History of Building for Life

Building for Life has grown from its launch in September 2001 to become the national standard for well-designed homes and neighbourhoods.

In March 2000 the government published new guidance on residential planning and design.  The document – Planning policy guidance 3 – established a strong emphasis on building socially, economically and environmentally sustainable new developments.  It also set clear expectations about the delivery of good quality affordable housing.

In 2001 Mike Gwilliam – then director of the Civic Trust – approached the Home Builders Federation with an idea to showcase the best examples of this type of development.  CABE chief executive Jon Rouse soon gave full backing to the initiative which shared CABE’s aims of promoting high quality design.  The three organisations entered into a formal partnership and invited architect and urban designer Sir Terry Farrell to chair a panel of experts to take the initiative forward.

Building for Life is born

Building for Life was formally launched in September 2001 with a three year commitment to the following aims:

  • Celebrating best practice in home and neighbourhood design;
  • Understanding the needs and aspirations of home buyers; and
  • Identifying the barriers to good design – and campaigning to remove them.

The expert panel included David Birkbeck, Keith Bradley, Steve Lidgate, Kelvin Macdonald, Dr John Miles, Dickon Robinson, Peter Studdert, David Taylor, John Weir, Martin Bacon, Jon Rouse and Julian Smith.

In recognition of their contribution to the early development of the initiative, Design for Homes became an advisor to the partnership in December 2001.

The first case studies and awards

The website www.buildingforlife.org was built in 2002 to highlight best practice in housing design from the UK and abroad.  The case study library now stands at over 70 developments.  CABE and Design for Homes organised a series of events in 2002 and 2003 to take the message of good residential design to house builders, designers and local authorities across England. 

In 2003 One Centaur Street was celebrated with the inaugural Building for Life award, at the Housing Design Awards.  Since then over 100 new homes and neighbourhoods have achieved Building for Life standards and awards.  That year Sir Terry Farrell stepped down as chair and designer Wayne Hemingway MBE was announced as his successor.

The 20 Building for Life criteria

From the process of selecting case studies for the website, a set of questions was produced to judge the quality of new housing development.  These questions were based upon the objectives of urban design set out in By design: urban design in the planning system towards better practice. David Birkbeck (on behalf of the HBF), Liz Wrigley of the Civic Trust and Alex Ely of CABE were instrumental in setting down these questions which were published by the partnership as the Building for Life criteria in July 2003.

In 2005, CABE commissioned Alex Ely to write a handy criteria guide, listing and explaining the Building for Life criteria and their application in more detail including referencing relevant policies. Drafted in close consultation with the Home Builders Federation and with Design for Homes, the guide was published in November 2005 under the title “Delivering great places to live: 20 questions you need to answer”. Over 20,000 copies of the criteria guide have been published or downloaded and has been updated regularly to keep in step with policy developments.

The standard for well designed homes and neighbourhoods

Since then, Building for Life has become the industry standard for well designed homes and neighbourhoods.  Over 200 local authority officers have been trained to use the 20 questions in the planning process.  Building for Life events have reached an audience of over 2000 key individuals. House building companies such as Davidsons are using Building for Life to formalise their commitment to design quality.  The government now asks all local authorities to use Building for Life to measure progress in improving design quality. The Homes and Communities Agency have now set out in their proposed core housing design and sustainability standards consultation plans to make achieving 14/20 of the Building for Life criteria mandatory.