We are delighted that UCL (University College London) at Here East hosted our second round table on housing this summer, with Professor Yolande Barnes, Chair of the Bartlett Real Estate Institute and advisor to the government's 'Building Beautiful, Building Better' Commission. Steve Cole, Head of Strategy at Clarion Housing Group, Steven Butterworth, Senior Director at planning consultancy Lichfields, and low energy architecture expert Mark Elton, Director at Cowan Architects also took part.
Our discussions looked forward to the Commission's December 2019 report and reflected on the themes of the interim report – ‘Creating Space for Beauty’ published in July. A debate took place about the report's emphasis on the word 'beauty' and why this was a helpful word to concentrate on when trying to raise the standard of housing design and place.
Professor Yolande Barnes commented:
'The word beauty is useful as it opens debate beyond the usual architectural critiques to discuss how the whole place (neighbourhood and city) works. You have to think beyond the boundaries of a building. We have to look at how do we design land and design money as well as design product. I mean by this how does the land market work and how do we procure land? We cannot just we keep selling to the highest bidder as the business models behind development have a huge impact on what’s built and its very often that business model that designs the building.
'Authenticity particularly in new housing has been missing. I am not just interested in individual buildings, it’s the beauty of places that matters. Geography is under-rated. Streets and spaces are important and there has to be some authenticity to create beauty. Our space syntax work at UCL is making sense of how people inter-act across spaces. (Beauty is a) productive place where human exchanges can take place. We can see now what has been wrong with single use housing…all of these developments fail the pint (of milk and beer) test! There is often a void of human interaction and that is ugly.
'The interim report outlines the problem but the next part of the report can look at solutions in a holistic way, and community involvement has a supremely important role. A global phenomenon is that real estate will be in future valued on a net income stream basis and not on immediate capital receipts. What will matter is rent, so building and estate management costs, energy costs and how productive the space is, will be very important to the long-term investors. Therefore making a place attractive and successful for the long term becomes important and how you respond to what your ‘customers’ – the people living and using the properties - want will be crucial.'
Steve Cole, Strategy Lead at Clarion Housing Group was keen to question the emphasis on the word 'beauty'
'Beauty can be a nebulous term and very much in the ‘eye of the beholder’ but I welcome discussion of place making. The idea that people should be in the cheapest house that can be built for them is not good, but the landscaping can take 15 years to take shape properly. The issue of identity is importnt and we – at Clarion - are very interested in how we get all of our housing stock to a cohesive standard. It’s about geography, place and design.'
Steven Butterworth, Senior Director at Lichfields who has been working on the development of place around Lewisham Station in South East London, said the importance of masterplanning cannot be underestimated:
'The beauty point is where people feel positive about living. You shape a place or - if it’s new - you make it. Master-plans are very important. In Lewisham the council has a plan with different quarters. It is trying to transform the Conington Road area – just to the north of the rail and DLR station and bus hub - which has historically been separated by a huge roundabout from the high street and the plan is to integrate. The opening up of the river Quaggy and allowing Lewisham to expand to the north makes Conington so much more open than when it was a collection of retail parks and it is much more pleasant around the transport hub. We are now making the most of our transport hubs in cities which is a good thing. This is all crucial for the concept of ‘beauty’ in a city, but it starts with a masterplan and the buildings come after that.'
Mark Elton, Director, Cowan Architects, concluded that:
'Beauty is about the community as much as the buildings. I’d point towards the Norwich Council housing scheme (Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley) which is shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling prize, as evidence that there is good architecture for housing. We’ve talked a lot about needing to be car-free to enhance the beauty of place. But as you get to developer led housing then the car takes over. We need more investment in access to other transport to change things. Sustainability is also about beauty and low carbon design has to be attractive. PassivHaus is not just an energy standard, it’s a quality standard and this gives it authenticity. We are seeing massive flaws in developer-led housing, and people are not getting what they have been promised. It is important that low energy PassivHaus construction can be used for low income families so they can spend less money on energy and heating and afford to eat well.'
We will be releasing our housing briefings report soon, with further content from our round tables this summer. All research will underpin our September forum on the Greenwich Peninsula at Ravensbourne University London, on the future of city housing and place-making.