“Why aren’t we relevant?” Architects and their place in Britain’s housing crisis

A misleading impression of the architect's job? A scale model of London on display at last year's MIPIM real estate conference. Image: Getty.

Even post-2008, Britain’s worsening housing crisis still lingers around the fringe of the political radar. In London, while official figures put house building requirements at 49,000 units per year – and economic research suggests a figure closer to 60,000 – output in 2014 was a meagre 18,700.

Double-digit growth in property values, a depleted social housing stock, exploding private rents and continued foreign investment have culminated in the all-too-familiar reality of a crisis of affordability – not to mention a rapidly rising £25bn housing benefit bill, of which a quarter is spent on private rents in London and increasing homelessness.

Suggested solutions to these problems are not in short supply, and go beyond simply building more homes. We could allow local authorities the finance to engage in their own house building programmes, for example. We could introduce rent caps within a more regulated private rental sector; tackle the issue of land banking; encourage smaller independent contractors and self-builders to create a more diverse end product. All are plausible reactions to this situation.

The role of architects in all of this lies in a somewhat hazy landscape determined by the mechanisms of politics, powerful house building firms and the complex nature of the real estate market. In effect, architects succumb to the reality of being employed by a client, normally to carry out works within a highly regulated framework, and arrive far too late in the political and real estate food chain to be of any real significance in initiating how the built environment is produced. The overarching failure to solve the housing crisis has not been down to the architects, or even developers; rather, it’s because of limp public policy.


Architects are, to their credit, well-trained in spinning several bureaucratic plates at once, managing, coordinating and tip-toeing their way to the end goal of practical completion. Balancing numerous vested interests and regulatory risks, while possessing enough business acumen to make the task worth their while, the architect has clung on for many years while being derided from all corners and accused of leading the built environment to ruin.

In a process captured in the grainy black and white images of dreary Modernist estates, public trust has been slipping ever further away from architects for decades. Yet the fact is that the vast majority of what we build has little to do with an architect at all.

For example, a high proportion of architects in southern Europe currently fund themselves unemployed as commissions, except for a few pre-crisis top-down investment projects, have become increasingly scared. As the construction industry began to falter, architects were among the first to be deemed disposable and wholly unnecessary as budgets were increasingly squeezed. This is not down to “bad” architects: it is down to the fact developers rarely actually need to use architects, or spend any time or money on design.

However, we now live in a time in which we are seeing a subtle, yet potentially potent, shift in future models of housing, particularly in London. The market has failed us; now we are gradually seeing cash-strapped second-tier level government bodies and councils motivated by targets in the housing sector.

In isolated examples such as Camden and Hackney, councils are becoming their own developers. Benefiting from the absurd levels of property value growth in London, the boroughs are seeking the opportunity to cross-subsidise their own schemes by providing private as well as social accommodation.

Last November, a report revealed that 40 per cent of brownfield land in London is still owned by the public sector: that means that effective house building by local authorities would go some way to plugging the gap. Where the local authorities remain impotent, however, is in the resources and know-how to carry out successful development of the sites which they hold.

This is where architects have something to offer in a world which fails to produce high quality housing. They often find themselves retreating into comfortable fields of design, based purely on formal properties – a phenomenon undeniably caused by the way in which architecture is generally still taught in the UK.

But knowledge of proportion, light, space and so on form the architect’s most reliable set of skills. Instead of considerations on form, the tools and knowledge which architects pick up across other fields, almost unknowingly along their career path, have huge potential within an institution which has a genuine necessity to build, namely local government.

All this runs the risk of appearing overly nostalgic. Older members of the profession have long reminded us of the golden days, reciting to younger colleagues their favourite bedtime story of times during the 1970s when the public sector employed half of Britain’s architects.

Yet as we speak, programmes are being drafted which provide placements for young architects seeking experience in the public sector: these should be wholly encouraged. Issues of viability, strategic development and planning policy are all inevitably part of the architect’s remit: often, though, they do not feature in their day to day work, because of the which in a building is procured.

One solution to the housing crisis is to provide the facility for local authorities to engage in their own house building programs: this is a far better alternative than creating a liberalised planning system, which will weaken the very last powers of the architect to act as guardian of quality and longevity.

Architects must have faith in public and semi-public organisations to maximise the benefits of the huge swathes of land which remain in public hands – and develop these as part of an overall long term plan.

Thomas Feary is an MA graduate in architecture, and works in practice and as a writer in London. He tweets as @thomasfeary.

 
 
 
 

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.