Thought: New Housing vs Existing Stock

I read that 70% of all homes in 2050 have already been built. This is joyous news to my ears as a fan of ‘upcycling’ the existing housing stock, but a recent study has confirmed I’m not the only one.

I am 22 years old, and a number of my friends have secured very impressive jobs and are now looking to buy their first home. The government has a brilliant Help to Buy scheme that will lend you 20% of the cost of your first house with no loan fees. T&C’s apply, including that you must be under 40 and it must be a new build. It’s an attractive incentive to get on the property ladder, but….?

It is common knowledge within the architecture community, and probably beyond, that there is a lot of money to be made by housing developers. You buy a reasonably cheap plot of land then fill the area with as many houses as you can. The design costs are remarkably low because there are often a number ‘typical’ housing layouts that are repeated, and maybe tweaked, throughout the site. This bulk building also helps to reduce construction costs. These savings are then (somewhat) passed on to the buyer who can afford to buy their first home.

However, it seems that the population isn’t biting. The HomeOwners Alliance has just published an article explaining the results of the recent YouGov study in which it was found that only 21% of those asked would prefer to buy a new build. The same study found that 47% would prefer to buy a home 10 years or older. Even as a heritage enthusiast, I was shocked by these results. Not only are new build properties financially appealing with schemes like Help to Buy, but they should have no hidden problems and have a greater energy efficiency than an old house, and many offer warrenties. They are often built in great communities with great access to town centres and beyond. So why are they not so favourable?

The table above shows the results of the study. Most noteworthy are the hugely negative scores for Spaciousness, Amount of Green Space, Characteristics and Quality of Build. It is often the case that the main aim of the design of a housing scheme is to get as many properties in at the lowest cost to the developer. This can mean the houses are built to the smallest acceptable scale, with the simplest design. It is clear that the public have noticed this.

However: this is not always the case. There are a number of fantastic housing schemes around the country. The Accordia development in Cambridge won the RIBA Stirling Prize 2008 for Best Building by a British Architect. This year’s RIBA award shortlists also includes a number of housing schemes. Practices such as Alison Brookes Architects are designing brilliant schemes with style and durability, but this comes at a cost. Accordia homes start from £385,000.

After reading the results of the YouGov study I was moved to consider what these results mean. It is common knowledge that we have a ‘housing shortage’ and the Government are supporting developers throughout the country, but do we really want another performance like the 1960’s housing boom. 50 years later, the sky high apartments block are being torn down and are generally accepted as aesthetically horrible as well as unfit to live in. I worry that, if the developers continue on their current trajectory, we will be ripping down these poorly built, characterless buildings in the decades to come.

Don’t think me naive; I know that we can’t all afford to renovate an existing building or build our own home, and nor should we all have to. But, it seems the results of the study show more disfavour to the way in which the developments are being built, not the developments themselves. Perhaps the answer is within the widely supported Building for Life (BFL)? Co-written by a tutor of mine, BFL is the industry standard for housing developments. It follows the National Planning Policy Framework, translating it into easy to understand guidance on how to create a successful development.

Cabe firmly believes that housing should be attractive, functional and sustainable – this guide presents how using Building for Life 12 can help you achieve these outcomes.

It is free to download and suggests 12 rules to follow in order to design the ‘attractive, functional and sustainable’ housing that both Cabe and the public want. It promotes connectivity, green space, character and all the other things that is currently missing in our housing developments, working on a ‘traffic light’ system. All these rules have been taken from examples of successful housing estates all over the country and some abroad. Copenhagen is always a great place to see successful housing developments, but I’ve also seen great ones in Malmo, Antwerp, Amsterdam. You can download BFL here for free. It’s an interesting read; take it to a housing estate near you and see how well it fares.

Having said all this, I know plenty of people doing up their own homes. My grandmother did it in Dorset, my boyfriend’s parents are doing it in Derby, some of my best friends have done in it Cheshire, and no doubt I will too. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it probably will be.


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