22nd April 2015
past, present and future
by Trevor Locke
Part 4 – The future of housing
In part 3, I considered the factors that we can see playing a part in approaches to the supply and provision of housing including making better use of existing housing stock
In part 4, the final instalment of the series, I return to the brick as a central material in the construction of housing. Looking to the future of house design and supply, I move on to consider ways in which we can think outside of the box, focusing on where the future of housing might take us.
Time to do away with the brick?
Do we have to live in homes made of bricks? Do all homes have to be three-bedroom semi-detached new builds? 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?
Well, my take on this 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 increase the housing supply. New materials can be manufactured more quickly than clay bricks. Wood does not need to be consumed in large quantities for structure – new materials can replace it that is more friendly to the environment. Wood is good for interior features and furnishings – where its natural beauty can be appreciated – but inside walls and inside roof spaces (where we cannot see) we do not have to use wood if cheaper and more ecological materials can replace it.
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 these 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 living accommodation. Some of these new, ‘experimental’ homes are seeing anything up to a fifty per cent reduction in the cost of energy. 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.
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 greenfield 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.
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. Watch this on YouTube.
Companies are now offering prefabricated houses, and some of them are portable (see this article for example .)
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.
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?
Thinking outside of the 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. 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, people 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 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 bit of garden. 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 website.
The forest in the sky, 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 create 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 habit for apartment-dwellers in Milan. ‘Grey water’ from the apartments is used to irrigate the vegetation. These projects are an example of combing architecture with live plants; trees have been introduced into building design before but nearly always inside the 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.
A lot of lessons were learned from the housing disasters of the 1960s. Not that all public housing was based on tower blocks. Councils developed large estates for working-class 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 have 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 got it badly wrong and approved applications for large housing developments in which there was no planning gain in the form of 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 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. The architects of these ‘soul-less’ rural or suburbial 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 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.
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. People are slow to change and hard to convince that change to traditional ways of doing things can be better. We need houses to live in; we want houses to live in. But we do not need them to be made from traditional clay bricks. We want them to be structurally sound for many years; we want them to be warm and not overly expensive to heat; we want them to be situated within easy access to roads, schools, healthcare centres and shops. We need to get to work in order to earn enough money to pay for them. The modern home is, as Le Corbusier famously said is “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.
Trevor Locke has an MA in Urban Policy Studies.
Guy Standing (May 24, 2011). “The Precariat – The new dangerous class”. Policy Network.
Introductory article to the house series
House bricks part 1
House bricks part 2
House bricks part 3