Building houses on greenfield land is something that housebuilders have been doing for years and most are very good at it. The provision of new housing in cities, particularly on brownfield land, and in accordance with PPG3 principles, is proving to be a more difficult, however. Some housebuilders have still not made the transition to being developers, which involves challenges such as dealing with complex urban sites where schemes predominately involve apartment buildings, using materials other than brick and juggling a mixture of uses.
I've noticed that the public sector is beginning to overtake the private sector in terms of design, space standards and build quality. This is pretty disappointing when most private schemes are sold with the promise of quality lifestyles and sound investment.
The specification and workmanship in new build houses is generally very high. Some excellent examples include The Roundwood in Worthing by MJH Executive Homes and Wrens Warren at Chuck Hatch, near Hartfield, East Sussex, by Millwood Designer Homes. One of our schemes designed for Alburn and now being implemented by Barratt at Regency Apartments in Westminster includes a modern house that has been very crisply executed; the industry should pride itself in achieving these standards of workmanship.
the public sector is overtaking the private sector in terms of design, space standards and build quality
Apartment buildings are another story. Mean entrance foyers with the cheapest balustrading, the tiniest lifts, and often no heating diminish the value of schemes and the quality of life enjoyed in them. How refreshing it was to enter a housing association scheme where the large entrance foyer oozed quality without damaging the service charge budget; well done Circle 33 for its scheme at Travers House in North London. Two more examples of excellent public sector schemes are the Angell Town Estate in Brixton, south London by Presentation Housing Association and Newcroft House in Stonebridge Park, north west London. These schemes comprise carefully designed housing – not too many frills, but good to live in. They also address the challenges of achieving very high densities without compromising privacy and loss of amenity. Quite simply the architects designed these projects for enlightened clients who appreciate the value of getting it right.
Sustainability is an important issue that should be reflected in the design and the specification of modern homes and it is no surprise that the leaders in this area and in life-cycle costs are the housing associations. Most private developers simply pay lip service to this idea although there are some excellent exceptions, like Countryside Properties and Persimmon Homes. We worked with Persimmon to obtain consent for the Wandsworth Riverside Quarter scheme in west London. This scheme incorporated a huge number of measures to reflect the commitment of then managing director Brendan O'Neil to the idea of sustainability. It included fully integrated landscaping and adopted an ecological approach to development that allowed for such features as roosting boxes for rare birds, green roofs and reuse of rainwater. To promote 'sustainable lifestyles' these green ideas were supplemented by other measures including a waste separation scheme and secure bike parking. Like a few developers and their consultants we signed up to a policy to provide an efficient scheme, both in terms of embodied energy and use of energy during the life-cycle of the buildings.
When it comes to quality of workmanship housing association schemes generally fit into the category of good to excellent whereas private schemes span the entire spectrum from appalling to excellent. Why is this? One of the reasons must be that housing associations are determined to ensure that very detailed specifications are complied with and this usually involves retaining independent architects and surveyors to ensure that the standards are properly maintained. This is a very significant difference between the public sector and the private sector. It is very rare for new private schemes to have an independent quality controller, apart from Building Control and the NHBC.
John Assael is managing director of Assael Architecture.