Quality housing design for the future

As costs increase, can developers be persuaded to stick to good design principles? Magda Ibrahim reports.

Good housing design is increasingly recognised as having intrinsic benefits in terms of its longevity, contribution to sustainability, and people's well-being.

But while the Government's target of three million new homes by 2020 looms and the house-building market is at a virtual standstill, is it possible to persuade developers to take the risk?

The Government has pledged to support well-designed neighbourhoods, with Communities & Local Government secretary of state Hazel Blears announcing earlier this month that people deserve to live in places that are "designed with imagination and care" and appeal to the eye.

Ministers may give lip service to the principles of good design, but there need to be strong incentives for developers to actually invest.

CABE Space director Sarah Gaventa believes developers must be made more accountable: "Build-it-cheap and sell-it-on policies only create the homes we see around us that are not very good.

"We want places designed that don't encourage crime and unsustainable living, and there need to be people with investment in these places long-term.

"We need different arguments for developers and one is that homes with well-designed space with good amenities sell fast - and you would think this would be a good incentive in this economic climate."

The launch of the new Government Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) on 1 December is seen as a positive step for the creation of places that are well-designed with spaces that encourage sustainable living.

Blears has said that the HCA's responsibility for championing good design is "emphatically not an add-on, but will be part of the bread and butter".

The problem, for developers, is that the costs may simply seem too high.

Home Builders' Federation external affairs director John Slaughter said the current economic climate is an issue: "In a private development, if you are allocating space to green spaces that is not something you readily get value back for. We have to be aware this is going to be a more financially challenging environment than it has been.

"We are not going to see a return to the same level of borrowing in the future which will, to some extent, cap sales prices and potentially have an impact on long-term real levels of land value."

According to Slaughter, persuading developers to build anything at all will be a trial as profits start to shrink substantially. And LDA Design senior partner Professor Robert Tregay said he sympathises with the developers as costs increase: "Creating good places to live is key; that means safer streets where you can cycle, and places to meet your neighbours. At the moment, there is a real question mark because everything we talk about is not economic in current development terms."

Code for Sustainable Homes

It is argued that creating homes that do meet criteria such as the Government's Code for Sustainable Homes, or CABE's Building for Life programme will ultimately cost more.

Research by consultant Cyril Sweet on behalf of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships looked at the cost of meeting Level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. The study found an average increase in costs of three per cent, but noted that might fall as technologies become more advanced.

However, when looking at the standards for the code's Level 5 or 6, the costs of meeting energy requirements were up to £30,000 for a traditional house, and whether the costs should be entirely absorbed by developers is the significant question.

Landscape Institute chief executive Alastair McCapra urges a different way of thinking about the economics of house-building, so that developers are not lumbered with all the costs for long-term benefits that will have a positive impact on the whole of society.

"It is a bit like the old question about climate change. People said pollution was an external cost and someone else picked up the bill," he explains.

"We've now started to think about climate change holistically and have things like carbon trading to internalise the cost to the firm producing it."

McCapra believes a more interventionist approach could produce the required effect: "We can't go on endlessly piling costs onto the developer. But it could be included in the cost of a house, or through a government subsidy. Just as we have environmental taxes, we might want to think about taxing developments that don't meet social criteria.

"We need to make people think it's not too expensive to do, but it's too expensive not to do."

Award-winning scheme

Even under current economic models the argument that good design with high-quality public realm is not cost-effective is looking somewhat redundant following the award of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize to Accordia, in Cambridge.

The first housing scheme ever to win the prize, Accordia - at 47 homes per hectare - is more densely developed than the national average of 25 homes/ha but designed to feel spacious.

There are few private gardens, but the site has extensive semi-public community gardens and houses have been provided with interior rooftop spaces and internal courtyards.

Landscape architecture practice Grant Associates worked with the main architect Feilden Clegg Bradley, and director Andrew Grant said the scheme proved good design could be achieved while still providing the developer, Countryside Properties, with a profit.

"The key thing that Countryside Properties bought into was they could see the marketing potential," explains Grant. "There is a sense of garden or external space in every single dwelling with little balconies and roof gardens.

"The density of the housing, and what the developer could sell the houses for, was linked to the landscape elements."

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