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On Housing in the AJ

Ben recently wrote a piece that appeared in the Architects Journal on 20th June, reproduced here.

I have been designing homes and housing for 40 years but I do not recall a time in my life when there seemed so much excitement and anticipation, so much relevance and importance, so much urgency to build more and better homes.

The argument seems to have been accepted across the political landscape that we need to hugely increase the supply of homes.  We are no longer talking only of those in housing need, there is demand for all tenures and prices that requires we double the output of new homes to more than 200,000 per year.  Meanwhile, just as important, we are already committed to slashing the carbon footprint of the 26 million existing homes.

This is not the place to gripe at the Coalition Government’s inability to free up enough land or to stimulate enough investment for new housebuilding, or indeed to set standards and provide adequate incentives to retrofit the existing stock.  These changes will surely come sooner or later as political pressure builds and the credit crunch continues to ease.

And some things are unquestionably better.  The streamlining of planning legislation and the commitment to design quality now prominent in the NPPF makes the process more transparent if not noticeably quicker.  Neighbourhood Planning and Community Right to Build look like huge opportunities to democratise the planning process.  And Building for Life 12, when it finally takes off, should give us a workable benchmark for quality housing layouts.  Furthermore, the Housing Standards Review promises to cut the Gaudian knot of red tape in ways we have been advocating for years.

So, it’s a moment to celebrate and engage in the diversity that will be required if we are to head off serious social and economic consequences of continued shortage.  It’s the sheer diversity that should provide the opportunity for architects to improve the quantity and quality of housing of all sorts.  We will see self-build, custom build and co-housing.  We can expect the emergence of new products and brands built for private rent.  We will witness a renaissance in off-site manufacture.  Local Authorities are homebuilding again after a lapse of 40 years.  Our design contribution is essential to the huge amount of high density housing to meet the demand for urban living.  And perhaps the biggest challenge is for architects to make themselves indispensible to housebuilders who presently see no case for employing us to design and procure the mass speculative product.  Everywhere you look there are opportunities.

Taking a step back before we begin the run up to a potentially huge leap in homebuilding, I have a particular plea.  Let us not embark on this immense increase in the quantity and range of different housing products without taking steps to properly label our output in ways which are helpful to consumers in making appropriate choices.  The homebuilding industry lags far behind all others in offering its customers digital data useful in a huge variety of ways. There are a number of initiatives looking at labelling the housing product right now, for example at Reading University, BRE, and our own Home Performance Labelling Pilot at The Housing Forum.  We need your support to give these initiatives recognition.