We need to forget about cheap houses and luxury riverside apartments and start building high quality high rise, says the latest column from our graduate panel
How do we deliver mass housing without rehashing the mistakes of our predecessors or making brand new gaffes of our own?
The main reason for all those outrageous sounding demands for hundreds of thousands of new homes is that more people are living on their own. People remain single for longer and when they do marry or live together, they split up faster than ever. Older people are also living longer and staying in their own homes.
The ODPM has knee-jerked into action, calling for 200,000 houses in the South-east by 2016. You get the impression that it is marauding around the Countryside declaring open season on the green belt.
When it’s not trying to breath new life into urban sprawl, the department is backing the construction of shoddy little houses squeezed into backwater sites hidden around London. A proud ODPM signpost draws attention to a new row of two-up, two-downs on Cheshire Street off Brick Lane in east London. But the row is cheap in its materiality and architectural essence. It might as well have been built out of soggy cardboard for all the good it will do.
At the other end of the scale is St Georges Wharf in Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames. It represents everything that is wrong with developer-led housing. Not only is it beyond poor in an architectural sense but it ignores those without the means to buy, which, in a building on such a scale is unforgivable.
The £60,000 house is another ODPM red herring. The premise that a new building must be as cheap as possible is so backward I just don’t know where to begin. Why is the ODPM not holding a competition to create the best, the most sustainable, the most fulfilling home to live in? Even the most beautiful? Then it can convince the right developer to deliver and take some of the burden of extra cost if it has to.
If the ODPM gets its way, what will all these new homes be like? And who is working on the masterplan to bring this panicked construction epidemic together? Who is going to make sure that we do not end up drowning in a claggy stew of new domestic architecture festering in our cities and sprawling all over the country?
I believe the solution to the problem of mass housing is not individual homes or out-of-town developments; it is high-rise, mixed-use, city-centre developments.
Why is the ODPM not holding a competition to create the best, most sustainable home?
The frustrating thing about the mistakes made in the past is that it doesn’t take much to make high rises work. It really isn’t hard to make people happy. People respond to the simplest of things: space, natural light, colour, the texture of natural materials and something to do of an evening. Stick them in concrete boxes with no amenities or signs of life and the life inside will wilt.
BedZED got it right. Although it is not high rise, it really changed people’s perceptions of the possibilities for sustainability in housing and showed that the market actually desired this. Urban Splash is a developer that has rejuvenated a huge chunk of Manchester and illustrated how mixed residential and leisure activities go hand in hand in the cultural evolution of rundown wedges of city. Speaking of the mix, one of the reasons why the Barbican is so successful is that there is music, film and theatre built in – and it’s got a beautiful water garden.
So why aren’t we doing more of it? Well, for one thing, it costs more to provide a better standard of living in high rises. But clearly if you do it well, you’re creating hundreds of homes that will stand the test of time while generating value out of small plots of land.
Another reason why high-rise living isn’t more popular speaks to the heart of British culture, of the king and his castle. We will have to get used to the more European apartment lifestyle. Europeans laugh at our obsession with owning property as status symbol and live out happy lives renting beautiful apartments in Berlin and Paris.
There are other reasons why we are not building high in London in particular. One is that getting planning permission to do anything in central London is as easy as drawing blood from a stone. The other is that the St Paul’s view corridors are like a net strewn across London, choking and restricting the vertical growth of the city.
The responsibility for what happens next lies with John Prescott and the developers. But we must think long term to provide solutions that allow the city to grow and prosper.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at Alsop Architects and one of the 10 young professionals on Building’s Graduate Advisory Board