satisfaction tends to fall off quickly after a year as they come to realise the deficiencies of the homes and neighbourhoods they have bought into. Perhaps it is also true, as Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, said to me, that the failures of postwar housing have given housebuyers conservative tastes. “They will take almost anything as long as it can’t be mistaken for a 1960s development.”

But the real problem is that, with demand dramatically outstripping supply, most buyers can’t afford to be too discerning. Adrian Harvey, head of policy at Cabe, describes the consumer as “the ghost at the feast.”

And finally, there have been weaknesses in national policy, including a spaghetti junction of housing standards and a lack of incentives for local authorities to allow well-designed schemes. There has also been timidity at the top of government. It is unfashionable to say so, but dirigisme is sometimes necessary, especially when standards of a public service are extremely poor. Would setting aggressive requirements for housing design, alongside classroom teaching and waiting lists, have worked? Perhaps.


Yet it is important to acknowledge that the picture is not quite as bleak as I—or the housing audits—have made it sound. Everyone seems intent on talking down new Labour’s record at present, including many who will soon be looking back on it with nostalgia. Architectural critics are no exception. Owen Hatherley has just published a book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, offering an indictment of the architecture and planning of the past 15 years. This has been widely praised by journalists as a “mostly accurate” assessment of new Labour’s urban legacy—“a scandal,” according to Rowan Moore, the Observer’s architectural critic, “whose monumental proportions are only now, and dimly, being perceived.”

In fact, the last government’s record was exactly what you would expect: lacking in many respects but superior to what went before. The proportion of development on greenfield declined, and the proportion on brownfield increased. People moved back into inner cities, most of which look and feel better than they did a decade ago. The rise of clone shops led to some hollowing out of town and city centres, but investment in the built public realm—parks and public transport—went up. After a rocky beginning, the design quality of most public buildings improved, if it could have been better. Even the department for transport has come to recognise that streets are not just things to drive cars down. They are slowly becoming less cluttered and more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.

The record on housing was not all bad either. It’s harder than it was to get permission for very low-density developments, or ones with no connection to public transport. There is anecdotal evidence that a trend towards gated communities, chronicled in Anna Minton’s fine book Ground Control, has fallen off. Lessons about the nature of “unowned” space and its tendency to attract crime have been absorbed. And social housing tends to be better integrated with private, lessening the stigma attached to living in public housing. (It remains to be seen whether the proposal to cap housing benefit will affect this over time, see Tim Leunig’s article, p16.) Indeed, with government and housing associations rightly demanding high standards in return for public investment, affordable homes are often better-designed and built than those at the bottom end of the private market.

The best defence of Labour’s record, however, is that, at long last, new housing quality has begun to improve. Cabe and the HCA tend to look to Building for Life as the main tool through which to drive up quality. Set up nine years ago, this evaluative framework is made up of 20 criteria, encompassing what most of us would understand by design (“Does the scheme feel like a place with distinctive character?”) as well as more social and environmental factors (“Is there a tenure mix that reflects the needs of the local community?”). Schemes score or fail to score a point against each criteria; those that get more than 14 overall are deemed of a good standard, those with more than 16 of very good standard.

Architects and urbanists tend to view Building for Life with ambivalence. Can good design really be captured in such objective formulae? The architectural canon is full of great houses that would score poorly against Building for Life. But, for all its limitations, this framework is proving a surprisingly powerful tool. Local authorities now must ensure that all developments with ten or more homes are evaluated, at both planning stage and completion, by accredited assessors.

This in turn is having an effect on some of the big developers. Berkeley Group has committed to only going ahead with schemes that score at least 14 on Building for Life. Barratt is likely to make the same commitment. Eventually, others will follow. And after years in which housing associations undervalued design, they are also upping their game: their funding body, the HCA, now insists all schemes score well against Building for Life. As Matthew Bell, head of education at Cabe, says: “Looking back over the last few years, I can’t think of a single one of the factors that make for good housing that’s moving in the wrong direction.”

There are other encouraging developments. London mayor Boris Johnson is committed to introducing minimum space standards for new homes in the capital, inspired by the Parker Morris standards, introduced in 1961 and abolished in 1980. He has to get national sign-off but, if he does, other local authorities could well follow.

standards under threat

Now, however, in hard economic times, what effect will the coalition have on new homes and neighbourhoods? The government insists it will improve quality while increasing quantity and, in a typically Cameron Conservative way, it is looking to a combination of markets, local accountability and light-touch regulation to deliver this. All housing targets are to be abolished and local authorities will be given financial incentives to build more homes. At the same time, communities are to have a greater voice in determining the number and character of these homes. Building for Life, or something like it, will remain as a national standard, but government won’t so much enforce as encourage its use.

The coalition government does seem to be comfortable talking about housing quality. Many coalition MPs represent beautiful rural constituencies; they and their constituents don’t like to see them despoiled. They are right, too, that incentives for approving development need to be increased—especially for good quality projects. (The last government offered modest financial incentives for quantity, but these paid no heed to quality.) And it is probably true that, in some cases, giving a greater voice to local people could encourage more and better homes.

Yet it hard to believe that this set of policies can both deliver the large number of homes Britain needs, and improve design standards. Abolishing housing targets and devolving down responsibility will surely lead to fewer new homes built where they are needed most, as residents in the south resist new development. This will further strengthen the position of the developer at the expense of the homebuyer, driving down quality. Local authority cuts are likely to fall heavily on planning departments and environmental services. There will also be a lot less money for affordable housing, and the public infrastructure that successful new developments need. National bodies like Cabe, English Heritage and the HCA, which work to promote design standards, are going to be closed or reduced in size and influence. (Cabe’s sponsor department, the department for culture, media and sport, has withdrawn funding and Cabe is likely to close by April.) It sounds like a jerry-builder’s dream.

The design of homes is rarely a subject of national debate, but it should be. Decisions will rebound down the generations. Things have at least been getting better, albeit against a low standard. Now they could easily get a lot worse.