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What is the future of housing?

Let's all live in the woods!

By Jen Pen June 2015

In the unaffordable world of the current property market, why do so many of us scorn the affordable new-build? Resident architect Jen Pen sheds some energy-saving light on how the clashing concepts of new-housing and dream-home could shack up in an ideal world.

Working in an Architects’ office that specialises in urban design, I work with large developers and housing schemes almost daily. Yet somewhat bizarrely, as architects we have very little say on the design of the actual houses. Most often we are employed to develop a master-plan and street composition.  Standardised house-type designs are rolled out across numerous developments, without any attempts at improvement or much consideration to the immediate locality.

Whilst I agree home-builders are entitled to turn a profit, their view is arguably short-term and therefore not condusive to longevity or quality design. Often do we see the use of cheap construction methods and materials, coupled with unnecessary ‘gob-on’ features used to mimic contemporary trends, such as bolt-on chimneys, columned entrance canopies and imitation stonework. A developer will simply look to build homes with ‘selling points’ (walk-in wardrobes, en-suites, open plan spaces etc.) But these are trends, and trends change.

Realistically, does this provide robust housing? A home we can adapt alongside our changing lifestyles? Our new-builds are certainly a far cry from the beloved Victorian terrace, whose ongoing success lies with its versatility and generous proportions. But how do we replicate this in the modern age?

The mailings, Ouseburn

Rather than letting developers re-use the same Lego-block house, revamping the veneer every couple of years, whilst retaining the same poor layout, architects would design houses tailored to their site. It is not as expensive as commonly believed, and good design is carefully considered, and it maximises on the locally-available resources. Housing and developers need to rediscover the sense of adventure and aspiration inherent to designing homes. Look back to public housing development in the 60s and 70’s, albeit sometimes misguided, there was aspiration aplenty, and a sense of responsibility to better the homes we live in.

One fantastic example of considered design re-defining the parameters of modern housing can be seen at the Newhall Be development in Harlow, Essex. Designed by Alison Brooks Architects, the development was shortlisted for the RIBA Sterling Prize in 2013, which is a big deal.  Like the aesthetic of the housing or lump it, it is hard to argue against the success of the general orientation, internal housing arrangements and private outdoor space afforded to every one of the homes on this high density development.

Newhall Be development, Harlow Essex

Unfortunately reaching such solutions isn’t always simple. Currently under construction is an award-winning urban development in Newcastle’s Ouseburn, which is designed to ensure the mix of 3-storey townhouses and stacked maisonettes all have individual outdoor spaces ranging from gardens to roof terraces. The idea is fantastic, but the execution is poor. The external façade is unimaginative and the materials look cheap, whilst internal layouts allow little room for furniture, and that in only one feasible arrangement.

Ultimately house builders have the power (and money) to shape the future of our housing. By taking a (calculated) risk and recognising that good design does not need to be expensive, they could improve the quality of living through the homes they provide. But for now at least, we are probably going to see a lot more of the sterile, pastiches of a foregone era rather than a vibrant celebration of our modern lives.

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