How better design could help solve the housing crisis

Milton Keynes, city of dreams. And roundabouts. Image: Getty.

Described by the late Sir Roger Scruton as “recognisable only by its superlative ugliness”, Milton Keynes marked its 50th anniversary two years ago. The American styled grid system development was the 1970s answer to the UK’s housing problem. Built for its efficiency in the utopian age of the car, the concept has since been met with both its loyalist supporters as well as its staunchest critics.

Despite its very user friendly design, it is certainly hard not to sympathise with some of the latter views. Its compartmentalised lay-out, divided into rigid districts without any conventional highstreet, as well as its distinct lack of an architectural style, leaves the individual questioning exactly what or where Milton Keynes actually is. 

Although the famous grid system did not become common place in town planning, the concept of nothingness sadly did. By driving to the edge of any traditional town, you are able to see its influence. Moving through the higgledy-piggledy streets, organically grown over centuries, built from the local materials available at the time, you are abruptly met with a sudden sense of soullessness. Ahead of you, a sprouting new development, bolted on, with what seems to be little or no thought on what it would actually mean to inhabit such a place. The charming vernacular, replaced with a red brick, box-like dystopia. Built in the most simplistic architectural form available, the suburban, car-centric design relies solely on the existing built forms to supply any sort of focal or communal point.

An alarming but sadly an all too frequent sight. But how have we got to a point where an M1 service station has more character and a sense of place than developments supposedly built to create a community that people cherish and love?

This suburban sprawl model, efficient and cost effective to build, has consistently been pushed by developers as an answer to the UK housing crisis. In line with this, and arguably a more damaging factor altogether, a highly competitive land market has further dictated the direction in which the industry has drifted. The competitive nature of land purchases means developers are driven to maximise units per acre in order to improve the land price. 

In a cost saving exercise, anything that doesn’t reflect immediate value is stripped back. Whether it is the trees that align the streets, the architectural features that adorn the properties or the open spaces that abut the houses, all of these reflect either an added cost or, equally, loss of potential real estate value to the land buyer. What is left, therefore, is a development built purely for its utility, devoid of beauty or sense of place, with no thought on the role the built environment plays on the people who will inevitably occupy these properties.

In 2018, however, the Conservatives set out to tackle this problem, creating the ’Building Better Building Beautiful’ Commission, influenced by the likes of Plato, Ruskin and Kant. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was chosen to head the commission. Its aim: to demonstrate the ability, not only build more houses, but to build them with the fundamental value of beauty at the heart of design.

Predictably, the announcement of the commission was met with a number of politically charged criticisms. Concerns ranging from architectural elitism to the metaphysical question of “who are you to define beauty” were levelled. In an age of postmodernist thinking, it was indeed unsurprising that a commission looking to objectify beauty was met with such rigour and scrutiny. Once again, however, we were back at the place where Hume began: beauty was merely a matter of taste.

Fast forward a year, however and consensus has spoken. It may well be true that we are unable to define beauty on an objective or subjective level, but the general preferences of the public surely provides the most substantial claims to tackle this debate. 

The research was clear. With the help of the Policy Exchange, as well as tireless sociological and psychological research by companies such as Createstreets, the commission has looked back in order to move forward. The recent announcement of the unprecedented national design code draws strongly upon classical pattern book vernacular for its answers to placemaking, and  uses modern day examples such as Nansleden and Poundbury as illustrations of what can be achieved.

The design code sets out a broad collection of principles which each local authority should adhere to and adapt, setting out a number of ways which social wellbeing can be improved through design and aesthetics. Its research was clear: by creating a community with a sense of belonging, ’wellbeing’ will be enhanced. And its approach is simple: life would come from the buildings.

To achieve this the design code would offer a how to guide on everything, from the composition of facades and the creation of streets to the harmonisation of scales and the distribution of open space. These are by no means radical ideas, merely ones that have been neglected in recent times: the use of traditional low-rise, high-density streets with clear fronts and clear backs in which it is easy to walk, for example; or the use of mixed residential, commercial and retail streets. 

