Quality is not an act – it is a habit*

whitechapel-block-m-044And the winner of the Stirling Prize is… 75% of the new build housing in The Netherlands! There’s no-one more delighted than me that Peabody’s Darbishire Place in London E1 is a nominee for the Stirling, but what’s sad is how rare neat little interventions like Niall McLaughlin’s block are in the UK. Five days cycling through The Netherlands is enough to show me that their (substantial) new build housing output is simply outstanding compared to ours: Darbishire Place would look ordinary (in a good way) in Holland. I’m talking specifically about the quality and appearance of the built product, which some people in the housing development business think is ‘the icing on the cake’ rather than the sponge. IMG_0322Of course ‘quality’ can encompass everything from the resident’s daily experience of their home through to energy efficiency, from the spec of a door handle through to the distance across a street, all of which matter. But most people’s experience of ‘housing’ is as part of their background environment, part of their city, something to walk amongst and somewhere fleetingly to glimpse other people’s lives. For that reason, the built quality of that everyday fabric must be as good as it possibly can be. Housing is not all about the individual resident. It is not all about the landlord and their preoccupations. It is about both of those, but also about what these buildings offer their city, and what they say about the aspirations and values of that city. On the day that the government launches its somewhat slender £26m bidding round for ‘starter homes‘, the quest for quality has never been more urgent. I am frankly not surprised that UK citizens are turning more and more to NIMBYism when what they see going up and then what they have to look at every day for the rest of their lives is not only unaffordable but also ugly. (Can there be a worse combination?) The recent Res Publica ‘Community Right to Beauty’ report says that

‘Perhaps the biggest barrier to a ‘pro-beauty’ policy framework is the general mind-set that sees beauty as costly and unaffordable.’

starter homes
A government-backed starter home

I agree, but the authors then propose that the solution might lie in planning instruments. I’m not so sure about that. So what is the problem in the UK? I have a view, but I would like people to comment first please. You may even disagree with my basic premise that UK new build housing is 80% plain ugly (and I don’t mean characterfully ugly – I mean cheap, tawdry, flimsy and crass). But if you agree, how would you apportion the responsibility amongst: the government, architects, planners, builders, developers, the public (in general), the house-buyer (in particular)? And what do we do about it? Thoughts below please…


For some reason Elizabeth David comes to mind: ‘She was deeply hostile to second-rate cooking and to bogus substitutes for classic dishes and ingredients.’

*Aristotle

6 comments on Quality is not an act – it is a habit*

  1. Good questions. I’m not sure that there is a simple answer. A few reasons for me (all slightly provocative and broad-brush I’m afraid).
    1 Our culture values style above substance. People are being sold a dud product/dream and are too gullible to think or question it. Too many developers and the buying public put short term financial gain above long term benefits. And, given the choice of a poorly designed, poorly built home, or no home at all, then well…there’s really no choice at all.
    2 Our approach to home ownership vs leasehold (especially lack of security of tenancy) makes flatted development less attractive to the end user therefore there will be less serious investment in this sector. Build it and sell the flats quick before anyone notices that they are crap. Changes to PRS should help here.
    3 Architects don’t want to do ordinary buildings. We like to make complicated solutions to simple problems which puts developers off using good ones.
    4 The skill/craft of building isn’t valued enough in the UK. We need more skilled builders out there, and clients / main contractors who are willing to pay for them. We also need the public to recognise the difference between well built and the poorly built. If we were as critical about the quality of our houses as we were of our smart phones, there’d be some very different products out there. This relates back to item 1. It’s very much about the habit.

  2. The undersupply of housing in the UK undermines the concept of choice, meaning the taste / risk aversion / traditional mindset of the purchaser is a bit of a red herring until they are actually given genuine choice in what they can buy.

    At the same time, tackling the issue of undersupply encourages quick, low cost and therefore (often) low quality solutions and a policy framework that supports quantity not quality.

    I saw you speak rather well at Guardian HQ last year about the misconception that there was a historic panacea when house building was expertly dovetailed with demand. The undersupply has always been there but 50 or 60 years of late stage capitalism has refined the market to understand precisely how little can be provided (i.e. spent) to extricate the necessary profit from the purchaser whilst maintaining a healthy market.

    The key holders to the solution are the policy makers, i.e. the state, as this is the only check on the market. In an island economy this can be effective. It’s not like the banking sector where the business can just run away and peddle their wares from a more permissive tax environment. I’m certain there will be plenty of people who still think they can make money by selling houses in the UK even if we find a way to prioritise quality AND quantity.

