Housing developers need to start designing for life - The Big Issue

Jul 27, 2021 11:03 PM

For too long developers have been throwing up high-density homes that look more to profit than people. But the secret to better building isn’t rocket science, says TV architect Laura Jane Clark


Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier's designs for vertical cities are a far cry from residential tower blocks. Image: The Big Issue

Creating a shelter is so intrinsic to our very nature, yet new housing schemes across the country are more often than not ill-suited to our everyday needs. Housing developers often reuse decades-old house plans, which in turn were based on Victorian living standards; tiny kitchens, separate dining rooms, tight staircases and corridors. Individual houses and flats in cookie-cutter estates cannot by their very design take into account how sunlight falls into each home, or views out.

Although I totally understand that housebuilders have to make a profit; it seems that a lot of developers are only truly interested in the bottom line and architectural input and progressive home design are the first things to fall by the wayside. The creative vision and the desire of architects to design successful homes is often considered in direct contradiction to the developer maximising their profit.

I think it is utterly reprehensible that the majority of housing developments are valued purely in monetary terms and not based on the quality of the homeowner or renter’s life within. The fundamental human need for shelter is reduced to a few lines on a spreadsheet, the most important of which being the bottom one. There have been some positive steps over the last 100 years, such as the garden city plan developed at the turn of the 20th century, but there have also been many mistakes.

The vertical city was an idea by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, where he combined homes into a tower as well as a fully functioning town with shops, salons, nurseries, play spaces and even a fantastic swimming pool on the roof for the local population. Yet when this model was adopted to create high-density housing in our cities in the 1960s and ’70s, in order to cut costs the communal elements were removed, including the shopping and the hairdressers, the entertainment and, of course, the rooftop swimming pool. Instead of an urban utopia, we all know the reality of cheaply built residential tower blocks where lowering costs is the driving factor.

Things have been changing, we are learning from our mistakes. Successful housing schemes designed from the occupants’ point of view are growing

Even with the best planning intentions, new town failures were not only due to economic reasons. Cumbernauld in Scotland was designed as a pedestrian paradise, removing the danger of road traffic accidents by physically separating the cars from the residents. In theory, a great idea, but in practice the poorly lit walkways and pedestrian tunnels became pretty inhospitable in themselves, with pedestrians preferring to take their chances on the pavement-free roads.

But things have been changing, we are learning from our mistakes. Successful housing schemes designed from the occupants’ point of view have been growing in this country. Intelligently designed housing with both the individual and community at their heart are now regularly winning RIBA awards, and the incredible Norwich Council estate Goldsmith Street scooped the Stirling Prize in 2019.

Intelligent and informed design aims to provide a sense of ownership in housing developments both large and small, of both personal space and the communal shared areas.

Incredible examples such as the Ouseburn Housing development by Ash Sakula Architects in Newcastle put into practice the principles of owner-focused design. Vital elements such as every property having its own-street facing front door gives a real sense of ownership, identity and also increases the safety of residents. Not only that, by negating the need for communal hallways the developers’ future maintenance costs were lowered and the architects were able to fit more units on the site. A real win-win for both the developer and the residents.

The flats and maisonettes themselves are designed for the demands of contemporary living, not a rehash of a stale old Victorian layout, with sunlight flooding in and a feeling of space within. Individual terraces and gardens adjoin each other, incorporating communal garden spaces for the residents to come together for celebrations and parties. Each home is truly embedded into the community. The addition of two commercial units, a successful independent bakery and café, are brilliant assets to the residents and also the local area. The Ouseburn housing scheme has been a key driver to the regeneration of the Ouseburn Valley, and this former industrial area of Newcastle is now thriving with business start-ups.

Joined-up thinking with developers, architects, landscape architects, town planners and builders is the way ahead, ensuring future residents are foremost in the design, with each member of the team asking themselves “would I like to live here?”

Homes must be designed and built that aren’t compromised by ruthless developers seeking solely to maximise profits. With democratic design at the heart, new progressive models of housing can be created that are not only truly sustainable and economically viable but bring wonderful green places to life, allowing communities to thrive.

Laura Jane Clark is an architect and presenter on BBC Two’s Your Home Made Perfect