The Quiet Revolution In British Housing
Once upon a time new housing in Britain was terrible. Engendered by the fearful coupling of utopian architectural fanatics and of bureaucratic automata in local authorities, it was soulless, alienating, malfunctioning and often damp. Such at least is the conventional narrative which, if it overlooks many beautiful and conscientious works now being rediscovered, still contains a portion of truth.
This was in the time loosely known as the 60s and 70s, an era of state-led homebuilding that would be terminated by Margaret Thatcher, such that another kind of housing could flourish, terrible in a different way: Noddy houses, faux-traditional executive homes, could-be-anywhere progeny of developers’ calculations and planners’ vague strictures on being “in keeping”, brick boxes packed with miniature bedrooms and bathrooms that would look better in estate agents’ particulars than in real life. This story might be oversimplified too, although I can’t immediately see in what way.
Now, if you look carefully and avert your gaze from large quantities of obvious junk, it is possible to see that some new housing is, finally, not terrible. These glimmers of progress are partly due to the combination of the building industry and of regulations which, not always in perfect harmony with each other, have (touch wood) made homes warmer, drier, more accessible to the disabled, easier to maintain and sometimes better dimensioned than they have been in the recent past.
Regulations have progressively made homes more sustainable and energy-efficient, and voluntary codes take these standards further. Architects like to push them further still: in the Hampshire town of Whitehill Bordon the practice of Ash Sakula has designed a row of houses which, with the help of abundant insulation, intelligent use of ventilation, solar panels and materials where possible locally sourced, aim to make social rented homes “as ecological as possible”. It says that “just your body heat and a lightbulb are enough to keep the house warm most days”.
There are now housing associations and developers who can see the point of good design, and others who can’t quite, but still feel as if they should employ it. The public, too, perhaps encouraged by the TV programmes of Kevin McCloud, are more open to contemporary architecture. In the 1980s there was a sterile opposition of “traditional”, as something liked only by the public, and “modern” as something peculiar to professionals, which has now diminished.
Much of the credit should go to a quietly heroic generation of architects. These have grown up in the era following the backlash against their profession, when they could take nothing for granted, when they had to prove again and again that their ideas were not the fantasies of arrogant dreamers, but honest efforts to improve the quality of the lives of future residents. They sometimes find themselves among the worst-paid and hardest-working around the tables of consultants who nowadays get buildings built, and the most committed to the social benefits of the final product. They tend to get squeezed between those well-intentioned regulations and the merciless spreadsheets that calculate profitability and market demands, looking in narrow margins for ways to elevate homes above the basic.
They have to fight battles with property agents who tell their clients that the buyers of flats at market prices won’t want to share entrance lobbies with those paying affordable rents, or that there is no need to make space for a dining table as everyone likes to eat on sofas in front of the TV. Clients say that they’re worried that non-residents might sit down in their public spaces. Architects have to deal with the fact that most housing is built under what are called design-and-build contracts, which limit the power of architects to oversee construction details, which can lead to unfortunate joints and clumsy details. A familiar gesture among architects involved in such projects is the resigned shrug at some element botched beyond their control. “We’re treated almost as if we’re kids who are allowed to play a bit”, says one, “and then the grownups” [by which he means the other consultants and advisers] “come in and make the real decisions.”
Take Abode at Great Kneighton, a development of 450 homes on the edge of Cambridge, close to the M11, Addenbrooke’s hospital and the future headquarters of the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Here there are signs that the developer Countryside has respected its designers, while the arrogant fanatics seem to be the highway engineers who ordained a giant roundabout, with accompanying roar of braking and acceleration, in the middle of a future residential area. They had reasons for their decision – this is a route for ambulances, which ideally should be delayed not a second on their life-saving missions – but there seems to have been no balance of considerations, and little weight given to the wellbeing of the people who will live around the flawless radii of the road layout.Abode, Great Kneighton, where expensive houses and more affordable units sit side by side. Photograph: Tim Crocker
It has been left to the architects Proctor and Matthews to make the best of the situation, which they do by forming a large square of four-storey buildings around the roundabout, and softening it with clumps of trees. The square, they point out, is larger than the Great Court in Trinity College, Cambridge, and they hope that in time the impact of traffic will be tamed enough to make it an enjoyable shared space. At the same time the blocks that enclose it shelter territory on their other side, with quieter streets where cars and playing children can coexist, and planted lanes for pedestrians only, in a network that connects easily with the surrounding landscape. For them a road is not just an instrument of transport, but a space into which the life of home can extend, with possibilities for neighbourliness and, for children, freedom to move and explore.
