Housing Design Crisis

In an effort to improve on the woeful standard of housing design in the UK the last government launched the Building for Life 12 scheme in 2014. It is ‘designed to help local communities become more involved in design conversations and in shaping development proposals. Its 12 questions provide a structure for discussions between local communities, the local planning authority, the developer, and other stakeholders, to ensure that the design of new homes and their neighbourhood is as attractive, functional and sustainable as possible.’ Bfl12 is led by three partners: Design Council (Cabe*), Home Builders Federation, and Design for Homes. It is an accreditation scheme that encourages and commends well designed new housing developments, and judging by the first batch of commended schemes it is partly succeeding. Amidst the dross there are some excellent and imaginative designs with thoughtful planning and landscaping.

*formerly Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment


Unfortunately these schemes are a drop in the ocean of the 300,000 houses which apparently need to be built every year to cope with the ‘housing crisis’. The biggest house builders, who will reap the rewards of this, have never been known for their interest in good design. Housing for the mass market has been distilled down to a vaguely traditional ‘planner friendly’ style: windows are always ‘traditional’, white with glazing bars and minimal sills; roofs are always pitched, with tile or slate; there are seldom any chimneys; brick is generic and looks like wall paper; to achieve ‘character’ (which sells) and a sort of ‘vernacular’ design, adjacent houses can be in contrasting colours and materials and have different roof levels. For more ‘prestige’ developments a bit of artificial stone can be used for sills or lintels. There is seldom any meaningful effort to suit the design to a particular part of the country – a development in Newcastle generally looks much the same as one in Taunton. Landscaping and sustainability are minimal, and the least the developer can get away with. These criticisms have been made for decades, and little has changed – private house building is stuck in a 1980s time warp!

This is a typical example in Bracknell, SE England, called Jennett’s Park. A huge development of 1,500 homes over 270 acres of farmland, it is being developed by Redrow and Persimmon, two of the UK’s biggest house builders. 200 developments of this size will be needed every year! A very detailed Design Statement was produced by PRP Planners :

“A coherent approach to the detail design of the dwellings is envisaged influenced by a series of timeless principles. The external appearance of the dwellings may either draw inspiration from the best local traditions and styles of Bracknell and district without resorting to ‘historical pastiche’, or explore the best of modern design, either of which should result in a distinctive development.”

You can judge how well this ‘coherent approach’ has succeeded by looking at the finished result. Try to spot any sign of inspiration from local traditions (whatever they are in Bracknell!) or any exploration of the best of modern design.

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Needless to say, there is absolutely no inspiration of any kind, or anything approaching modern design. The ‘timeless principles’ are those of thirty years ago and the development is so lacking in distinction it could be anywhere in England. The Design Statement was a complete waste of time as the design, detailing, materials, landscaping, and everything else are abysmal. Do the developers care? No, because almost every house sells as soon as it is finished. Do the planners care? No, because all the right boxes were ticked with a Masterplan, Design Statement, and Section 106 agreements*. Do the buyers care? No, they’re delighted to have found a brand new home, and most estates look much the same anyway. The Bfl12 scheme will struggle to have any influence on the design of private housing when there is no incentive to improve it!

*The developer provides schools, playgrounds, infrastructure etc as a condition of planning consent.

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