Housing Policy 5


Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke
Part 05

New approaches to house building

Do we have to live in homes made of bricks? Do all homes have to be three-bedroom semi-detached new builds? How important is it to provide housing for two adults with their 2.4 children? Must we live in identikit boxes? Britain is a very low-rise country by comparison to many European and Asiatic countries. British people love their little boxes set in a small piece of garden. Suburbia is the quintessence of the British way of life. Even if we have to stick to the box-like house, need we also have to stick to the brick? This section addresses these questions.

Well, my take on these question is very clear: no. If we can persuade people that there are new ways of building homes that do not require bricks and mortar, then we begin to open up more solutions to increasing the supply of housing. New materials can be manufactured more quickly and cheaply than clay bricks. Wood does not need to be consumed in large quantities – new materials can replace it, that are more friendly to the environment. Wood is good for interior features and furnishings – where its natural beauty can be appreciated – but inside walls and roof spaces (where we cannot see), we do not have to use wood, if cheaper and more ecological materials can replace it. Bricks, likewise, provide a traditional facing for houses but inside walls are frequently made from breeze-blocks. There are new materials that can be used for unseen parts of buildings that cost less to produce than bricks and which can be manufactured with much lower levels of energy.

People have already begun to re-think the idea of a home and have started to construct houses, using radically new ideas about what to build with and how to create living spaces. Our problem is that, to ‘Mr & Mrs Average’, such ‘experiments’ are a bit cranky and certainly not for them. Understandable perhaps but new concepts of what constitutes a home lead to all sorts of beneficial spin-offs. Take heating, for example, as part of the overall use of energy in domestic accommodation. Some of these new, ‘experimental’ homes are seeing anything up to a fifty percent reduction in the cost of energy consumption. The less money required for energy bills, the more money is available to pay for the cost of the home and for its interior furnishings.

People who are on fixed incomes have to balance the cost of their mortgages, leases or rentals against estimated running costs. If they think they are going to be faced with high costs of energy, their calculations of affordability are going to fail to stack up, given all the other costs that are involved. There is still a dire need to provide energy-efficient homes and to reduce heating costs. If we must build new houses, then let us at least build them with new materials that can provide higher levels of insulation than convention clay-based bricks. Roofs can also utilise new materials that have better thermal properties than slates. As I argue above, it is better to replace aged houses with new ones, on the same site.

This suggests that the solution to the housing crisis would be the renewal of existing housing stock on existing land and not on the development of new-builds on green sites.

I would like to see the average family offered financial incentives to at least try something new, when it comes to homes. Today’s house-builders are focused on return on investment and profit margins. That explains why they all want green field sites on which to build profitable, standardised boxes. The supply of housing, particularly in the ‘affordable’ sector is dominated by building companies that have to make a healthy profit margin. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be in business to make a profit. What I am arguing for is an injection of policy that would make it possible to both build at a profit and to offer something that is different from standardised boxes employing traditional materials.

Knowing demographic trends is vital; we have to have a very firm grasp on how the population is changing, as it ages, as people migrate, as the labour market changes and how this will be reflected in demand for housing. If the supply of housing can be increased then that will reduce property values and rental rates – a trend that will further increase demand. Lower housing costs will mean that people will have more money in their pockets to purchase consumer goods and that, many would agree, is good for the economy.

To increase the supply of homes, building companies can adopt new methods of production of the materials they need and cheaper materials that would help them to achieve their profit targets and get the units up and running more quickly. For those with the time and inclination to get involved in building there are plenty of opportunities.

Television programmes have been stimulating interest in new approaches to house building. Amanda Lamb’s My Flat-Pack Home (Virgin, Sky, UK TV Home channel) follows families who opt for constructing their homes from pre-fabricated flat-packs. Companies are now offering pre-fabricated houses, and some of them are portable. A company called Dan Wood is offering a variety of dwelling houses that, it says, provide ‘customised, turn-key homes with the highest standards of energy efficiency.’ Their website goes on to claim that ‘building your own homes doesn’t have to be a dream.’ This is a company that, it seems, offers pre-designed buildings that can be constructed pretty quickly. [Dan Wood website, 2015] We can be much more flexible and imaginative when it comes to designing homes. Will people be prepared to change their preconceptions about what they can accept as being a home? Will they be impressed by the savings to be secured from increased energy efficiency and green products? Can house buyers be persuaded to accept new approaches to the design of homes? In my view many of the answers to these questions lie in thinking outside of the box.

Thinking outside of the box

Most house-buyers want a finished product that they can move into straight away. The average resident has a pattern of living and working that is based on a standardised approach to the home – one that fits comfortably with the life cycle of starting and bringing up a family. But there are alternatives. The problem is – will people who want homes be prepared to think about alternatives to the standardised box?