Around this network are distributed a variety of homes, some affordable and others for sale at market rents, from studio flats to six-bedroom houses selling at £900,000. In keeping with best current practice, they are “tenure-blind”, which means that the types are mixed up, and you can’t tell from looking at them which is which. They come in a variety of forms – terraces, cottages, small apartment blocks, courtyards, mews-like buildings – that interlock and overlap in sometimes complicated ways.
They are built to higher densities than a comparable development would have been 20 years ago, in the interests of both using land better, encouraging community spirit, and reducing reliance on cars. This requires some ingenuity in making outdoor spaces, such as terraces carved out of upper levels. Strikingly, the big expensive houses are in among all the others. Once properties with these sorts of values would have demanded a vast garage, seclusion, and a big drive. Here the gardens are relatively small. The model is more a town than a suburb, where the quality of shared space makes up for the relative reduction in personal territory.
There is also ingenuity in the internal arrangements. The medium-sized houses, for example, offer changes of level, multiple aspects and choices of outdoor space: within a fairly small volume intrigue and variety is created, and the desire to wander around to find out more. The style of Abode combines gentle flat-roofed modernism with barn-like East Anglian forms, the main materials being buff brick variegated with dark textured strips, and black timber boarding.
Cambridge, in fact, is one of the most promising spots for new housing in Britain. It is a boom town, thanks to the tech industries attracted by the university, with resulting effects on house prices. The local authorities have responded by allowing the city’s green belt to be selectively relaxed, while insisting on quality in what is built. The city also has architectural traditions, both in its ancient collegiate buildings and in types of well-mannered modernism that were encouraged by the University’s school of architecture.
One development, Accordia, won the Stirling prize in 2008 for its attempts to create a balance of private and communal space and “as holistic approach to environmental design”. It was the work of the same developer, Countryside, as Great Kneighton. There is also north-west Cambridge, where the university has decided to build what is almost a new town of 3,000 homes to be completed in phases from 2016 to 2030, 50% of them affordable, in an area comparable to the whole of the historic centre of the city. The university’s prime motivation is to make homes for its employees, especially its young postgraduate staff, who are priced out of Cambridge’s housing market. The ambition is to create a non-exclusive “urban place” rather than a dormitory, splendidly sustainable, whose landscape of courts, streets, parks and lakes is based around both shared spaces and the intelligent management of rainwater.An area of Toxteth in Liverpool is being redeveloped through close collaboration with residents. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Observer
It is possible, however, for invention to be applied to housing in less favoured places, and for small groups rather than property companies and world-famous institutions to take the lead. Off Granby Street, in Toxteth, Liverpool, are rows of small houses which the local authority has wanted to demolish at least since the 1980s, when the area was afflicted by its famous riots. They succeeded further along what was once a thriving high street for the area, its vivacity now deflated by weirdly suburban houses sheltered behind high brick walls set back across a sward of aimless grass.
“It is very strange that we’re here,” says Eleanor Lee, a resident since the 1960s. “We’ve been threatened with demolition for 30 years.” The place became blighted, with empty homes awaiting removal. “Ten years ago it was so awful, so utterly filthy and neglected and full of rubbish. Taxi drivers would refuse to drop you off.” There was opposition, from the Granby Residents Association, “but it got them absolutely nowhere because there was no budging the council”. So Lee and a few others decided to take matters into their own hands. They started “cleaning up and planting up, direct work to reclaim the streets so it wouldn’t be a pariah area”. They launched a weekly street market. These hard brick streets won a North West in Bloom award and were featured in Amateur Gardening magazine.
Finally, after the council dropped a developer it had appointed to regenerate the area, but who appeared to be going nowhere, it relented and became more cooperative. The residents formed a community land trust, and found funding from a new social investment company, Steinbeck Studio. The London-based architectural collective Assemble was hired and drew up a scheme in which 10 abandoned houses would be returned to habitability in ways that exploited the accidents of dereliction, and to nurture, as they put it, “the resourcefulness and DIY spirit that defines the streets”. If the underside of a roof or a chimney breast were exposed by decay, it might be left visible to add character to a room. If a partition or a floor were too far gone, it might be not reinstated, creating an open-plan or double-height space the house never had before. Two houses too badly damaged to be worth restoring are to be left as brick ruins, but glass-roofed to form a communal winter garden.
