An Englishman’s home is his castle
In the UK an emotional attachment to the concept of ‘home’ is deep rooted in our national psyche. The ‘Home for Life’ model, with property passing down through generations, has driven our obsession with home-ownership.
Owner-occupied housing, and Council housing at its best, have both provided genuinely mixed communities with security of tenure. We consider renting from private landlords a poor alternative or a stop-gap solution. But the quid-pro-quo for security is lack of flexibility and choice based on an outdated model of ‘general needs’ provision.
The glove that fits every hand fits no hand
To quote Jorn Utzon on the subject of mass-housing design:
“One can logically posit that no single house is entirely correct for the family that will inhabit it. All of them are calculated based on the statistical average – and the statistical average is the theoretical expression of the least amount of error, but is in every single case wrong”.
Our traditional standard type, typically the 3-bed, 5-person home, is based on the ‘model’ 2-parent, 2.4-child family. Planning Policies aimed at generating appropriate unit mixes are based on an outdated ‘room-count’ mode and don’t reflect demographic changes in household composition. Lifestyles have evolved but policies and standards are based on how we used to live.
In volume housebuilding innovation is stifled. Value and quality expectations are driven by location and budget. Construction methods and external materials are determined by their acceptability to mortgage lenders rather than driven by design ambition. The architect’s role is reduced to site layout and external envelope. An occasional concession from standardised plans and material palettes may be allowed, but only if really necessary to unlock a planning consent.
For owners, ability to move is subject to economic circumstance, and under-supply restricts genuine choice. For renters in the public sector, accommodation is offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. Freedom to move depends on finding an acceptable ‘exchange’ with another tenant. Flexibility to move across local authority boundaries is virtually non-existent.
Both sectors fail to match supply with demand. The lack of viable options for down-sizers leads to ‘over-occupancy’. Policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ have been ham-fisted attempts to address this based on the notion of public sector housing as a ‘benefit’. The erosion of Local Authority stock through ‘Right-to-Buy’ has further exacerbated this problem.
Design standards such as ‘Lifetime Homes’ have been an attempt to respond, anticipating that most of us will have little option but to adapt our existing homes to meet changing needs.
Is Lifestyle Choice better than a Lifetime Home?
At the moment, for many, renting is an enforced choice. But how might housing design in the Build-to-Rent sector evolve if we could shake off our obsession with ownership and embrace renting as a positive choice based on both needs and aspirations?
Generation Rent will have the freedom to move as their needs or financial circumstances change, or simply because another provider has a better offer. The key thing the Build-to-Rent Sector can offer is more choice based on a wider range of homes reflecting how we actually want to live.
‘Households’ may now comprise families of adults with grown-up children still living at home, changing the use of ‘reception’ and ‘living’ spaces and with a greater need for privacy in the home. They may include an extended family, or elderly relatives, requiring facilities to support the delivery of healthcare in the home. We are living longer. Those who remain healthy and active into retirement are more aspirational about the accommodation they seek when ‘downsizing’. At the other end of the spectrum, younger households often comprise groups of friends (or strangers) sharing.
Realising the Value of Good Design
The ‘choice’ scenario has already played out in the student housing market, transformed beyond recognition from the outdated ‘halls of residence’ model. The quality of accommodation and the wider ‘lifestyle offer’, with communal facilities included as part of the package, maximise return on investment by minimising voids and loss of income.
Design standards and build quality are always more highly valued when the developer is in it for the long haul. For long-term investors such as pension funds, costs in use and lifetime maintenance costs are critical to the financial model and reward greater investment up-front in design quality. PRS developers are incentivised to deliver higher quality design and experience to differentiate their ‘brand’ in the market place, as well as meeting expectations for ‘value added’ such as high-speed broadband.
These changes will promote a move away from a ‘general needs’ approach based on ‘designing down’ to hit unit area and cost targets. Instead of evaluation by ‘box-ticking’ we will instead move to value judgements about design quality as the critical measure of success.
How are Weston Williamson responding to these challenges?
At Weston Williamson we have long been anticipating this widening of choice to embrace a more diverse range of housing types tailored more specifically to the real needs of modern households.
Our competition-winning entry for Pocket Living proposed a model flat based on two people sharing a home and looked at how this could then be further adapted in use.
Our proposal for purpose-built housing for ‘baby boomer’ retirees doesn’t just have fewer bedrooms but instead embodies a level of lifestyle and design aspiration.
We are looking forward to the day when, instead of ‘one size fits all’, we can all have ‘the one that fits like a glove’.
This article first appeared in the RIBA Journal.