Such principles are not commonplace in development currently, but are vital in both the concept of autonomous walkable environments, creating a sense of community and social cohesion. They look to the use of busy street facades, bristling with variety with the power to improve neighbourly interactions; the use of modest front gardens or steps to the front door all of which increase social interaction and create a sense of place. The right use of green spaces can also provide benefits, while the simple use of street trees not only improves the aesthetic nature of design but is also proven to enhance mental health.

A clear thread ran straight through the document. Creating a sense of place equals happy and desirable communities. Take London for example. Although victim to the concept of urban sprawl, the capital benefits from a rather unique situation. It’s vast growth over the last century has seen the subsequent swallowing up of many traditional villages and hamlets. Once set in rolling countryside, built with all the necessary functions to serve its autonomous community, the villages now play a fundamental role in forming the London we see today. Whether you visit Nunhead, Hackney or Islington, for example, you can’t help but be struck by the sense of place and community, despite modern architects’ best endeavour. 

In order to highlight this, however, the commission used more recent developments such as Prince Charles’ Poundbury and Nansledan. This is an interesting example and poses an altogether different question. Are places such as Poundbury beautiful? Can a copy of something really be beautiful?

Ruskin’s interpretation of Poundbury would have been a fascinating one. Appreciation for the gothic elements, dotted around the site, would have quickly been replaced by  bewilderment at what lay behind the facade. 

A pastiche copy of something could certainly not be a thing of beauty in Ruskin’s eyes. In the world of art, it is an easy debate to be had. The experience of an individual when exposed to a copy of say the Mona Lisa differs exponentially in comparison to exposure to the real thing. Scruton’s argument, however, would be one based on the fact that if we are unable to offer anything new in its place, then the best option we have is to copy a tried and tested model.

Maybe Ruskin’s stance on Poundbury would have loosened a little on the realisation of just how far aesthetics in architecture had slipped since his Victorian heyday. 

Who knows. But one thing that we can be sure of is his appreciation of the idea that elevation of the individual can be achieved through aesthetics. There are certainly examples of that at Poundbury. By creating a sense of place through good traditional design forms, individuals are able to find meaning and pride both within their own lives and the community around them. The flourishing local businesses within Poundbury, which contribute over £98m to the local economy, are a strong example of this. 

Not only can you create better communities with such design but you can also improve the country’s housing delivery. I experienced first-hand, during my time with a volume house builder that, without doubt, the biggest cause of hold-ups in planning applications is the disagreement over aesthetics. Developers, at every opportunity, will try and utilise their standard design product, in a one-size fits all approach. This approach is, more often than not, met with a popular resistance, causing substantial delays. As a result, the council is left between a rock and a hard place: approve the application and meet government housing targets, or stand firm and uphold the vernacular values of the area but miss them.

By appreciating the aesthetic nuances of each area, this unneeded resistance will be removed, therefore allowing proposed developments to smoothly navigate the time consuming planning system. The fear is not the idea of development growth itself, but the execution of that development – a fear that is rooted in the idea that, if resistance is not upheld, their charming town, stooped in vernacular history, may just become another version of Milton Keynes. 

Whether the commission will achieve its aim of bringing beauty back to design is a complex question. It’s success will come down to whether or not a localised system, with a poor track record, can effectively implement such an ideology. The creation of the new national design code, however, finally highlights a growing belief that has taken all but 52 years to bubble to the surface. No longer are people willing to allow developers to neglect their responsibility in the quest for profit. 

Milton Keynes did, therefore, serve its purpose. It reminded all political parties of what a housing policy, driven purely by delivery at the neglect of aesthetics, will achieve. It is certainly hoped that the work over the last two years will reflect a definitive moment where, finally, a better balance between these two seemingly contrasting factors can be found – reintegrating, at last, the concept of placemaking to the UK planning system.

Hugo Owen is a former employee of one of the volume housebuilders.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.