The principle is what Lewis Jones of Assemble likes to call “thrift”: doing the most with minimum means, and making a creative virtue of it such that every house acquires a different character. Assemble has collaborated with the artist Will Shannon to set up a casting workshop to make fireplace surrounds a little like marble out of demolition rubble. Kitchen units are from Ikea but with bespoke worktops and handles. Ex-stock terrazzo tiles were got cheap to make the floors. Granby Four Streets, as the project is named, has helped Assemble achieve its nomination for the Turner prize – unexpected for the fact that the prize is for artists, not architects.
Work on the houses is still in progress, but Granby Street already has a rare social quality, helped by the abundant planting that flows into and out of houses, and by another house temporarily serving as works canteen and dormitory for, among other people, visiting members of Assemble. It has the elusive spirit of community which cannot be created by design alone, but which design can either encourage or hinder. It is the spirit most obviously lacking from the lift lobbies, windowless access corridors and car-friendly roads of standardised developers’ products. “Human beings are meant to be street people,” says Lee. “We are meant to speak to each other. Everybody wants to talk.”
In the case of the growing number of co-housing projects like Lilac in Leeds or Forgebank in Lancashire, the idea of community means sharing allotments, a pond, a play area, a laundry, guest rooms and a “common house” where everyone meets twice a week to cook and eat communal meals. They also seek to “live as lightly as possible on the Earth”, as Lilac says of itself, to which end its walls are made of straw-bale panels. Co-housing is a nice idea, and it is growing, but seems likely to remain a niche. It requires a particular level of commitment to the concept of living with other people, and associated skills of diplomacy and tolerance.
Should you want something less intense but still have good and productive relations with your neighbours, you might want to consider the works of the developer Baylight, such as its nearly complete development in North Lane in Aldershot, designed by the architects Sergison Bates. Here houses are paired into a series of villas, loosely scattered around a central space of a fairly typical kind, whose basic purpose is to allow access to cars. The art lies in the placing of basic elements: open carports rather than enclosed garages are placed alongside the houses, with garden sheds alongside them, in the hope that people will do their bike-fixing and DIY in the central space rather than in back gardens.
Kitchens are mostly placed so that they open up to the same space through double doors. There will be a “grandchildren’s room”, a place where “children/teenagers/residents could go for a change of scene and some socialising”. The aim is consistent, which is to nudge but not coerce people into sociability. The houses also offer layers of privacy, and create what are, for their size, complex inner landscapes of stairs, landings and rooms varied in shape and view. The ability to be social comes with the right to be alone.
The style is plain-going-on-austere. There are brick walls and pitched roofs in the manner of houses all over Surrey, but without ornament, relying instead on proportion, placement, the fall of light and outbreaks of glazed tiles by the front doors to achieve its effects. It is a subtle approach, calm and calming, that is more enriching than the sticking-on of mass-produced decorative doo-dads, but in its unfinished state the central space, on which so much depends, looks a notch or two too arid. More greenery is intended and it is hoped that residents will plant their own, which will help.
These decisions – the locating of kitchens and sheds, the arrangement of stairs and windows – seem modest but they are the stuff of successful homebuilding. As Marc Vlessing of the London developer Pocket Living says, it is about getting many small things right rather than one big thing. The notion of home has often provoked fantasies of revolution and fresh starts – the house of the future, the ideal home – but it remains a stubbornly conservative type. A room with a door and a window tends not to change fundamentally from one century to the next, even if the lives and technologies within them might change utterly. The demanding budgets and procedures of housebuilding are also a factor, as declarations of radicalism tend to be expensive.
Thus signs of progress in modern homes are such things as their wider-than-before corridors. These reflect a set of standards called “Lifetime Homes”, which are about designing homes that people can continue to live in as they become old and/or disabled. The corridor width prepares for wheelchairs, which is civilised in itself, but also gives a hint of generosity, and makes space that can be colonised by bookshelves and little workstations.
In London, flats are now built wherever possible with at least two aspects, allowing through-drafts and more sunlight, and with higher ceilings than before. They also come with an outdoor space of a minimum size, usually a balcony, big enough for a small group to eat on. This is good for passersby as well as residents: the balconies are signs of life and connection between inside and out. They mean that even the clumsiest and meanest new developments give something to the street.
