Do we really need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to designing sustainable homes that first time buyers can afford?

Victoria Thornton

With architecture being transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government I was interested to see that the Starter Homes Design publication champions good design via a set of “good design exemplars”. The government’s ambition is to deliver 100,000 starter homes at a discount of at least 20% below open market value, with a maximum price of £450k in London. Prepared in consultation with the government’s new Design Advisory Panel it is aimed at encouraging debate on an “agreed design approach”.

Ignoring the issue of the cost for a first time buyer and if this is the best way to address long-term housing supply, there are some rather fundamental omissions to the publication, one being what it might be like to live in these houses? What are the internal layouts and quality of life afforded by them?

There is a worrying focus on the elevational treatment as opposed to ensuring that they are sustainable. What about encouraging innovation and utilising the decades of research and development of new typologies appropriate for contemporary living evidenced by those award winning sustainable houses and communities? Or are these not appropriate for starter homes to aspire to? What’s not clear is how this document sits with the current guidance, Housing Standards Review and people’s expectations for well-designed houses and spaces.

What’s not clear is how this document sits with the current guidance, Housing Standards Review and people’s expectations for well-designed houses and spaces

There is a clear understanding that these homes need to be located in and respond to well-designed public realm, “home zones” and the character of the local context, however how is this going to be achieved and who will both pay for it and monitor it?

Presumably by making these exempt from Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy the developer will be able to achieve the “discounted” price, but at what cost to space and contribution to a vibrant community? With restrictions of the use Section 106 coming into force in April it will be harder to address the streetscape design let alone education provision, strategic landscaping, biodiversity or flooding infrastructure. After all a starter home is aimed at under 40s probably with a young family - the wider community infrastructure is important.

Perhaps the debate that might be had is to question the aspirations that we have in this country for our homes, as opposed to just houses. As Jerry Tate of Tate Harmer Architects, has commented recently, “it is vital that we maintain the tradition of exemplar sustainable projects in the broadest sense, to point towards a bright future”.

Open-City is proactively taking the design debate forwards. It’s week of London events, known as Green Sky Thinking, which is now in its fifth year, will be critically examining this from 20-24 April. Industry leaders including architects, engineers, developers and local authorities will discuss the opportunities and challenges to practically implementing sustainable designs for London’s future.

Mole Architects, 5th Studio, Beyond Green and Pitman Tozer Architects will discuss how the industry can help the housing crisis at Housing: Inconvenient Truths. Nicolas Hare Architects consider adaptability of current practices and draw lessons from the past at Building for an Adaptable Future. Greengage, British Land and John Robertson will debate performance vs value and assess the role of sustainability in a number of projects from a financial and social perspective. While Quintain considers the large-scale integration of housing within its surrounding infrastructure at Wembley Park. Excellent projects have been, and are being delivered, for London. Learning by example will ensure we don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Victoria Thornton, founding director, Open City

Open City is an architecture education organisation. It runs Green Sky Thinking - a week long, London-wide events programme for built environment and property professionals highlighting innovative practice on how we “design in” sustainability for London