    1. Thanks for this Dave. In principle, I agree with what you say. But when I think about what the state can actually do, I then begin to scratch my head a bit. Richard Simmons, ex-CABE CEO, just wrote an interesting article for BD here which suggests that state intervention in ‘design’ is problematic and subject to personal whimsy, economic arguments or cries for ‘evidence’. The state in the form of ‘planners’ just looks at 1:100 elevations: to my mind they have little control over the actual texture and robustness of the building. Again, planning can set standards and the (in many ways commendable) London Housing Design Guide safeguards us against ‘the worst’, but certainly does not guarantee quality. I can point to very many schemes which meet the LHDG and are simply not good enough to be a permanent part of their neighbourhoods. Do you have a vision for exactly how the state should intervene to get us the quality we are talking about? I’m wondering if the solution is more ‘bottom up’ and connected to the construction industry…

      1. It was interesting to sit on a Design Review Panel recently and review a scheme brought forward that the LPA were building themselves. Discussion centred around why they were aiming for the ‘minimum’ standards set out in their own and the Mayor’s policy.

        I think firstly that the state should lead by example both in terms of aesthetic quality and in terms of experiential quality but mostly in terms of putting their money where their mouth is and proving that quality can be financially viable.

        The next thing is to try to deliver on a more professional and engaged planning dept – not just people ‘doing their time’ before moving to more lucrative private planning consultancy. To do that, planners need to be better paid and better trained and have enough resource to allocate the appropriate amount of time to schemes. Again, this is currently foisted onto the private sector by providing for PPAs in order to discuss big schemes properly, but what about all the little 5 – 20 unit plots? Planning needs to be an attractive career for talented professionals. And no, they don’t need to be architects, just not geography grads who didn’t fancy teaching and didn’t know what else to do.

        They also need to be able to enforce their decisions effectively. Why should schemes not demonstrate viability of the materials and details they propose at initial planning and then be held to the reconstituted stone cladding they proposed? That often turns into insulation backed render by the time conditions are discharged and the LPA finds it v. hard to legitimately challenge.

        These things aren’t necessarily a golden bullet, but I think they’d be a start.

  3. Thank you for sharing your trip with us all. Very good questions on a huge topic to which I do not have clear answers. A couple of thoughts instead:

    Lots of things all need to fall into place to make a decent building from creating the brief through design (and a good design team), planning and approvals, procurement right down to managing sub contractors on site, etc. It is very easy for any one of these things to let down the whole and even easier for a few of them together to affect the outcome more significantly. As such getting a decent building designed and built needs a lot of care. Strong direction and management throughout the whole process might help safeguard this. (Perhaps an insistent client/architect/design manager or collaborative combination). A clear legible design strategy can also help communicate intent to the wider team ensuring a project is robust enough to survive the developmental process. (Arguable a lesson from Darbishire Place.) Design strategies that are too subtle can easily be damaged. Skills in turning adverse conditions or events to the advantage of the project can also help.

    Planning regulation might be considered to perpetuate norms, averages and expectations. As such if you work in a place where the norm is good (perhaps Denmark?) then new development is likely to be the same. If the norm is of a low standard (uk?) then any new development is likely to be the same. A bigger cultural and regulatory shift then needs to take place to adjust average outcomes. (I’ve just been watching a video on Glenn Murcutt which has an interview with a local Mayor explaining why Murcutt, even as a Gold Medallist, has such a hard time getting permissions because he doesn’t fit the local norm of suburban pitched roof housing – his work stands out and therefore attracts criticism and questions the values and expertise. See https://vimeo.com/45675621)

  4. The designer’s voice needs much more respect and oxygen. Value is the right price for any given product. There is overwhelming evidence to support the right price for housing has a design based quality aspect rarely recognised or understood.

    Housing decision making is firmly in the hand of contractors who rightly prioritise what they are good at and developers who are primarily interested in profit. It’s not in the hands of those who are interested in making places to live!

    We need the same eyes and thinking that buy cars to be buying our houses. People need to remove the insidious estate agent marketing spectacles and be sold products based on their performance, their economy, their CO2 emissions and most importantly their beauty. After all there are far more German cars bought than can be actually afforded because they are desirable.

    Let people see what they are missing – we should lobby housing marketing web sites and volume house builder’s forums and portals and bombard them with the ammunition we have at the Housing Design Awards, or here on your tour blog.

    I do talks into rooms of people who skulk in and nearly always agree to every word I say. The problem is never in the room. Those who need convincing don’t come to my talks! Sadly, I suspect they will not be logging on here either. It is forces perceived as bigger than us (the media, fashion world and many more) that we need to be challenging!

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