Housing future lifestyles A discussion around future developments
How can residential design cater for today’s lifestyles, while also meeting changing expectations around sustainability, health and wellbeing?
This question was addressed by a panel of architects and developers at a round table discussion in London hosted by AT and Geberit.
There can be little doubt that lifestyles are changing rapidly in the first part of the 21st Century. This is being driven in part by technological developments that enable us to work, shop and socialise from home, as well as wider environmental, economic and social concerns, including the global pandemic, our climate emergency, an ageing population, housing affordability, and the growing importance of health and wellbeing. So how can we design residential schemes that meet the current and future needs of their inhabitants, as well as the communities in which they are built? How can we construct and operate these developments more sustainably? And what can be done to ensure future flexibility and longevity?
The panellists were selected for their different perspectives and wide range of experience with representatives from architectural practice, major housebuilders, niche developers, manufacturers, housing associations and the private sector. So it was something of a surprise to discover that the vast majority of participants were in fact qualified architects. As Lesley Lawson, head of design co-ordination at Galliard Homes, pointed out, this emphasised the fact that architectural education can be a stepping-stone to a wide and varied set of career options, many of which are rarely mentioned in architecture schools.
It also underlined the valuable contribution that design-literate clients can play in bringing about a step change in the quality of homes we build. As PRP director Clare Cameron pointed out, housing projects are inherently complex and onerous, but the process is much more rewarding and fulfilling when working with well-informed clients, particularly those with a designer on the team. “By contrast, when there is no designer, clients tend to rely on the planners, who in turn rely on their design review panels,” she said. “This can be problematic and frustrating when reviewing large complex projects as review panels often have insufficient time available to examine the proposals in detail.” Overall, however, Cameron was optimistic, saying that informed, design-led clients were not infrequent in the sheltered housing, retirement housing and care home sectors.
Teresa Borsuk, senior partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards, said that architects are under huge pressure to meet a vast array of complex requirements and standards, including planning, fire, sustainability and structure, and that it often falls to architects to deal with the mountain of legislation that accompanies these issues.
Improving quality and choice
The quality of spaces within residential developments was addressed by the panel, with Tina John, creative and architectural design manager at Pocket Living, bemoaning the one-size-fits-all approach of the nationally described space standard. “What works in Birmingham may not be relevant in London, on account of property prices, land values, population density and affordability,” she said.
For Maccreanor Lavington director Richard Lavington it was the long-term learning process that is key to providing better quality and choice. “The Pocket Living model is interesting because it’s about the standardisation of a product and not necessarily the standardisation of a delivery method,” he said. “It’s about doing something well and striving to perfect it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough in our industry.”
The panel agreed that giving customers more choice and being less prescriptive could be beneficial. Gus Zogolovitch, managing director of Unboxed Homes said he favoured shell developments that allowed the customer to “put their money where the mouth is” in terms of what they wished to prioritise, such as additional insulation or triple-glazed windows. “This approach can deliver a better end product,” he said. “It’s about realigning the incentives of the occupier and the developer.”
Joe Milkins, specification sales manager at Geberit, discussed personalised choice and the importance of early collaboration between manufacturers and developers. “It’s important that manufacturers can meet the growing demand for personalisation, especially with the increasing desire for innovative technology in the home that helps address wellness and hygiene. We are proud to offer a real breadth of products but it’s not just the varied specification offers that are important. For instance, supplying a development of 500 plus apartments, each with a wide range of options for toilets, basins, flush plates and other sanitaryware makes it crucial that we work closely with developers and others in the supply chain to agree on and plan options as early as possible.”
Tina John concurred, saying that part of the success of the Pocket Living model was due to the robustness of the supply chain agreements in place. “We find that risk and cost increase significantly, the minute we start making variations,” she said. Instead, the company provides tech-related retrofit upgrades, which can be commissioned via a development-specific app.
Simon Bayliss, managing director at HTA Design, viewed modern methods of construction (MMC) as a way of improving supply chain issues. Offsite manufacture necessitates early decision making, which can help keep costs down, he explained. “If the fittings within a well-designed apartment are to the right standard clients will be happy to rent; it’s not for life, perhaps they will live there for six months or the next three years. People don’t always need as much choice as perhaps we give them.”
Planning: the state we’re in
Architecture Today asked if the participants had the power to change the current planning system, or if we were in her words “stuck with it.” Roger Black, creative director of Ballymore made the observation that local politics in the UK do not really matter, except for one issue: development control. “The only power local authorities have is development control,” he explained. “In every other sphere of responsibility, they are drowning. There is almost no effective control in terms of guiding or shaping policy in a meaningful way.” Black urged local authorities to invest in high calibre people, particularly within their planning committees, to maximise the control and influence they can exert.
