17th June 2015

ON ‘POPULAR’ HOUSING DESIGN

17th June 2015

ON ‘POPULAR’ HOUSING DESIGN

Ben Marshall wrote a good, short blog last week summarising various pieces of work Ipsos Mori has done on the relationship between design and public support for new housing. In a nutshell, he argues, better design quality is needed to lock in what seems to be a “softening ‘anti’ sentiment” in public attitudes towards the building of new homes.

But what is design quality? One of IM’s recent pieces has been for Create Streets (of which TOWN’s directors are members); this found that “unpopular” types of housing can reduce local support for new homes by almost two-thirds, with “popular” design being that which is “the most conventional in form, style and building materials”.

Four thoughts on this. First, there is a valid point to be made about the generally desultory state of ordinary domestic architecture in Britain. Many homes on suburban housing estates are built without the involvement of a proper architect; and if some volume housebuilders are at one extreme then at the other are supposedly progressive architects in search of perpetual novelty who sometimes seem incapable of drawing something with a proper front door. There’s a wide open space in between in which have been scattered a relatively tiny number of projects that, whilst excellent, are disproportionately lauded simply because they are so rare. Otherwise, all people really have to go on are the places they like, and these are overwhelmingly going to be older and “conventional”.

Second, people’s appreciation of ‘good design’ is often more focused than it should be on what buildings look like (and what buildings look like). Not enough attention is given to whether the built environment works well spatially. Good urbanism can be incredibly forgiving of bad buildings, and I think people often project onto “ugly” or “boring” architecture a frustration that arises from the lack of a sense of place or poor connectivity – common problems in new development areas. To put it another way, people generally like the look of places that are (or rather were) built around people, but almost all new developments are built around the car.

Third, people are mistrustful that the planning system can discern or discriminate between good and bad design. In many towns where there is intense pressure for housing development on fringe sites, it is hard to tell the difference between a scheme that is built following a careful and democratically accountable local planning process and one resulting from an opportunistic planning application aggressively rammed through at appeal. Schooled in use-based, zonal thinking and focused on mitigating negative impacts, many planners are unable and/or unwilling to engage critically in the design merits of projects. It is often hard to resist the thought that, if development was better in an age before planning, perhaps we could or should go back to that age.

Fourth, there is a big difference in the dynamics of ‘design for housing’ between London and most other places. In London the discussion is rightly about how best to intensify, and can be caricatured as point blocks vs mansion blocks, with the ‘popular’ territory supposedly being occupied by a 5-7 storey, Bloomsbury-meets-Kensington sort of idea. No-one would seriously argue for more Brentham Garden Suburb type cottage estates even if that is what, thinking only of themselves, they would actually like to live in. Elsewhere, though, the pressure to ask not only “where would I like to live” but “what would the place be like if everyone lived as I’d like to” is much less, and the risk therefore greater that focusing only on design that is ‘popular’ gives rise to places that simply do not function; entire suburbs of arts-and-crafts detached houses with nary a bus or a pub in sight. Moreover, as Jim suggested on Twitter, the fact that the smallest and most affordable forms of housing are often those most described as ‘unpopular’ in design terms carries a whiff of exclusionary zoning: tastes are (conveniently?) framed by our social attitudes.

My own view is that, in most places, there are certain housing forms and types that are both popular to live in and look at and contribute positively to how the place functions. If we cared enough, we could probably describe and distil their qualities in a way that allowed them to be codified in planning without putting an aesthetic straightjacket on the designers and builders of new homes in that area. But this needs more and better planning not less, and is more than an exercise in giving people what they think they want.

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