The recession gives us the opportunity to explore new ideas, says Gus Alexander. And, who knows, we might even get to think beyond the certainties of our home-owning democracy
I’d fondly imagined that the endless home makeover programmes had been chucked out with the derivatives market, and that we’d now be treated to demonstrations on how to live on half a cabbage a week. But I was wrong. Only yesterday I was watching some young hopefuls move into a knackered Victorian terraced house in Hackney which they were being encouraged to green to bits. Some of the merulius lacrymans snaking up from the basement cellar looked pretty green already.
They had £100,000 to spend. The builder was taking a far more professional interest in the crumbling plaster, the bulging brickwork and the sagging joists than the team with the Kleig lights and the cameras.You could see his mental calculator whirring as he totted up the cost of the new roof, the repointing, the plaster, the bathrooms and the services, and it quickly passed the £100,000 mark without prelims or contingencies. “Well,” he said, trying not to sound too discouraging, “you could think of fitting some fairly serious insulation.” But before you could say “ewe’s wool”, some TV bright spark with all the eco answers was clambering over the roof with bits of solar panels that would cost only “about” (ie at least) £15,000 and this was presumably before they’d strengthened the roof to take the load, or done anything as banal as make it weather tight.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I heard someone talking about “selling it back to the grid”. Were they saying that when this particular set of TV box-ticking had been implemented, on that budget, in that house, the occupiers would end up having to sell the house back to the building society, the radiators back to B&Q, the white goods back to John Lewis and the electricity back to EDF?
I find it quite exciting to imagine what the possibilities of developers being encouraged to build seriously sustainable good quality housing for rent might be
Mind you, this was filmed in the summer so perhaps the programme makers hadn’t quite got the idea of the new-look housing market yet. The trouble is that doing some sensible refurbishment to bits of shagged-out housing stock doesn’t make very good TV. Watching enforcement officers coming to blows with would-be Grand Designers as they tear the backs off listed buildings surrounded by enraged neighbours is much better. Now that everybody’s going bust, the novelty of watching over-ambitious home improvers go bankrupt has worn off.
It would be encouraging to think that the current, ahem, “lull“ in the housebuilding business, could bring about a change in the attitudes of all those involved.
Obviously the energy issue has to be tackled more effectively. Personalised wind turbines from B&Q are not the answer. Perhaps, heaven forfend, a home-owning democracy is not either. I find it quite exciting to imagine what the possibilities of developers being encouraged to build genuinely sustainable good quality housing for rent might be. Suddenly all those builders and financiers and planners and designers would have to start thinking about what accommodation they were producing in the seriously long-term. The Stirling prize-winning Accordia housing development points the way.
Now that everybody’s going bust, the novelty of watching over-ambitious home improvers go bankrupt has worn off
Social housing, aka benefit housing, has become the poor relation of private housebuilding; once it was not worse, just different. Selling off council houses has polarised housing in a way that was probably not fully anticipated. At a micro social engineering level, there is likely to be plenty of unrest and disgruntlement as local authorities buy housing stock initially designed for sale from desperate housebuilders, or even the receiver, and young aspirational home mortgagees find themselves living next door to Shannon Matthews’ mum.
At my end of the housing market clients are no longer expecting increases in property values to cover the cost of extravagant market-driven overspending (hand-hewn stone baths and so on). Now they’re more interested in how well things are put together and how long they will last, rather than how something will look in a glossy photograph.
Which brings us back to greening. Like low voltage lighting, green technology works from the top down. Even affluent refurbishers will only be encouraged to retrofit heat pumps and greywater systems when the subsidy becomes significantly greater. This in turn will stimulate demand, which will bring the price of the kit down, so more people will be able to afford to do it. And in the long run, aiming money at effective individuals (including those who run building companies) to encourage them to go green will be of much greater benefit than throwing any more of it at the banking industry.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London