These enhancements reflect one of the smartest and most enlightened actions of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, the introduction of a London Housing Design Guide, which sets out minimum standards. Like all regulations, both the mayor’s guide and Lifetime Homes have their drawbacks. They can be overly rigid, and lead to absurdities such as the splattering of balconies on blocks facing motorways, where they are unlikely to be used. The rules tend to become a maximum as well as a minimum, and tighten the straitjacket within which designers of homes have to work.Darbishire Place in London by Níall McLaughlin Architects. Photograph: Nick Kane/Níall McLaughlin Architects
But they are fundamental to a project like Darbishire Place, the block of flats in east London by Níall McLaughlin Architects that has been shortlisted for the Stirling prize. This is for the Peabody Trust, which has been providing what used to be called philanthropic housing for more than a century and a half, and it stands alongside some early examples of the trust’s work. Here the balconies are built into the fabric of the building, rather than hang off it, and are bigger than required, such that they can serve as outdoor rooms. The ceilings are of a decent height, the corridors broad, and light enters most of the flats from three directions through well-proportioned windows. The journey from entrance lobby to flats via a common stairway is designed so that it is daylit and pleasurable all the way. It is, as indeed it should be after all this time, a considerable advance on the somewhat penal (but nonetheless listed) architecture of the original Peabody buildings.
There is also Mint Street, another Peabody project in east London, where the architects Pitman Tozer have built their design around the challenging presence of a busy railway viaduct on one side. The block curves to reflect the radius of the viaduct and shelter a shared garden at the rear. A layer of glazed winter gardens, fulfilling the requirement for outdoor space, also acts as an effective buffer against train noise: inside the flats the air-extraction systems make more noise than the railway traffic. A new pedestrian-only street is formed between the block and the viaduct, animated by trees, the green tiles that clad the lower part of the building, and yellow-tiled seats. It makes a brutal location hospitable.
In all this, the most important questions are who can afford these fine homes, and how? Given the continuing scandal of property inflation in much of the country, it profits citizens little if a gentle renaissance in housing design is beyond the reach of most potential residents. This is a question of national politics and economics more than architecture, but most of the projects described here in fact offer some variant of the cocktails of tenures – social rented, affordable rent, shared ownership, market sale – that come with most new developments.
But there are also attempts to be creative in the affordability as well as the design of the new housing. One such is Woodnook in Accrington, Lancashire, where streets of handsome stone-faced houses, climbing steep streets in a sturdily charming manner, were due to be demolished under the now-abandoned government programme called housing market renewal. The newly formed property company PlaceFirst and the affordable homes provider Together Housing have restored and rearranged them, making two new reasonable-sized homes out of every three small ones. They are improving the streets and a small square outside the church hall, all so that the houses can be rented rather than bought. They are good quality, and offered by the private sector, but affordable by care assistants and teaching assistants, and other essential but poorly paid workers.
Another is Pocket Living’s developments in London, which offer homes for sale to local residents at 80% of market value, a proportion that has to be maintained when they are resold. This is done without public subsidy – Pocket is a private company – but by building small flats where design is employed to use space as effectively as possible. Cycle storage and shared spaces are important aspects. In Pocket’s new development in Marcon Place, Hackney, access is via open galleries, which are easier to maintain than internal corridors, but which have been taboo among developers for decades because of their association with council estates. But they offer a nice dose of fresh air on the way to your flat, and a much stronger sense of connection with the rest of the block.PlaceFirst’s regeneration of Woodnook, Accrington. Photograph: PlaceFirst
Values in London are of course high and 80% of a lot is still quite a lot, but Pocket’s homes offer a toehold to those large numbers on middle incomes who are badly served by the current housing market. Pocket has a waiting list of 20,000, against a current output of 250 homes a year, which it plans to increase to 400.
It must, finally, be said that these are the works of a profession that is still, a half-century after its real and imagined crimes, in rehab. The most obvious weakness of so much thoughtful, considered work is that it errs on the side of caution. There is nothing to match the boldness that architects like Rosemary Stjernstedt, George Finch and Kate Macintosh achieved in the 1960s and 70s, under the leadership of Ted Hollamby in the London borough of Lambeth.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to have more alternatives to the beige handsomeness that is the default style of good contemporary housing. Mint Street stands out for its combinations of blue brick and green and yellow tile. The practice FAT offered something else with its Community in a Cube in Middlesbrough in 2012, where a modern-looking block was surmounted by a skyline of exaggerated versions of traditional houses, and propped up by a Swiss chalet at its foot. The idea was to create a kind of architecture with which its residents might identify. But FAT has disbanded, and no one else has its ability to pull off its flirtations with kitsch.
But the greater danger is that the fragile flowering of good housing is crushed by the forces of expediency against which it is constantly struggling. It has been, for example, strengthened by support from a planning system which is now being progressively undermined. And there are plenty of examples to show how much worse things could be: airless, badly planned living capsules stacked high and wrapped in multicoloured aluminium panels, or the continuing output of Noddy houses which, like cockroaches, never go away.