Nicholas Boys Smith  discusses the need for deep examination of the industry, the importance of the growing focus on sustainability and a passion for the history of our streets

BTFC 3x2

Building magazine is 180 years old this year. What lessons about the built environment should we take from the past?

That if we don’t create beautiful places and buildings with pride, where people want to be and in which it is natural for neighbourhoods to come together then we are creating places which make people sadder and less sociable.

We are also further embedding the deep distrust of developers and planners which we now exhibit as a society, and which makes it so hard politically to create sufficient homes.

Similarly, if we don’t create places and buildings which are worthy and capable of being repurposed in the future then we are building profoundly unsustainably.

Who or what has had the most positive impact on construction in the past couple of decades?

For research and writing the work of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander have been axiomatic in helping us understand the importance of walkability, resilience and patterns in the places we inhabit. David Halpern also helped open up research into the links between housing and places with wellbeing. Carlos Moreno in Paris is doing critical work explaining the concept of the 15 Minute City. The work of Yolande Barnes, particularly when she was at Savills, in researching the economics of sustainable urbanism has been very important.

>>Click here for more about the commission

For putting insight into practice, John Thompson, who has sadly just died, helped open up the entire concept of community architecture and co-design, work which his firm JTP continues. For creating the National Model Design Code, the brilliant David Rudlin. Robert Adam’s work has been very important in helping give developers and housebuilders confidence that they can work with architects on homes and place-making.

It is impossible not to mention the seminal, and brave, role of the King when Prince of Wales. The living examples of Poundbury, and now Nanlsedan, show very clearly and empirically that more walkable and beautiful mixed-use places create more value and more sustainable-living patterns – and drive down reliance on cars for everyday needs.

Nicholas Boys Smith c. Tom Campbell

Source: Tom Campbell

Nicholas Boys Smith, founder, Create Streets

What does the construction industry do well and why?

Post-war traffic-modernist urbanism is now completely discredited intellectually, and this is starting to percolate through to actual building practice, though far too slowly. Too many new places remain boxes dumped into a field off a roundabout, ugly, faceless and highways dominated.

What does construction industry do badly and why?

Nearly all streets and highways. Most volume housebuilders’ homes. Most large buildings in our towns and cities. Pretty much all civic buildings built over the last generations have been particularly appalling, lacking all semblance of civic pride.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your career in construction?

More focus on sustainability. This is hugely positive. But it has not gone far enough.

We typically understand construction sustainability solely through the prism of “energy in use”.

The next step is to consider the wider prisms of resilience and lifetime flexibility: how long before we need to demolish and replace this building, and will it be in good use throughout its lifetime.

Above all, we need to consider the prism of transport. It is no good building a passivhaus to which you have to drive.

What do you think will have changed by the time Building celebrates its 200th anniversary?

I hope that we’ll have collectively relearnt how to create beautiful and walkable new neighbourhoods which work as well as the neighbourhoods we built 200 years ago.

I hope that we’ll have re-learnt how existing streets and places can organically grow and intensify, adding a storey here, two storeys there, whilst actually improving as places.

If don’t collectively achieve that, then it will be very hard to create the millions of homes we so desperately need. It will be impossible to develop our “left behind” towns and cities regeneratively, not parasitically.

If there is one thing individuals and firms could do to improve construction and the built environment, what would it be?

To dare to really ask where people want to be and to dare to really listen to the answer. And to take account of it.

What is the best thing government can do to support the industry?

Continue to create a clear and predictable regulatory environment with clear quality asks firmly rooted in the evidence of what people like and where they wish to spend time. I hope that the new Office for Place, whose advisory board I chair, can play a role in that.

To create new clearly regulated mechanisms whereby local communities can permission new homes if they wish to.

What do you hope the Building the Future Commission can achieve? And what role can you play?

We will be most effective if we focus on continuing to change the narrative about the importance of sustainable and beautiful place-making and it we make very specific, detailed, politically achievable and actionable recommendations for government, landowners or industry.

Too many commissions retreat into platitudes or lowest common denominator statements of the fashionable or the bleedingly obvious. That won’t help.

What is your favourite building/piece of infrastructure and why?

I will never forget the first time I saw The Piece Hall. I was lucky enough to be visiting Halifax as an Historic England Commissioner.

I knew it was something special. I’d read about it. I’d seen the pictures. And yet, emerging through that dark small door into what must be one of the most glorious urban enclosures in Europe still took my breath away.

That a building, created purely for commercial purposes 240 years ago, should be so beautiful tells us something about the commercial culture of our past. That a building that merits national fame is so little-known tells us much about the cultural geography of our own present. If any one place symbolises our need to “level-up” it is surely The Piece Hall.

Tell us one thing you are passionate about outside of work

The history of our streets, towns and cities. I have just finished my first book, No Free Parking, a history of London’s Monopoly streets, and I am now working on my next book about England’s towns.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founder of Create Streets

Building the Future Commission 


Coming up on the Building the Future commission:

In the coming weeks we will:

  • Host our first regional roundtable with our partner Constructing Excellence in the East of England region in mid March
  • Convene our first commissioner panel meeting at the end of March
  • Investigate the potential of building performance rating system NABERS as an alternative to Part L for the energy and net zero stream
  • Interview two big hitters in the world of infrastructure for the infrastructure stream
  • Examine whether the qualifications landscape needs to change and assess whether more flexibility is needed for our education and skills stream
  • Visit the University of Salford to assess the eHome2 concept for our energy and net zero stream
  • Investigate how for-profit affordable housing can deliver the homes we need for the housing and planning stream
  • Assess a new model of procurement used by the Ministry of Defence for the project delivery and digital stream
  • Look at models of flexible working in the industry for the workplace, culture and leadership stream

About the commission

The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th  anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment.

The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing  culminate in a report published at the end of the year.

The commissioner include figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.

The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.

The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:

>> Editor’s view: And now for something completely positive - our Building the Future Commission

>> Click here for more about the project and the commissioners

Building the Future will also undertake a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. It will also set up a young person’s advisory panel.

We will also be setting up an ideas hub and we want to hear your views.

>> Email  to get in touch