A new book by former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire offers a thought provoking analysis of the issues facing architecture and housing design, writes Catherine Burd

Home Truths_Cover_cropped

Source: HTA Architects

I came to Home Truths fresh from reading Peter Apps’ harrowing account of Grenfell, having just reviewed early-stage proposals for a new, seemingly impossibly dense masterplan comprising thousands of homes in very tall buildings, and following the launch of a research paper that highlights just what a ticking financial and social time-bomb residential towers pose (think under-provision of public space, cash strapped leaseholders and unaffordable future service charges…).

All this set against the backdrop of climate emergency, scandalously low numbers of new homes being built in the UK, rising levels of homelessness, and coupled with little public investment or political will – exemplified perhaps by the appointment of a sixth housing minister in a year. Well, it’s hard to feel much optimism about the state of housing in this country.

“If we accept that this problem is real maybe it’s just too big to do anything about. And you know there are a lot of people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem.” 

He doesn’t dwell on the problems, but, much like his work in practice, rolls up his sleeves up and gets on with trying to understand what is going on and to make things better

Al Gore was talking about the climate crisis, but he might as well have been talking about British housing. So thank goodness that, in his new book Ben Derbyshire has taken time to “pause on the intermediate step” and share his thoughts about what is to be done. He doesn’t dwell on the problems, but, much like his work in practice, rolls up his sleeves up and gets on with trying to understand what is going on and to make things better.

In a series of well-illustrated, easily digestible chapters/essays, we are guided through the “very broad landscape” which Derbyshire feels aspiring planners and designers of housing should be familiar. He draws on lessons learnt from a career spent almost exclusively in the design and delivery of housing – since joining the young practice of Hunt Thompson Associates in the early 1970s as a year-out student, he has progressed to leading the 250 strong practice that HTA is today.

Derbyshire reminds us of the breadth and complexity involved in what we do as architects – and perhaps why many of us chose to be architects in the first place: a love of history, people, places, community, invention, technology, the planet. He does so, as Sadie Morgan notes in her foreword, “with curiosity and contemplation, warmth, empathy – a desire to understand people’s lives and improve them not simply through wood and stone but with green space, community and belonging.”

Derbyshire muses on how the architect has ceded trust and responsibility at all stages of the design and construction process

Derbyshire sets the tone in the first chapter, ’Lessons from Utopia’, recognising that “the fact that there is no road map to utopia does not mean there are no routes to more accessible destinations.” In the chapter titled ’The social context for practice’, Derbyshire muses on how the architect has ceded trust and responsibility at all stages of the design and construction process, and asserts that in order to regain influence we need to understand our work in political terms: it is up to us all to reduce inequity in the built environment and the profession, to build resilience, respond to the climate emergency and to protect the public through high standards of design and construction. “Our duty as professionals is not reserved solely to our clients but it is to enable them, through our work to meet the wider interests of society while satisfying their own.”

Chapters on the importance of planning, streets, typologies, inclusive and participatory design all reference historical precedent, place value on democratic spaces and systems and highlight the value of collaboration. The book is amply illustrated with HTA’s own projects, alongside those of other practices working in housing today. In the chapter ‘A factory built home is a well built home’ we are whisked through a history of standardised components and pioneering designs, before being convinced of the benefits of off-site factory production and mass customisation. Key to Derbyshire’s enthusiasm is the idea that repetition – in both process and design – is a means to democratise quality and is thus “inherently fairer in the distribution of opportunity.”

It offers useful guidance for practice

His chapter on Sustainability is a further call to action, with the imperative “you are either in the game or you are out”. It offers useful guidance for practice and covers wider issues such as control of quality through land disposal and the social and economic benefits of well-considered, efficient planning.

In attempting to narrate such a very broad landscape, the emphasis and depth across topics is inevitably subjective, often brief and sometimes uneven - and Derbyshire is “tormented” that there is so much he has not had space to describe. Equally, the collage of themes does not lead to neat conclusions. Nonetheless, in the final chapter he draws out four key principles of Order, Humanity, Sustainability and Beauty – using these as a didactic framework for his practice.

This book could easily have been a monograph, but unlike a monograph it lacks vanity and, again, like the work the practice produces, it is human, pragmatic, generous and, most importantly, optimistic and empowering. Situated instead somewhere between a gazeteer, a primer and a manifesto, Home Truths is aimed squarely at the profession. But it is equally relevant for clients, developers, planning consultants, the new housing minister – and the shadow housing minister – in fact anyone who might have any interest in or responsibility for the design and delivery of new homes and housing, and is attempting to do something about the problem right now.