How better design could help solve the housing crisis

Commissions, opinions and philosophy get in the way of solving the housing crisis, yet the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. What will?

By Hugo Owen

Described by the late Sir Roger Scruton as “recognisable only by its superlative ugliness”, Milton Keynes marked its 50th anniversary a few years ago. The American-styled grid system development was the 1970s answer to the UK’s housing crisis. Built for its efficiency in the utopian age of the car, the concept has since been met with both its loyalist supporters as well as its staunchest critics.

housing crisis
Will reflecting on the past help to solve the housing crisis of today? (Photo by I Wei Huang/Shutterstock)

Despite its very user-friendly design, it is certainly hard not to sympathise with some of the latter views. Its compartmentalised layout, divided into rigid districts without any conventional high street, as well as its distinct lack of an architectural style, leaves the individual questioning exactly what or where Milton Keynes actually is. 

Although the famous grid system did not become commonplace in town planning, the concept of nothingness sadly did. By driving to the edge of any traditional town, you are able to see its influence. Moving through the higgledy-piggledy streets, organically grown over centuries, built from the local materials available at the time, you are abruptly met with a sudden sense of soullessness. Ahead of you, a sprouting new development, bolted on, with what seems to be little or no thought on what it would actually mean to inhabit such a place. The charming vernacular was replaced with a red brick, box-like dystopia. Built in the most simplistic architectural form available, the suburban, car-centric design relies solely on the existing built forms to supply any sort of focal or communal point.

An alarming but sadly all too frequent sight. But how have we got to a point where an M1 service station has more character and a sense of place than developments supposedly built to create a community that people cherish and love?

This suburban sprawl model, efficient and cost-effective to build, has consistently been pushed by developers as an answer to the UK housing crisis. In line with this, and arguably a more damaging factor altogether, a highly competitive land market has further dictated the direction in which the industry has drifted. The competitive nature of land purchases means developers are driven to maximise units per acre in order to improve the land price. 

In a cost-saving exercise, anything that doesn’t reflect immediate value is stripped back. Whether it is the trees that align the streets, the architectural features that adorn the properties or the open spaces that abut the houses, all of these reflect either an added cost or, equally, loss of potential real estate value to the land buyer. What is left, therefore, is a development built purely for its utility, devoid of beauty or sense of place, with no thought on the role the built environment plays on the people who will inevitably occupy these properties.

In 2018, however, the Conservatives set out to tackle this problem, creating the ‘Building Better Building Beautiful’ Commission, influenced by the likes of Plato, Ruskin and Kant. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was chosen to head the commission. Its aim: to demonstrate the ability not only to build more houses but to build them with the fundamental value of beauty at the heart of design.

Predictably, the announcement of the commission was met with a number of politically charged criticisms. Concerns ranging from architectural elitism to the metaphysical question of “who are you to define beauty” were levelled. In an age of postmodernist thinking, it was indeed unsurprising that a commission looking to objectify beauty was met with such rigour and scrutiny. Once again, however, we were back at the place where Hume began: beauty was merely a matter of taste.

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Fast forward a year, however, and consensus had spoken. It may well be true that we are unable to define beauty on an objective or subjective level, but the general preferences of the public surely provide the most substantial claims to tackle this debate. 

The research was clear. With the help of the Policy Exchange, as well as tireless sociological and psychological research by companies such as Createstreets, the commission looked back in order to move forward. The announcement of the unprecedented national design code draws strongly upon classical pattern book vernacular for its answers to placemaking, and uses modern-day examples such as Nansleden and Poundbury as illustrations of what can be achieved.

The design code sets out a broad collection of principles that each local authority should adhere to and adapt, setting out a number of ways in which social well-being can be improved through design and aesthetics. Its research was clear: by creating a community with a sense of belonging, ’ well-being’ will be enhanced. And its approach is simple: life would come from the buildings.

To achieve this the design code would offer a how-to guide on everything, from the composition of facades and the creation of streets to the harmonisation of scales and the distribution of open space. These are by no means radical ideas, merely ones that have been neglected in recent times: the use of traditional low-rise, high-density streets with clear fronts and clear backs in which it is easy to walk, for example; or the use of mixed residential, commercial and retail streets. 

Modern principles for a housing crisis

Such principles are not commonplace in development currently but are vital in both the concept of autonomous walkable environments, creating a sense of community and social cohesion. They look to the use of busy street facades, bristling with variety with the power to improve neighbourly interactions; the use of modest front gardens or steps to the front door all of which increase social interaction and create a sense of place. The right use of green spaces can also provide benefits, while the simple use of street trees not only improves the aesthetic nature of design but is also proven to enhance mental health.

A clear thread ran straight through the document. Creating a sense of place equals happy and desirable communities. Take London for example. Although victim to the concept of urban sprawl, the capital benefits from a rather unique situation. Its vast growth over the last century has seen the subsequent swallowing up of many traditional villages and hamlets. Once set in rolling countryside, built with all the necessary functions to serve its autonomous community, the villages now play a fundamental role in forming the London we see today. Whether you visit Nunhead, Hackney or Islington, for example, you can’t help but be struck by the sense of place and community, despite modern architects’ best endeavours. 

In order to highlight this, however, the commission used more recent developments such as Prince Charles’ Poundbury and Nansledan. This is an interesting example and poses an altogether different question. Are places such as Poundbury beautiful? Can a copy of something really be beautiful?

Ruskin’s interpretation of Poundbury would have been a fascinating one. Appreciation for the gothic elements, dotted around the site, would have quickly been replaced by bewilderment at what lay behind the facade. 

A pastiche copy of something could certainly not be a thing of beauty in Ruskin’s eyes. In the world of art, it is an easy debate to be had. The experience of an individual when exposed to a copy of say the Mona Lisa differs exponentially in comparison to exposure to the real thing. Scruton’s argument, however, would be one based on the fact that if we are unable to offer anything new in its place, then the best option we have is to copy a tried and tested model.

Maybe Ruskin’s stance on Poundbury would have loosened a little on the realisation of just how far aesthetics in architecture had slipped since his Victorian heyday. 

Who knows. But one thing that we can be sure of is his appreciation of the idea that the elevation of the individual can be achieved through aesthetics. There are certainly examples of that at Poundbury. By creating a sense of place through good traditional design forms, individuals are able to find meaning and pride both within their own lives and the community around them. The flourishing local businesses within Poundbury, which contribute over £98m to the local economy, are a strong example of this. 

Not only can you create better communities with such a design but you can also improve the country’s housing crisis delivery. I experienced first-hand, during my time with a volume house builder that, without doubt, the biggest cause of hold-ups in planning applications is the disagreement over aesthetics. Developers, at every opportunity, will try and utilise their standard design product, in a one-size fits all approach. This approach is, more often than not, met with popular resistance, causing substantial delays. As a result, the council is left between a rock and a hard place: approve the application and meet government housing crisis targets, or stand firm and uphold the vernacular values of the area but miss them.

By appreciating the aesthetic nuances of each area, this unneeded resistance will be removed, therefore allowing proposed developments to smoothly navigate the time-consuming planning system. The fear is not the idea of development growth itself, but the execution of that development – a fear that is rooted in the idea that, if resistance is not upheld, their charming town, stooped in vernacular history, may just become another version of Milton Keynes. 

Hugo Owen is a former employee of one of the volume housebuilders.

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