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Wednesday23 July 2014

Architects must be at the heart of regulations reform

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If the profession doesn’t make its presence felt, the regulations review will succumb to the influence of vested interests

Amanda Baillieu

Amanda Baillieu — editor in chief

For a review of building regulations and housing standards to be truly radical, several things need to happen.

Chief of these is a single document to avoid overlapping and conflicting advice. As part of this, control of the Code for Sustainable Homes should no longer reside with the BRE, and the Lifetime Homes criteria should be chucked in the bin and rewritten.

But, even before the official launch, the UK Green Building Council waded in, calling it “deregulation frenzy”. Other groups — including the police and the disabled lobby — have yet to comment, but there is a fear that the initiative will fail because of vested interests.

Bodies such as the BRE are profitable businesses because they guard the criteria for the assessment for energy-efficient homes. Take that monopoly away and more homes would be built.

But the BRE and Habinteg, which wrote the criteria for Lifetime Homes, are on the review panel, so it will take real political leadership to wrestle back control of these key areas.

Yet the challenge is to understand why we got ourselves into this mess. And how we allowed housebuilding to be become answerable to a bureaucracy that targets, monitors and enforces this maze. If we don’t, bodies like the police, whose scrutiny of housing design has been allowed to creep in uncontested, will be back with their demands that architects only use certain kinds of locks.

Most people are unaware of housing’s regulatory straitjacket, which is why the profession has to support reform and articulate why it’s so important — not, as is so often the case, pick holes because it distrusts the motives.

Doing away with regulations won’t suddenly lead to an increase in new homes. But, if the reforms are to succeed in a way that will eventually help increase both the quality and quantity of new housing, the government needs architects to be
on its side.

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Readers' comments (9)

  • Architecture is just becoming a tick box exercise for a whole series of third party 'demands'. Whilst all have individual merit, that's no good if nothing gets built. The RIBA is also backing minimum space standards which will be another restraint to development. I bought a site the Local Authority regarded as undevelopable because it was too small. I won at appeal but the LA did their best to stop someone get a new home.

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  • This is a timely editorial, but it needs to be followed up. I look forward to an organised BD campaign to ascertain what the views of architects are. For my part I'd say leave the Building Regs alone but allow for a much greater degree of interpretation.

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  • Habinteg did not write lifetime homes, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did, back in the 90s. I also think it's one of the more sensible documents we have to design around as it answers a real long term need for adaptable homes. It is the conflicting nonsenses of Code for Sustainable Homes, Secured by Design & Building for Life that need chucking in the bin.

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  • One of the reasons why interest groups steal a march is that they are prepared to fund representatives, or have staff with time to attend the various committees involved. The RIBA relies on volunteers with spare time to represent the profession's interests. To use a much abused expression: it's just not sustainable.

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  • Simon, the reason interest groups like the BRE fund the attendance of staff on committees, is because they are making money out of arguiing for increased regulation, which will require themselves to sign off on any compliance documents (Ka-ching!).

    The RIBA and its members aren't however being paid by anyone to do so?

    Which is ironic really, many Architects want protection of function yet won't get it, while commercial organisations with otherwise no claim to having it, get it!

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  • kate macintosh

    Just weeks after the Department of Energy and Climate Change introduced its flagship "Green Deal" policy aimed at retrofitting 14m UK homes to make them more energy-efficient the DCLG has announced a review of all building regulations, including energy, water and the space available in new homes. It is well known that we already have the lowest space standards in Europe by an average on 8%, as exposed in the RIBA’s excellent “Case for Space” report. This seems to invite a race to the bottom as the government invites volume house builders to “self-regulate”. Self-regulation was what produced the Victorian slums, as only a superficial knowledge of urban history would inform our law-givers.
    What government also appears not to understand is the time scale of the building process requires predictability and forward planning. Their constant tinkering is in danger of reducing the level of activity, which is already at its lowest since the 1920s.
    Yours Kate Macintosh

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  • Kate, quite correct, I live in a shoebox of a 3-bed semi (paying ridiculous Council Tax and rent for it), yet after basic furniture is in there is little space for anything else.

    It's almost as if the developer designed the house around the furniture, added the minimum offset distance to get around it, and the decided it was enough.

    Compared to the houses I grew up with in Australia it's miniscule, my parents have a 'holiday flat' which is bigger!

    (my mother thinks our house is a dolls house BTW)

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  • amanda baillieu

    Hi Barry.
    Thanks for pointing that out.
    But as I understand it, Habinteg Housing Association also worked on the initial concept, and have provided the administration and technical support since 2008.
    Amanda

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  • Whilst no one is advocating a return to slum conditions, the implementation of mandatory space standards is a blunt instrument beloved of politicians; they are a totally unnecessary imposition. The RIBA's Case for Space report is totally unimaginative. I recently visited Dessau where first class modern 1930's architecture provided inexpensive individual storage areas in the basement of the block of flats rather than integrate it into flats. This works well and lowers costs. Domus (sorry BD) this month have an excellent issue on the creative use of (expensive) space. Compare this to the RIBA's consumer lead 'research' which tells us what we already know.

    Neither does the RIBA's report consider changes in liftstyle. Smaller living spaces may be acceptable to younger people because in urban areas where less time is spent in the home. Following on from this point, we are also completing self contained student accommodation based on an average area of 18m2 which has a kitchen, shower room and study space included. OK, not a permanent living solution but it demonstrates there might be a solution to 'feeder' accommodation for people who's priority is to get housed rather than how big that home should be.

    The RIBA did not delve too deeply into how space is actually used and architects should be more challenging about what a 'bedroom' actually should do. A shoe-box 3 bed semi might actually have more than enough space if that space was used more efficiently. Why should we all pay to store shoes last worn in 1970?

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