The property industry is telling investors that Greater Birmingham is a thing

Sorry, Solihull, you're Greater Birmingham now. Image: Velela/Wikimedia Commons.

There's a Greater London. There's a Greater Manchester. But there is no Greater Birmingham – and woe betide anybody who forgets this. Probably the single angriest response we've ever received to any article published on CityMetric was to this one:

Okay, we were sort of asking for it, but still.

Now there are a number of reasons why the West Midlands, as the conurbation in the middle of England is awkwardly known, eschewed the naming conventions in use in other British cities. Part of it is geography: Birmingham sits to one side of its conurbation, rather than being at the centre of it.

And part of it is history: Wolverhampton and the towns of Black Country have their own economies and their own industries, and didn't grow up simply as dormitory suburbs for Brum. (Even now Wolverhampton is sometimes counted as a separate city by European agencies and so forth, which frankly makes economic comparisons with, say, Manchester a right pain.)

But whatever the reason, the result is the same: many of the good people of the West Midlands reject the idea that they are living in Birmingham at all. When the region's council leaders were considering a regional authority, the only thing they were completely agreed on is that it wouldn't be known as Greater Birmingham. In an article last November, the political editor of the Birmingham Post, Jonathan Walker argued, in not so many words, that the choice of name was "antagonistic" to the non-Birmingham bits of the conurbation and so should be dropped.

Even the Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP, the one official body with the dreaded phrase in its name

a) feels the need to pretend Solihull is just as a important as Birmingham (it isn’t), and anyway

b) excludes the whole of the Black Country, which one might think would be part of Greater Birmingham, but no, which has its own LEP.

So – there's no Greater Birmingham, there has never been a Greater Birmingham, and there never will be a Greater Birmingham.

But what's this?

That's from a press pack we were emailed last week. Greater Birmingham, you'll be excited to hear, is at the heart of a £110bn regional economy. More businesses were started in Greater Birmingham over the last two years than anywhere else in the UK outside London. It offers a host of exciting opportunities for property developers right across the region – from Wolverhampton in the north west to Solihull in the south east, Greater Birmingham is going places.

Which means that it must, y'know, exist in some way. Right?

We asked a spokesperson from Marketing Birmingham. Here's what she said:

Greater Birmingham doesn’t have any official status – it’s just used for MIPIM, targeting an international property audience. It involves Birmingham, the Black Country and Solihull.

Okay. So, Greater Birmingham doesn't actually exist. It's just that if you're trying to sell the conurbation to an international audience it's better to use Birmingham (which people have heard of) than the West Midlands (which they haven't) or, worse, "Birmingham, Wolverhampton, the Black Country and Solihull" (which, ouch).

In other words, the further you go from the city – from any city, really – the less important the distinctions between its various components become. Within the Midlands, there is a meaningful difference between Wolverhampton and Solihull. But viewed from London this looks like nitpicking; viewed internationally it looks incomprehensible. If the West Midlands is competing for investment with Marseille or Milan or Medellin, then Birmingham – however unlikely this sounds – is the best weapon it could have.

Which is basically we said before everybody started yelling at us, but hey. Anyway, here's an artists impression of what the "Paradise" quarter will look like once they've demolished the library and finished redoing it.

Image: Birmingham City Council.


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.