Why we need standards for housing design

25 March 2010

The design quality of new housing underpins the success or failure of a community.

Lime Tree Square, Somerset.

Lime Tree Square, Somerset. Photo by Stephen McLaren.

3 June 2010 update: we have now published a housing standards resource that collects the evidence and latest research on housing and space standards.

By design quality, we are talking about creating places that work well, not about architectural style. Design quality, after all, is fundamental to how places work: road layouts that prioritise pedestrians; public spaces that are safe and attractive; buildings that are at an appropriate scale and density to support local services.

We think new developments should respect their context, using it as a starting point to enhance local character. If new housing connects physically and socially to the surrounding built environment and landscape, it is more likely to have a strong, positive identity. A well-designed neighbourhood should also be sustainable – socially, economically and environmentally.

The recent debate about Kickstart reveals again the need for major improvements to the quality of housing design in England. Now is the time to establish clear design standards for all new homes.

Why do we need standards?

The quality of most new housing is not good enough

CABE’s national housing audits and affordable housing survey rated 82 per cent of new housing “average” or “poor” for design quality.  Most consumers are getting a raw deal when it comes to the quality of new homes and neighbourhoods. This is also bad news for taxpayers.

The national housing audits revealed that the design quality of almost one in three homes was so poor that they should not have been given planning permission. It uncovered family housing with no play areas, windows looking out on blank walls, and broad expanses of tarmac. Schemes frequently lack character or distinctiveness and fail to respond to the local context. Confusing site layouts make it difficult to find your way around, and access to local amenities was often poor.

The cost of bad design  

  • Treating illnesses arising from poor housing conditions costs up to £2 billion per year, according to a study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.  This is more than local authorities spend on all their own housing stock each year.
  • annual estimates of the increased costs associated with the 7.6% of public sector homes considered unfit for habitation are an additional £1.8 billion each year.
  • The average cost of building in Secure by Design measures was just £440 per new dwelling, compared with average losses of £1,670 per dwelling from burglary.

Good quality housing has many benefits

  • It improves social well being and quality of life, often via public health benefits.  Research shows the links between housing quality, better welfare and reduced costs to society.
  • It increases property values.  Case studies for CABE, ODPM and Design for Homes show that exemplar schemes can achieve higher residual values than conventional schemes.
  • It reduces crime.  Research shows that residential developments designed to Secured by Design (SBD) standards showed lower reported crime rates and less fear of crime than those without.
  • It eases transport problems and slows traffic down. The Manual for Streets shows how concepts such as home zones can help streets become social spaces rather than transport corridors that give priority to the car.
  • It rewards developers.  The additional residual value for the developers of a well-designed housing scheme has been estimated at almost £11 million per scheme, realised over the five years from first completion of the scheme.

Why are standards the way to improve the quality of housing design?

There is clear evidence that standards help to improve design quality:

  • In the education sector, Government introduced a minimum design standard in 2009 for all secondary school designs as part of Building Schools for the Future.  The majority of schemes now seen by CABE improve significantly during the process and no scheme goes ahead if it fails to meet the standard.
  • Parker Morris space standards were mandatory for all government-funded housing between 1969 and 1980/82.  Though they only applied to social housing, research shows that they also helped push up standards in the private sector. 
  • Historically, standards have often been used to improve quality. Building regulations were used in London as early as 1189-1216 and have been used since then to address problems such as safety and public health.
  • In continental Europe, standards are a familiar part of the framework to increase housing quality. “Regulatory standards are not viewed as a threat to other ‘planning priorities’ in Italy, including affordability or density.  Controls over internal space are viewed as essential in higher density schemes, which are made ‘liveable’ through appropriate design and typology.” (Gallent et al, 2010)

Standards do not have to be highly prescriptive. In the German housing development at Tübingen-Südstadt, they merely stipulated the building line at the front of plots and the height, widths and depths of buildings, along with a very clear development framework and rules about involving residents. This produced a lively, attractive place with a strong sense of citizen engagement.

What comes next?

2010 will be a pivotal year for housing standards. The Homes and Communities Agency is publishing a public consultation on a framework for national design and quality standards, setting benchmarks for the majority of housing in receipt of public funds nationwide.  Current government planning policy statements already endorse design quality as an essential part of the way we create sustainable places.  But on their own, these do not solve the problem of delivery. We need standards for housing to ensure that good design is embedded in local practice.

These standards must not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution that follows rigid design orthodoxies.  Instead, they should be flexible to allow for appropriate use in individual areas.  Building for Life should be at the heart of these standards. A minimum threshold should be set for all new housing developments that requires every scheme to reach at least 14 out of 20 against the Building for Life criteria.

Only then will we move from 82 per cent of new homes and neighbourhoods being average or poor to having 82 per cent good or excellent.

3 June 2010 update: we have now published a housing standards resource that collects the evidence and latest research on housing and space standards.

