Last week, Colin Harding launched an outspoken attack on the pernicious effect of architectural elitism on the industry. Here’s the response from the ‘design snobs’ at CABE
what’s bitten Colin Harding? A contractor berating CABE for being the champion of an architectural elite is a little like an amenity society suggesting CABE is on the side of developers: it’s the kind of thing you tend to say after coming out the wrong side of a design review.
I suspect what might have got under his skin are two recent reports: one from the urban taskforce and the other from CABE’s housing audit. Both offer a pretty tough appraisal of their respective subjects on the basis of some challenging evidence about how far we have come in the past six years.
Here’s one of the statistics. According to CABE’s housing audit, 93% of private housing built in the north of England over the past three years is average or poor. That is worse than the quality down south – but not by much. Across the South-east last year, the comparable figure was 83%. In terms of design quality, there is no great north–south divide.
And what was Mr Harding’s response? That CABE should stop exaggerating the importance of design and stop forcing its ideas onto a homebuying public that is happy and comfortable with a well-established product. It’s an interesting perspective. But if the statistics are even half true, what on earth does that say about his attitude to housing consumers? Bog standard is good enough for the masses, I suspect.
In fact, what the housing audit revealed was an industry perfectly capable of delivering great homes when it chose to, but often doing so only when it had to. Every one of the publicly quoted volume housebuilders has won design awards in the same period. All have the technical skills and ability to design well. And yet time and again, there is no evidence of a real commitment to do so.
The odd thing about the housing market, of course, is that it does not yet have to contend with consumerism. People usually have comparatively little choice about the quality of home they buy. Decisions are dictated by location and price. This means that in a buoyant market, a developer can sell pretty much anything it knocks up. As a result, any argument that begins “it sold, they must like it” holds precious little water in a housing debate. If you want to know what homebuyers really want, you need to ask them.
Which is exactly what CABE has done in its companion report to the housing audit, entitled What it’s Like to Live There. As we are well aware of the “developers’ defence”, we spoke in depth to 241 residents who had been living for more than one year in 11 new schemes nationwide. And when you compare their views with the assessment of the design professionals, what do you find?
These residents didn’t want a bog standard home in a nowhere neighbourhood. And it is hardly architectural elitism to stand up and say there is no practical reason why they should get one
In many cases, residents share similar views to the housing audit assessment. We all despair at poor street layouts, low-grade public realm and inadequate car parking. We all love places with variety, convenience and a sense of identity. In only two instances was there a divergence of more than 20% between the scores of the residents and the design professionals.
Generally speaking, we can all spot good and bad design.
Britain clearly continues to change very fast, not least in terms of design aspirations. We are fast becoming a design-literate nation. These residents knew what they wanted and were ambitious for the quality of place they aspired to live in. They didn’t want a bog standard home in a nowhere neighbourhood. And it is hardly architectural elitism to stand up alongside them and say there is no practical reason why they should get one.
Through the housing audit, CABE is seeking to put down a marker that average design is not good enough. The last defence is frequently cost. But the reality is that good design does not always cost more. The principal failings of most of the schemes we assessed were flaws in the Urban Design, not the architecture or materials themselves. It was also clear that an early investment in high-quality public realm frequently creates the character and commercial value that everyone – both consumers and developers – desperately want.
So where does that leave me and Mr Harding? At loggerheads, most likely. Because CABE will be staying right on the case. In truth, there are plenty of people across the construction industry who know all about good design and are leading the way in creating the kind of places where people are delighted to live, work, heal and learn. But for anyone still living in an antediluvian hollow, my advice is to listen very carefully to public opinion. Britain might just, at long last, be embracing design.
Matt Bell is director of policy and communications at CABE