Building for Life...on the rim of a recession?

Keith Bradley
5 November 2008

Accordia, Cambridge

Keith Bradley, one of the architects behind Accordia, speaks about the state of the housing market in England at the Building for Life Awards.

Building for Life. That’s always struck me as a wonderfully deliberate double meaning, combining “for life” - to live, and “for life” – longevity. Two interpretations which are at the very heart of this Awards scheme.

These are times to reflect on how to more appropriately live our lives, with an emphasis on long rather than short term values. I don't think these are times to be more conservative, as some have suggested, or to reduce regulation and monitoring.

These are also times to be more creative. With the recent uplifting news on the other side of the pond, the talk is of Defining Moments and Change. I believe in a smaller way we are experiencing our own Defining Moment in housing, and Change will be forced upon us for the good!

We are reflecting today on successes that raise the bar - but we mustn’t forget that they are a tiny proportion of the housing schemes built over the last few years - the vast majority being not very good at all. CABE’s housing audit exposes the serious lack of quality - particularly in the regions and where most people live, the suburbs.

Inheritance from the urban renaissance

It's been 10 years since the government instigated an Urban Task Force, led by Richard Rogers. We had just came out of the early nineties recession, facing a predicted requirement for 4 million new homes by 2020. The outcome of this review was the start of our so called Urban Renaissance - breathing new life into the centres of our towns and cities by reusing redundant land and buildings. Regeneration was re-born.

Cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham started to attract people to live in the heart of them again, with a renewed investment in public spaces and buildings. Density became a good word, a means of improving rather than trashing our environment. Urban Design was back, as we realised the importance and value of the space between buildings and the connection between new and existing communities.

But it is also true that big mistakes have been made in the name of regeneration. Wasted opportunities, as the market led the way in content and funding. Many of these schemes scar our city centres. Across vast fringes of urban extensions spread soulless, disconnected and car-based monocultures. These are dressed up in architecture which is mediocre at best. And the improvement of the suburbs has been woefully neglected. On an un-environmentally friendly flight into any airport you can gaze over the sprawling aftermath. Compare this with the structure and stature of our revived stock of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian quarters.

These developments are predominantly in private individual ownership – so our land bank of post-industrial / post- local authority land is gone. Unlike commercial developments, they will be there forever, courtesy of the freehold and our nation's obsession with individual ownership. The land will never be reassembled for future regeneration - it's built for life!

The case for design standards

A country with a fantastic legacy of housing quality hasn't added much to that over this last decade or so.

This has all happened despite the rising expectations for design quality, and the stronger regulation of standards – with Planning Policy, Design Review, Building Regulation and Environmental Standards and Public Realm Guidance.

So the last thing we want is to pander to requests to lower these standards, to ‘stimulate’ the market. In fact, there is a stronger case to provide more standards, particularly around the need for more generous and better planned internal space.

But how can this be afforded in a market that is going to be depressed for some time?

With Government investment promised, we can hope for more direct financial responsibility by the Pubic Sector again, for on and off-site infrastructure provision. This frees developers of onerous and complex 106 agreements, and leaves them to focus on the provision of high quality homes.

Designing and building within a set of well defined standards provides more clarity, which in turn enables a smoother, more efficient Planning Approvals process - taking out the vagaries around complex public-private interfaces and subjective design issues, and saving time and therefore money.

Reinventing our approach to housing

These are times for smart companies, and local and central government, to be inventive, to create places for long term benefit rather than short term gain. With the current glut of expertise, we can reinvent ourselves and our approach to housing. That includes the way that it is financed, designed, procured, constructed and managed.

The institutional failings of relationships within this industry desperately need sorting, to provide an atmosphere of support - a collaborative rather than adversarial approach.

We need a system which rewards quality, and invests in research and development. We need to look intelligently at how we use land, with a more sophisticated approach to density, typologies and tenure, informed by the need for both privacy and community.

We need to recognise the worth of housing as the good, ordinary backdrop to our townscape, with the home respected as the centre of peoples’ lives.

Of course we will continue to look to Europe for inspiration, but by realising this as a defining moment and going for change, we could regain a reputation as a nation of housebuilders who set the highest standards. We may none of us ever look the same again, but thankfully neither will our contemporary built environment!

A good piece of ordinariness

I just want to finish with a few slides of what I would regard as a good piece of ordinariness which managed to win a Building for Life Award a couple of years ago, and went on to win the Stirling Prize - a first for housing. Although very specific to its place - and time - there are some simple transferable principles that it advocates.

'Dwelling is the basic property of existence: only when we learn how to dwell, can we live'
Martin Heidegger