Your comments

Gail Mayhew on 28 March 2010 at 11.17pm

Too much regulation. I agree with the intent but quite the wrong way of going about it. The causality of the points set out as benefits not necessarily established vis the quality of housing. Housing only half the story - the benefits suggested in particular including higher residual values derive from the creation of 'place' as opposed to mono-use scheme. Actually what is required to create truly sustainable neighbourhoods is more radical than what is being proposed and should look for mixed use, walkable urbanism .

Stephen Hewitt on 8 April 2010 at 4.41pm

The number of standards is confusing - Code for Sustainable Homes, Lifetime Homes, BREEAM for Communities, Building for Life, Secure by Design, HCA standards, Parker Morris, Decent Homes Standard, others? - Can we intergrate them or make the inter-relatonships clear.

I am sure it would help if adopted the continental approach of talking about the size of homes in sq metres of floorspace rather than the number of bedrooms, bathrooms (irrespectiveof their size).

Jamie Tucker on 26 April 2010 at 11.45am

The basis to all of this is not how to secure quality housing, it is how housing is delivered full stop. The private sector will always seek to maximise profits by reducing development costs. With shareholders to satisfy and an embedded culture of profiteering, this inevitably results in diminished design standards.

The examples cited above that adhere to standards are all public sector initiatives or quasi public sector initiatives. Trying to apply stringent design guidelines to all new developments to meet the aspirations of buildings for life will be almost impossible via the private sector. The over reliance of government to deliver housing through the private sector was highlighted in recent years when even at the height of the boom, developers were unable to meet government targets.

The wider question therefore is, should the government take a leading role and begin to deliver housing itself or take the shackles of the housing associations and increase their purse? I would argue that whilst a not for profit meachanism such as the housing assocation system would potentially require large initial government investment, I see no other means of achieving the ultimate goal outlined above.

Alan Hughes on 5 May 2010 at 4.32pm

For most residential developers the object seems to be to get the most homes out of the site - this in itself is not unexpected but it always seems to lead to 'design via minimum requirements' - which is really squeezing the maximum number of people into the smallest possible footprint. Unless a government issues clear policy on square meterage requirements / related to the number of occupiers, we will continue to see "sick building syndrome" as a result of our domestic housing policy.

David White on 25 May 2010 at 6.19am

As secretary of a TRA for a Hackney housing estate and secretary of the Clapton panel for all estate TRAs I have reams of first hand evidence of the social problems caused directly by forcing families into badly built, sometimes single aspect flats the size of a single Edwardian room.

Thatcher deregulated this market along with everything else and we are still paying the price.

"Trickle down" has been so thoroughly discredited so that leaves the only reason for not re-regulating continuing pressure from the building industry not to.

Right now it is up to residents to object to over dense planning applications from developers as there is nothing else.

For nine out of ten developers in Hackney the ONLY consideration they have is to maximise their profit.

For a decent quality of life a two bed flat should be at least 50 squ m and ideally 70, not the current 30 squ m allowed by some local authorities.

The sooner regulation is re-introduced the better.

Ian Sang on 25 May 2010 at 12.48pm

The examples table of representative minimum space standards by unit type and occupancy used for the HCA Proposed Core Housing Design and Sustainability Standards Consultation is seriously and surprisingly flawed with regared to wc provision in two storey housing.

The need for additional wcs at ground floor is mandatory to comply with Building Regulations part M and has been for the last 15 yrs. Additional Wcs are also required to comply with Lifetime homes standards which have been around for most of 10 yrs. The standard listed seems to hark back to the standards that were current prior to the two standards I quote. i,e to standards that are more than 20 yrs old! It is also curious that there is no example given of a 3B6P arrangement which in my experience has been a very common accommodation size provided in the public sector throughout the last 40 yrs and has also been a popular size with commercial house builders. Further why not include 7P and 8p dwellings (or bigger) if 3 storey types are to be properly covered? And finally, is it really advisable /sustainable to encourage a 2 storey 3P type by having a standard for it when a 2B4P is probably no more expensive to actually provide. Lets get away from tight fit. Isnt it better that all dwellings have some flexibility. All bedrooms should be big enough to be double and capable of sub-division into two singles or a single with en suite if thats whats wanted post first construction?

Stephen Kirby on 25 May 2010 at 3.02pm

The Lifetime Homes standards coupled with Code for Sustainable Homes should be sufficient to address concerns about quality of housing design, but of course the CSH standards are linked to the Building Regulations and enhanced levels are taking time to implement. Minimum criteria for floor areas based on the Lifetime Homes principles should be integrated into the Building Regulations, so guidance is converted to regulation and space standards for buildings are underpinned in law. Like the principles of Secure by Design, the Building for Life Criteria could become an effective marketing tool for the development industry and encourage developers to demonstrate through the assessment process that their scheme reaches the appropriate score and can be marketed as such to the customer.

Will Myddelton, web editor at CABE on 15 June 2010 at 4.15pm

We have now closed comments on this article, but the debate about housing standards continues on our new, fuller resource about housing standards - which contains details of the emerging CABE position as well as evidence and research.