“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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, 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.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.