Building on how current housing policies are depriving us of space and light
Are we confident that we have the co-ordinated policies in place to deliver high quality and sustainable housing? Given the complexity of government – with planning, housing and building control overseen by the ODPM, construction by the DTI, transport by the Department for Transport and environmental standards being championed by the privatised BRE – it is a reasonable question to ask.
With delays over the revision to Part L of the Building Regulations and the arrival of the Code for Sustainable Buildings, now is a good time to review the mismatch between regulation, policy and standards.
Why, for example, do we have national legislation that sets minimum density targets for how many homes we should build per hectare but have no requirements governing the amount of space provided in the home itself. Why does planning policy protect a person’s right to light from a new development but not give a right to a decent amount of daylight in a new home.
Regulations allow us to get away with creating deep-plan, single-aspect apartments, which in my view are no better than back-to-back terraces. We are creating homes with windowless bathrooms, kitchens and corridors, despite the fact that everyone knows these spaces would be improved by natural light and ventilation. Housebuilders generally do the minimum required by the regulations, which is not necessarily what makes for good housing.
Parker Morris guidance set out clear space standards for homes when it came out in 1961 but these standards ceased to be mandatory long ago. Without them space is often sacrificed in the interests of reducing development costs.
Today it falls to standards such as EcoHomes to meet the shortfalls in planning policy or building regulation. These are, however, generally adopted only for publicly funded projects. Nonetheless, the Housing Corporation’s requirement that homes funded under its grant programme must attain an EcoHomes score of “very good” is a positive measure. It will save 35,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.
Housebuilders generally do the minimum asked of them by the regulations
A further 120,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved if the EcoHomes “very good” score was mandatory for all new homes. Global warming affects us all, and yet we apply one value to public sector housing and settle for a lower standard for the private sector.
Well-planned, generously lit and spacious homes are as important in delivering sustainability as Urban Design and building performance. The fact that space standards are, on average, back to where they were at the time of the Tudor Walters report of 1918, which was introduced to deal with slums and overcrowding, should give us cause for concern.
Perhaps the government could turn the delay in the Code for Sustainable Buildings to practical use.
It could spend the time reviewing whether the qualities that go to make decent homes are being reflected in the plethora of policies at large.
It could also consider making tried and tested standards such as Eco-Homes mandatory and reviving Parker Morris as part of the legislative equation. Then it might discover that we could quite happily do without the new code and yet could still get better homes.
Alex Ely is partner at architect Mæ