“Does the front of the house look nice?” is not a question about good design

The Royal Family look round Poundbury, an experimental traditional new town, built on the outskirts of Dorchester. Image: Getty.

The acronym “BMBH”, as CityMetric readers surely know, stands for the only way to solve the housing crisis: Build More Bloody Houses. But what if it stood instead for something a bit softer: Build More Beautiful Houses, perhaps? Could we make it all – Generation Rent, the soaring homeless population, NIMBYism, even our physical and mental health problems – go away, just by building more beautifully?

That is essentially the argument of Policy Exchange’s new report, Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis. On the face of it, nobody can really object to this idea. “Things should be beautiful” is hard idea to disagree with. As the report puts it, getting pretty Byronic for a think-tank paper on housing supply, “Beauty is a universal value... its existence as a shared aspiration and a guiding light is unchallenged”.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything else about the report is really very easy to disagree with.

The report’s argument is that if we try to build beautiful houses, we’ll be able to build more of them – because people won’t object to beautiful things being built, so development will be easier. And people will then be happier, because there’ll be more beautiful houses to live in and everything will be just lovely for everybody. (“People are overwhelmingly positive about the impact of good design,” the report helpfully tells us. People like things that are good: reports are also coming in that the Pope is a Catholic.)

All of which sounds lovely – and the report is correct to point out that good design and good housing makes people happier and healthier. Living at the whim of landlords because you’ll never own your own home is bad for your mental, and often physical, health. Evicting people from their homes so they can be demolished and replaced with flats that won’t be available to any of the people who use to live in the area is bad for communities.

But does the report tackle any of that? Does it even tackle the more obviously design-related reasons why housing in the UK is in such a miserable state – like the fact it has the lowest space standards of any country in Europe, and that they’re getting lower all the time? No, it does not – instead, it pivots stealthily from “good design” through “beauty” and on into its real goal: “traditional design”. That phrase replaces “beauty” halfway down the report. The authors are clearly hoping you won’t notice these aren’t actually the same thing.

Of course, they have data to show that what people like is traditional housing.  They conducted polls, asking people whether they agreed with such unbiased statements as, “Traditional design is not just about making buildings look better, it’s about improving the quality of life” – a notion with which 75 per cent of people agreed. (I would like to buy drinks for the solid 25 per cent of people who insisted, despite the obviously leading question, that “new buildings should be adventurous and different, even if they shock or offend people”. Are you triggered, traditionalists?)

Best of all is the appendix of focus-group data, detailing how Policy Exchange showed some people a handful of pictures of buildings transparently nabbed from Rightmove, and asked them “Which, in your opinion, has the right ‘look and feel’ for an urban setting/suburbs/rural areas?” The pictures they used, helpfully shown in the appendix, are hilarious: bizarrely, it turns out that people like the look of a nice clear head-on picture of some Georgian townhouses more than they do a blurry, overhead, zoomed-out picture of the Barbican that doesn’t show what the individual living units look like at all.


The results also clearly show that the people surveyed consistently dislike vaguely neo-traditional stuff plonked down as if it’s always been there – but the authors end up calling for that anyway. Sweetly, the report finishes up by remembering to say that, “To be clear, a stronger emphasis on good design need not, and should not, come at the cost of affordable housing.” But it doesn’t say exactly how that would be avoided: in fact, flying the flag for traditional architecture just ends up making it harder to get new things built and further inflates the value of the property people already own.

Nor does the report ever actually address how we could attain good design.  “Does the front of the house look nice?” and “Wouldn’t you like to live in this large house in Chelsea?” are not questions that tell us anything about good design. Good design is actually about liveability inside and out, accessibility, adaptability – all things that architects of all periods can get right or wrong. Yet the authors apparently think – while straight-facedly calling for a greater role for the profession – that the job of an architect is to whack a country-cottage facade on everything in sight.

Who are these authors, you might ask? Why, alongside wonk and occasional CityMetric writer Jack Airey (and after an approving foreword by James Brokenshire, the current housing minister), the other two authors are Sirs Roger Scruton and Robin Wales.

Scruton is the long-standing king brain of intellectual conservatism – a sort of 80s Jordan Peterson (and for many years the New Statesman’s wine critic). He knows nothing about architecture, planning or housing, however: presumably he just has a google alert for the word “traditionalism”.

Wales, meanwhile, is the former Labour mayor of Newham, ousted earlier this year by a local party livid that, among other things, he’d failed to provide any meaningful social housing provision. To be fair, though, he does have a track record of taking an interest in design, having bought several lamps at a cost of over £1,800 each for his new council offices. (The wild cost of such things may have been another reason why his party eventually got sick of him). How charmingly post-partisan to see that a former Labour mayor – of one of the poorest parts of London, no less – can find a new role in life writing reports that Tory ministers are happy to endorse.

Ben Brock lives in London, works in publishing, and yells about buildings on twitter as @cinemashoebox.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”