Designs for living
Why are so many housing developments complete rubbish? Alan Powers investigates s I open the October 2003 'Cladding' supplement of the weekly magazine Building Design, my eye is caught by a ull-page advertisement for Hardiplank siding. This cement-based imitation weatherboarding is available in colours including Rustic, Linen and Seclusion. The houses shown in the picture are English developers' big boxes, with Truman Show American-style trim on the front (the sides, confusingly, are of brick), including fetching little seaside balconies. Standard rubbish, perhaps, but up-to-date rubbish that tells us how the struggle to achieve un-rubbishy house design is as far as ever from resolution.
The design elite blames the private sector for building rubbish; the private sector blames the planners, politicians and Nimbys for restricting the supply of building sites, while enjoying the financial rewards of scarcity: a market ready to buy almost anything at any price. Brownfield sites promised a solution for protectors of the countryside as well as urban suburbophobes, but the idea still needs a lot of selling. John Prescott has looked to the Thames Gateway, effectively a vast linear brownfield, to relieve housing shortage in the South-east, while taking initiatives in other regions.
Given the protective attitude towards potential greenfield building sites, and the amount of incentive that is needed to make brownfield ones attractive, house building would be difficult even if every other aspect of it were a matter of consensus. This, needless to say, is far from the case. There are three groups sharing little in common with each other.
The 'volume house builders' have the simplicity of profit motive, as their products indicate all too readily. The two other groups propose different ways of trying to ameliorate this condition.
Architects try various methods of persuasion but, since they have little sympathy for what the buyers want, their impact has been limited. An alternative is offered by the New Urbanist movement.
This originated in America, where the products of private development are even worse. New Urbanists, most of whom are from the minority of architects or planners who do have a blazing conviction of the value of 'tradition', have devised a method of masterplans and codes to regulate sizes and types of houses, road layouts and parking, and many other details. This prevents the worst from happening, although so far in Britain the only example to judge them by is Poundbury, the new quarter of Dorchester built on Duchy of Cornwall land since the early 1990s. A great deal of care was given to this project, and even its opponents in the architectural field have to admit it is preferable to the traffic engineers' and developers' standard product.
Last year, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, visited Poundbury and its chief inspiration, Seaside, Florida, and liked what he saw. The idea of 'coding' is now enshrined in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's selected scheme for the expansion of Ashford and elsewhere. Mr Prescott has also been meeting the Prince and members of his Foundation for Architecture, which has switched its efforts from training students to providing design services. Seaside was used for filming The Truman Show, in which the hero gradually discovers that his whole life is being spent on a film set. Paul Murrain of the Prince's Foundation counters the easy disparagement of this connection by asking whether people would prefer to live on the set of A Clockwork Orange. An interesting period is just beginning, in which CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) will have to mediate between these polarised positions on the government's behalf. If 'modern' is wrong, 'traditional' is not necessarily right, or vice versa.
How did we get into a state where the choices seemed so narrow? The past 50 years offer examples of middle positions, such as the SPAN housing designed by Eric Lyons, or the Norfolk council houses of Tayler and Green, but these models are now neglected. Everyone involved in this discussion tries to talk about 'quality' rather than 'style', but they have yet to persuade anyone that they can uncouple these issues from each other. None of the contesting parties has the whole of the answer, but each may have a section of it.
Other questions have produced other answers which, without prescribing what things will look like in any but the broadest terms, are probably more important. Good housing is difficult to build in present market conditions because the loans that finance it are short-term and there is no allowance for making the infrastructure or roads and landscape ahead of the housing, or for putting in a mixture of uses from the start, providing local employment and community facilities. Private landowners, such as the Duchy of Cornwall, are better placed to work in this way, but the Prince's Foundation is working on a masterplan for the expansion of Northampton which not only enforces codes, but will also achieve this phased growth.
Registered social landlords (or housing associations) have been more experimental in architectural patronage in recent years than private developers. In commissioning BedZed (Beddington Zero Fossil Energy Development) from the architect Bill Dunster, for example, the Peabody Trust has presented a new type of sustainable low-energy housing which offers its residents not only fuel economies built into the design, but also a lifestyle that can turn them, in Dunster's words, from `ecoslobs' into 'ecosaints', chiefly by organising grocery deliveries to the site and the opportunity to share in a car pool. Other forms of housing should do no less, although the New Urbanists would see BedZed as excessively concerned with one set of issues only. The private sector, meanwhile, expects a financial return so rapid that it will not yet consider building in this way.
The rate of expansion predicted will scarcely allow for the thinking time to resolve these contradictions, and, at best, different products will jostle for attention on the shelves of the housing supermarket. Maybe that is the best we can expect, but surrounded as we are by some of the most unstrenuously delightful dwellings produced in the history of the world, we might do better.