If we can tempt house-buyers away from the standardised, magnolia-painted box, then it is much more likely that the housing shortage will be dealt with and dealt with more quickly. OK, it’s not such much about the magnolia. It’s much more to do with whether people need single family accommodation, how they are going to use their home when they get into it and where it is situated relative to shops, schools, surgeries, transport routes and all the other elements that are essential to daily life. Everyone wants a home that will be economical to run; getting the initial money to put down a deposit and move in is difficult enough. The on-going costs are what will either allow people to get started with a property or prevent them from going ahead. New homes in the UK are too expensive; they cost much more than they need to. Far too many people are prevented from getting into the property ladder by the high cost of houses. Those who do have a home of their own are paying far too much to heat it. New homes now have hugely better insulation than ever before but too little has been done to think about what kind of energy to use for heating and what kind of heating systems can be installed. In addition house designers are still stuck with the idea that the average house-buyer wants accommodation for four people. Period. End of story.

Encouraging the use of new materials, changing building regulations to reflect new trends in energy conservation and giving up our obsession with look-alike houses are some of the things, I would argue, that would lead to more people having their own homes in a shorter space of time.

But to make this work, designers and builders have to change their ideas about what constitutes a house for families to live in. Our concept of ‘the home’ has changed little in post-war England. We are beginning to move away from the one-family-one-house model towards multiple-occupancy structures which make far better use of land. In the urban setting, land is expensive but families want their own spaces in which children can play and family pets can run free. Flats are not considered to be an option for the bulk of people who want homes for themselves and their children. The desire for garden space is deeply ingrained in the British psyche. In the sixties, the builders of tower blocks wrongly imagined that children could take the lift down to the ground floor to play in communal areas. How wrong they were. Even childless couples often prefer properties that will provide them with a nice bit of garden.

A home is a place we call our own and most people want homes that are in communities they can relate to, in both urban and rural area. It is that sense of place that drives choice in the selection of where to live. Having a positive sense of place reinforces well being and health and, for many people, place is about having access to transport and employment. Supplying housing should not just be about providing units; it should be about providing communities and the kinds of housing that people want in an area that will give them that sense of place. People who feel at home are healthier than people who feel alienated from their surroundings. Those who design and build accommodation should study the data and see the trends taking place in our society both now and in the foreseeable future. Housing supply must be based on real needs and not comfortable assumptions about what people out to have.

Patterns of demand for housing will change in years to come. These changes will be driven by demography (the ageing population and migration from other cultures) and from rising sea levels. These are trends that planners should be addressing now. The number of people who want homes for more than four people will increase. Homes will be needed for people who will live independent lives for much longer – some up to a hundred years and the fixtures and fittings they will need will change over the decades. In my view, older people will be less likely to move into residential care, independent living will increase and new patterns of accommodation will be needed to meet the social requirements of older people and those on whom they depend. This all has to be planned for now. These are trends that will affect the UK but in other countries much more radical approaches are being tried.

Some architects have designed apartment blocks with gardens; in Sydney, Australia, a programme is underway to provide ‘green apartments.’ In Australia, green homes are being built that use less water and energy; at the Green Strata project ‘We focus solely on helping owners and occupiers of residential multi-unit properties improve the sustainability of their common property and their community of residents’ [Green Strata, 2015]. In Northern Italy, apartment blocks have been constructed that offer people gardens full of trees and shrubs right up to the 27th floor. The Bosco Verticale Towers offer apartments that come with pre-installed gardens on every floor. This project has become known as the ‘forest in the sky’ and represents a totally new concept in multi-layered accommodation. The array of trees and shrubs help to cool the building and provides its own micro-environment. The greenery provides oxygen and humidity, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and dust particles. It is an exciting and visionary project. The downside is of course the cost; these apartments are much more expensive than those in conventional high-rises. That might change if more of them are built; they tend to be expensive because they are either unique or very rare. The more developers build such blocks the less expensive they will become to construct. Such projects are not the solution to the housing crisis but they can play a part in an overall strategy of accommodation in city areas.

