Build up or build out? How to tackle urban density

The Sapphire Tower: one of a new generation of residential towers proposed for Cardiff. Image: Nicholas Socrates Associates.

These days, we almost expect that any large-scale, big impact inner-city development will be a skyscraper. But for smaller cities in the UK these proposals can still appear as fairly extreme, and their approval contentious.

Take, for example, Cardiff, where a new 42-storey, 132m high building of affordable student accommodation is due to become Wales' new tallest building. At just under half the height of London’s Shard, the new building seems paltry when compared to the world’s skyscrapers – but developments like this are still big news for smaller cities.

This contention with skyscrapers is something that has been hashed out again and again in cities all over the world. But rather than focus on how high we are building new housing developments, or where they are situated, it is time that we looked at the big picture.

Under pressure

The pressure to accommodate the housing demand in the UK is enormous. However, the opportunity is there to look more at holistic solutions that achieve balanced outcomes. Unlike London, cities such as Cardiff, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham, to name a few, are not short of space; they still have capacity to accommodate the housing needed, while promoting happiness and well-being.


Building high rise residential units should be given a great deal of thought, even in those cases when the setting can accommodate them appropriately. There is sufficient scientific evidence of the negative health and social implications of dense living. Nottingham, for example, among other cities, is currently demolishing its iconic towers the Lenton flats, to give way to more positive residential alternatives.

The issue of urban density has been the subject of debate and research for decades, if not centuries. Humans can adapt to their environments but they do so at a cost – and a number of studies have highlighted the links between density and stress as well as other physical and psychological disorders.

High-rise living can be isolating, separating residents from daily urban life and the activities that take place on the streets. Up to three or four storeys, however, one can still comfortably walk down to the street. From a window, one can connect visually and feel part of the public scene. For this reason, many built environment professionals believe four storeys is the maximum acceptable building height to achieve a decent level of connection, protect health and deliver the right level of density at the same time.

Although it may then seem better for our health, low urban density and detached housing in “out of town” locations have been branded as one of the largest causes of greenhouse gases emissions because of car use. Lower densities also make it harder to develop a neighbourhood feeling: they increase travelling distances and may be more detrimental to farming and species preservation due to their potential expansion into agricultural land.

High or low

Despite the perks and pitfalls to both inner-city and low urban density living, people’s preference tends towards the latter. A study conducted in the US found that some people prefer low density suburbs because freestanding houses in open wide areas enhance their self-esteem and sense of ownership, and are convenient for driving and parking. Large UK housing developers have also found that this “American Dream” model also appeals to customers who want “character; neighbourhoods that feel like places with their own attractive identity”.

The major concern over increasing density is the public perception that privacy would be compromised and, although this issue can be resolved with intelligent design, traditional models remain largely the norm. Some aspects of design are essential to achieving a successful density level where people still find peace, a place where they can retreat from the stress of everyday life, a distinctive character, a sense of identity and community belonging.

But which approach should we choose – building up or moving out?

There is still debate about whether humans should live in lower density settlements or if the damage caused to the environment through this approach is simply too large. Unfortunately, both ends of the spectrum – suburbia and high rise – still dominate landscapes. And while people’s preferences justify low density, the argument that higher density better delivers sustainability is often misinterpreted and misused to justify development led by land value and to secure larger economic gains.

Some recent schemes – such as Accordia in Cambridge and Trent Basin in Nottingham Waterside – demonstrate that common ground can be achieved, delivering models of medium density with compact yet green living as a compromise, to create desirable urban environments while also delivering on sustainability.

However, prototypes like these often require innovative and creative funding mechanisms to make schemes feasible; and traditional residential development models are not currently sufficient to cope with all the pressures of the market and legislative frameworks. Until the planning, regulatory and financial mechanisms take the issues of environmental and social sustainability seriously, it is unlikely we will see positive changes in the design and delivery of residential schemes.

Perhaps a bigger effort is required from the built environment industry as a whole to find positive solutions to the issue of housing in UK urban areas. Skyscrapers should be more carefully considered for cities like Cardiff, where medium density developments are still viable and could provide the best of both worlds.The Conversation

Laura Alvarez is a lecturer in architectural technology at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.