Yẹmí Aládérun, major projects manager at Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association, concurred. “Local planning authorities need to understand their power and build skills in planning and design,” she said. Aládérun also advocated close working relationships between local authorities and architects in order to keep developers in check with regards to design quality and amenity provision.
Lesley Lawson made the point that people want good properties to live in but can’t obtain them from the local council or afford to buy. This has allowed the private rental market to gain traction in recent years. She said that growth in this sector is driving developers to invest in outdoor spaces and community facilities for residents as a means of maintaining quality and ensuring developments grow and mature over time.
Lawson envisaged that developers would increasingly occupy a ‘middle ground’ between local authorities, affordable rented social housing, and the intermediate private rental market. “The latter is going to generate a way of living that people are going to invest in and move towards,” she said. “But you can’t do that without building the community.”
For John Nordon, creative director of Igloo Regeneration and co-founder of Neighbourhood, good housing developments go hand-in-hand with the creation of great places that benefits residents and the wider community alike. “The question,” he said, “is how we make placemaking a key part of what we do and not just an inconvenient hurdle to jump though.”
According to Gus Zogolovitch the current planning system is stymied by land traders who buy sites, obtain planning permission, and then sell them on – often at double the price they originally paid. “The uplift in value does not go to the consumer or occupier,” he explained, “It goes to the person taking the risk on gaining planning consent. When monetary value goes out of the system in this way, we are always going to struggle at the other end to produce the quality that we want.” Zogolovitch felt that if the risk associated with planning value uplift could be ameliorated, then the money gained could go to the occupier or the developer to produce better housing. It would result in a freer market that incentivised quality rather than cost cutting, he concluded.
Responding to Zogolovitch, Daniel May, director of Socious Development, said that it was still possible to provide high-calibre housing despite the inherent problems with the system. “All of our projects have outperformed the market by 15-20 per cent,” he said, “And we are not the only developer able to achieve this. You have to believe in yourself and your product.” Zogolovitch agreed, but said that the cost of building more expensive homes, such as those that met Passivhaus standards, could not be easily met by developers, customers and lenders.
Nordon also spoke of a ‘broken’ planning and procurement system. “Money and value are leaving the system all the way along the process because everyone wants more and more,” he said. The poor customer at the end gets the residue of this process; that is what’s left after everyone else has taken their share. We have affordability, energy, and carbon problems, and we’re not going to solve them by making housing more unaffordable.” Nordon said that the exception to this norm were demonstrator projects, particularly those in the south-west, where the land is procured at ‘social’ value, a wide range of stakeholder interests are considered, and there is ethical funding.
Changing the perspective
Richard Lavington took issue with the ‘negotiability’ of the existing planning system. “This encourages everyone to spend more and more in trying to get more and more,” he said. In the architect’s opinion, this wasted a lot of time and money, with landowners often becoming the main financial beneficiaries. Lavington went on to make the point that houses are seen by many people as the most expensive possession and best investment they own. “We need houses to go down in value for people to start thinking about them in a different way,” he said.
High quality, community-focused build-to-rent schemes were viewed by Simon Bayliss and Lesley Lawson as a viable alternative to the traditional owner occupier model. According to Lawson these types of development are much more closely attuned to the lifestyles of today Millennials and Gen Z-ers. Claire Cameron added that the sector was also attracting the older generation, enabling them to sell-off their family homes and move to developments where they are looked after and no longer have to worry about utilities, the garden, and property maintenance.
Another benefit, according to Nordon, is that the rented housing can become a circular asset, because it is not sold off to private individuals. Both Gus Zogolovitch and Tina John agreed that sustainability and the circular economy were growing concerns for occupiers, making them more discerning about the type of development they chose to live in. According to John, Pocket Living conducts post-occupancy evaluations on all its developments to monitor and evaluate environmental performance. This in turn helps the developer to reduce running costs for its residents.
Looking to the future
While the debate highlighted the many obstacles there are to procuring and delivering affordable and fit-for-purpose housing, it nevertheless demonstrated that workable concepts and new models already exist and can be made to work to everyone’s benefit. With proper investment and close collaboration between all the key stakeholders, it is possible that we can begin to mend what many consider to be a broken housing system.
Round table participants
Simon Bayliss - Managing partner, HTA Design
Teresa Borsuk - Senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards
Richard Lavington - Director, Maccreanor Lavington
Clare Cameron - Director, PRP Architects
Tina John - Creative and architectural design manager, Pocket Living
Lesley Lawson- Head of design co-ordination, Galliard Homes
Gus Zogolovitch - Managing director, Unboxed Homes
Roger Black - Creative director, Ballymore
Joe Milkins - Key Account Manager - Cilent / Developers
John Nordon - Creative director, Igloo Regeneration
Yẹmí Aládérun - major projects manager, Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association
Daniel May - Director, Socious Development
Isabel Allen - Editor, Architecture Today