The forest in the sky, Bosco Verticale, in Northern Italy, has become widely celebrated as making a breakthrough in the way that high-rise apartment blocks can be made into ‘vertical forests’, having two 27 floor tower blocks that are home to 730 trees and thousands of shrubs and plants. The amazing amount of vegetation produces oxygen and creates a micro-climate that cools the apartments in summer and moderates heat loss in winter, as well as filtering smog and dust particles from the atmosphere. Each block has as many trees as could be planted in a hectare of forest. The buildings are creating a biological habitat for apartment-dwellers in Milan. ‘Grey water’ from the apartments is used to irrigate the vegetation. These projects are an example of combining architecture with live plants; trees have already been introduced into building design but nearly always inside buildings. These ideas might change the climate and ecology of cities and, providing the costs are within affordable standards, might well revolutionise the urban landscape. [Wikipedia, 2015]

In Nottingham, Professor Philip Oldfield co-ordinates a masters course in sustainable tall buildings. He has been active in researching the potential of high-rise buildings in urban areas and how they can be made more ecologically sustainable and energy efficient. One design envisages ‘gardens in the sky’, in which high-rise structures offer accommodation that comes with plenty of horticulture and leisure amenities not normally found in tall apartment blocks. In crowded cities, where land is at a premium and always in short supply, he sees the solution as building upwards but providing space that replicates the kind of environment usually associated with ground-level lifestyles.

A lot of lessons were learned from the housing disasters of the 1960s. Not that all public housing at that time was based on tower blocks. Councils developed large estates for working people. This was often in tandem with a programme of slum clearance. Outer urban land provided cheap space on which Councils could spread acres of social housing for the poor and needy. These housings estates also had to be supplied with schools, shopping centres, health services and good access to the national transport systems. There was a time when large private sector housing estates were constructed without any of these basic amenities of family life being provided. Planners in the 60s got it badly wrong and approved applications for large housing developments in which there was no planning gain in the form of social amenities, such as schools, shops or health services.

I hope we have got a better approach to planning these days. We got stuck in policy opportunism, that allowed developers to create housing estates rather than communities. I remember going to see large numbers of show-homes in Leicestershire in the 1980s. Although the new-build houses offered every latest comfort and amenity, the estates as a whole were just streets and cul-de-sacs of endless houses. Car-ownership was relatively cheap in those days and it was assumed that everyone, who would buy a new house, would have at least one car and would be able to drive to the shops or take the children to school no matter how far away these facilities were. The architects of these ‘soul-less’ rural or suburban estates were people who clearly lived in immaculate barn-conversions who had lost the notion of community and what constituted family life in villages and city-edge suburbs. These housing estates put profit before people. There were no schools, shops, doctors surgeries or any of the other essential elements of daily life. The estates were all about houses and more houses and that was it.

It took a lot of protest by lobby groups to bring about change to this situation. Hopefully planners, and the politicians who control them, are more enlightened these days. We were lucky – we ended up with a brand new house just five minutes away from a primary school and within easy walking distance of a doctors surgery and a small supermarket. It was a matter of luck – just being in the right place at the right time (in 1992.) Many other families were less fortunate and got themselves stuck in beautifully designed homes that were miles from the nearest shop or school.

The policies that govern urban development must take into account how people actually live and not be focused exclusively on the commercial demands of private sector building companies. We need to think about sustainable communities in which people can live comfortably and happily for several decades, able to adapt to changing economic circumstances. Short-termism is no way to plan urban growth.

The housing supply of the future must cater for people and communities as a whole and must join-up living, jobs and transport.

Where will the future of housing take us?

Governments, both national and local, must face the challenges of improving life in Britain by coming up with credible, joined-up policies that meet the basic living needs of the people who elected them and everyone else. People are slow to change and hard to convince that change to traditional ways of doing things can be better. We all need houses to live in; and most people want houses to live in that allow them to get to work easily and to the shops on which they depend for their groceries. But, do we need houses to be made from traditional clay bricks? We want them to be structurally sound for many years; we want them to be warm but not overly expensive to heat; we want them to be situated within easy access to roads, schools, healthcare centres and shops and we want our enjoyment of them to be secure. That is not something we can leave to the vagaries of private investment and to a free-marketism approach. We need to get to work in order to earn enough money to pay for our homes. We need our children to get to their schools without having to travel long distances. Older people need to have choices about where to live and they need to feel secure in their own homes; they need to be able to live near to their dependants and to the people on whom they depend.

The modern home is, as Le Corbusier famously said, “a machine for living.” Modern homes tend to look like that with all their fitted kitchens and ‘mod cons’ but they are also a reflection of our tastes and cultural values. My hope is that people will become more adventurous in what they will accept as suitable house-building materials; I also hope that people will be more inclined to accept new approaches to designing homes. Our society, as a whole needs to be more willing to experiment with new solutions to the need for living space.

In this book I have analysed current approaches to housing policy; I have also advocated what I believe to be credible solutions to the housing crisis. A lot of this depends on change – both of the attitudes of people who want somewhere to live and of the way policy makers approach the whole business of meeting housing need.

References

Contents of the entire work

Updates

Now this work has been published in its entirety I will update it with notes that following current developments in housing policy and practice. See Notes about housing and housing policy in 2016.