Friday04 September 2015

Has bad design turned the public against development?

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Yes, says Andrew Beharrell, it is one of the reasons people resist development; while Steve Turner says housebuilders build the homes people want

Firepool Lock housing in Taunton, Somerset

Carbuncle Cup nominee Firepool Lock in Taunton: an “ugly box” or a “castle”?


Andrew Beharrell
Director, Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects

There are many reasons why people instinctively resist development: pressure on social and physical infrastructure; fear of incomers; and the impulse to protect the value of existing property. However, bad design clearly plays a part, and bad design starts with designers.

Bad design fails to connect with the people who use a building and their neighbours who walk past every day. Narrowing the debate to residential development, a simplistic view of history goes like this. From the 18th century until the second world war, Britain produced a series of quiet innovations in urban design that perfectly met the Vitruvian criteria of “commodity, firmness and delight”: the Georgian square and townhouse, the Victorian and Edwardian inner suburbs, the mansion flat and semi-detached Metroland.

The twin demons of the Luftwaffe and international modernism destroyed this tradition and heralded an era of top-down municipal and volume housebuilding, neither of which paid sufficient attention to what customers wanted.

It is hardly surprising that the public turned against development. In reality, many architects have been striving to reconnect with their customers since the tower blocks began to fall in the late 1970s, but it takes a long time to rebuild trust. The current exhibition on the New Housing Vernacular at London’s NLA is encouraging. Several people have remarked that “all the projects look the same”. I take this to be a good sign that the age of the icon has been succeeded by well-mannered respect for context.


Steve Turner
Head of media relations, Home Builders Federation

Design and aesthetics are subjective — one man’s ugly box is another man’s castle.

Surveys show that the people who actually buy and live in new homes, as opposed to industry commentators, are happy with their homes. Housebuilders operate in a free market. If they didn’t build what people wanted, they’d go out of business. But they also have to provide homes people can afford.

We have some of the highest land values in the world; a laborious planning system; a list of regulations that add tens of thousands of pounds to every plot; and a requirement for developers to pay millions towards local infrastructure that was previously paid for by general taxation. All this has to be factored in when deciding if and what to build. This means tens of thousands of plots with “ready to go” status are currently unviable.

In an ideal world, home builders would be less restricted by trying to make sites viable, and could focus on competing on product. But it’s not just up to developers. The final design of a scheme, as Cabe’s regional surveys showed some years ago, is usually a compromise between housebuilders, local planning authorities and other interested parties.

It is difficult to legislate on how a house looks. Building for Life, for example, focuses on urban design not aesthetics, and while design panels may help, they are no guarantee of good design. Working with communities is the key. Under localism, housebuilders have got better at engagement — but designs still have to be buildable and affordable.

Ultimately, though, some people will be opposed to any development near them. Bad design is just one excuse. And developers will continue to build for customers, not critics.



Readers' comments (2)

  • To Steve Turner, an ignorant people is a happy people... If people ignore what good design is about, they'll accept anything you "throw at them". Specially given the deficit of housing stock.

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  • Design is only subjective to someone who knows nothing about design.

    Design is a process not a product!

    Steve Turner, we live in a society where you can make these statements with surety that profit is truth. When your look back when the day is done I hope the truth you are so sure about is satisfactory.

    The future is bleak for the man in the street who wants a decent home.

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