It’s crucial to listen to what homebuyers really want before we build

Being in the position of leading one of the largest east London housing associations, perfectly placed to be involved in the proposed growth in the Thames Gateway and around the 2012 Olympics, I should be excited about the future. Sometimes I am, but I also feel fear and increasing concern that despite all our knowledge of what housing works and what doesn’t, we are going to get it wrong again.

Why do I feel like this? First, many homes being built by the private sector and housing associations in London are small flats that are not meeting the needs of many of the people we need to house. We are simply not building enough larger homes. The results of this are that the settled communities the government wants are not being created.

Second, there has been a number of announcements by top architects about how we can create new ways of living with ever-increasing densities predicated on a set of lifestyles that many Londoners do not aspire to and cannot afford.

When the focus on housing at higher densities began, East Thames Group, working collaboratively with the London Housing Federation, carried out research on what people understood about high-density housing and looked at successful higher density housing in Northern Europe.

This, and other, research showed people:

  • would prefer housing with gardens but will accept flats with good balconies
  • like space – those able to buy will always try to have at least one more bedroom than they would be due under social housing standards
  • are reasonably conservative in terms of design but this does not mean they only want pastiche – they are attracted to well-designed housing on a domestic scale.

But also that:
  • most people don’t know what high-density housing is – for instance tower-block housing is seen as high density when it often isn’t
  • people associate high-density housing with noise and a poor environment
  • families are better off having access to gardens
  • well-managed blocks of flats require high service charges, which impact adversely on affordability for those renting and buying.

Above all, we need to recognise there is a key difference between measuring density on the basis of habitable rooms and taking account of people density in terms of numbers and lifestyle. So success stories often used to defend super-high density housing, like the Barbican, need to be re-examined. Yes they are high-density areas, but they do not pass the people test: many people living in these areas are affluent, can afford to under-occupy, will be out at work all day and will have weekend homes. If these areas were all social housing they would be occupied very differently.

We need to build a level of high-density housing that is realistic. It needs to be of a mix of tenure and size. It needs to sacrifice public space in favour of private space and ensure the public space provided is high quality and well managed. Of course we must give it a contemporary feel, use modern methods of construction, and also build the occasional gleaming tower, but we must also learn from the past.