Nik Randall, managing director of London-based reForm Architects, considers how the UK might boost the supply of affordable housing.
Home, sweet home
Well-designed buildings and spaces are vital for successful and sustainable towns and communities, and everyone has an image in their head of their ‘perfect home,’ — a safe place where they can live, bring up a family or retire to.
As architects we have a responsibility to design homes that people like and want to live in. We want to create homes that are loved, and we must keep sight of this whilst responding to the challenges of the housing and environmental crises.
Money, money, money
As soon as the date of the election had been confirmed, it seems that there was a magic money tree because throughout the campaign politicians have been promising countless billions to build ‘more homes, faster, cheaper and better.’ Whilst increased investment is desperately needed few are asking: how will this be achieved?
We hear there are numerous ‘shovel ready’ projects and all that’s needed is the money — like watering a seed and the homes will appear. Wouldn’t that be great! Unfortunately, we have seen poor housing delivered on the back of rushed political promises before and generations live with the consequences.
At reForm we agree that we need to build more homes, faster, cheaper and better, but it is vital our industry drives the agenda and offers the answers to ensure what we leave as our generation’s legacy will actually be better — better built, better value, better environmentally and better socially.
The answer is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach but one that needs an intelligent application of several approaches to design, funding and delivery. We must ensure we deliver better quality homes that respond to the modern way people want to live as well as meeting the need for speed of delivery. These objectives are not contradictory.
How affordable is affordable?
reForm has explored off-site construction to develop Custom House, (as a speculative venture) in order to enhance our knowledge and be ready to go to market with a prefabricated product that can ‘grow’ over the lifetime of a family.
This will enable families to remain within their communities whilst avoiding stamp duty and removal costs and the need to search for a new home, freeing the supply for others. But, design is only one part of our plan to make affordable homes truly affordable.
Thinking outside the (housing) box
We also have a cunning plan to drive down land value expectations and, in turn, the costs of new homes, and a way to recycle money back into the system to build more homes, but we aren’t quite ready to shout about it just yet.
Our concept has been developed to improve the supply and quality of new homes, whilst reducing cost. If we are right, this will make them truly affordable. No ‘Bank of Mum & Dad’ needed!
Other forms of construction area available, of course, and reForm has a proven track record of delivering locally popular and award-winning housing projects, using more established construction methods, that are loved by those that live in them and those that live near them.
Our O Central scheme at Elephant and Castle placed the affordable homes on a tree-lined boulevard, facing the Conservation Area, and the private homes for sale next to the railway. This very unorthodox approach helped reassure locals that their community was being respected, but had the added benefit for our client that we could almost double the number of private homes; all with great far-reaching views
Not in my backyard
Local opposition can delay or prevent an ill-conceived scheme, and this is where a politician’s need for speed (and flattering headlines) can be counterproductive. Think: ‘the tortoise and the hare’. Opposition is often the result of a scheme that feels imposed on an area or fails to understand the community and context it is in.
High-quality design rooted to context and existing community, whilst providing the homes for the way people live today, minimises local fear and opposition, and speeds up the planning process. It is not sufficient to have a pattern book of standard house types and scatter them onto a plan. New homes must be well-designed that respond to the area they are in, which will assure local communities and planning officers that subsequent schemes will be similarly well-designed — further boosting the speed that additional homes are delivered.
Co-Living and student housing almost invariably use volumetric construction, with fitted out bed-sit-type rooms, delivered to site and stacked into the desired arrangement. But what happens when the demographic changes and a bed-sit no longer provides what young people and students want in 30 or 50 years’ time?
The conventional wisdom is that once investors have achieved their return, they can simply knock the building down and start again. Not anymore. We need to aspire to design zero-carbon homes, but if they need to be knocked down after 30 years, the waste of embodied energy is huge. This comes back to making sure ‘speed does not become the enemy of the good.’
We all know of schemes that fall into this category — tower blocks and estates that are now landfill — and we must not repeat these mistakes. It is the flexible buildings of the past centuries that have generally survived as they can adapt to the needs of a changing world.
Can we design buildings that can perhaps be a factory today, a school in 50 years’ time and housing at the end of the century?
Built in the 1950s, the former long span Texas Instruments factory is now a business and conference centre. It could be a school or housing in another 50 years.
Re-use or remove?
And, of course we should also re-use, not remove wherever possible. For the same environmental reasons as above, but also because the best buildings from a previous age give us a link to our shared past, and that is an important part of a sustainable community.
reForm’s scheme in Stalybridge for Urban Splash rescued a series of Grade II Listed mill buildings, which others had reported as being beyond saving. We achieved this, in part, by questioning the conclusions of others and preparing an alternative approach, which greatly reduced the costs of rescuing the structures. Alongside our questioning minds was a passion to save the buildings as vital pieces of local history.
Stalybridge expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution from such mills and witnessed water power giving way to steam and river transport being replaced by canals and then railways.
The mill buildings were at the very heart of the town, in every sense, and still are. They now combine residential with retail and commercial space and are complimented by a new building positioned on the footprint of another former mill. The flexibility inherent in the buildings from previous centuries has enabled us to start a new chapter of the living history of this town.
The housing and environmental crises are here, and reForm wants to be a part of the answers, not part of a problem for the next generation to solve. We can only play our small part and would welcome working with new clients, design teams and contractors who share our collaborative approach, to meet the financial, logistical, social, cultural and environmental needs of our age, faster, cheaper and better.
ABOUT REFORM ARCHITECTS
reForm Architects is an award-winning practice based near Borough Market in London. They have a track record for ‘punching above their weight’ and in 2016 the company beat over 300 entries to win the New London Architecture ‘Peoples’ Choice Award’.
For more information visit their website.