Fyson on: What needs to be done to improve housing design

With all the discussion since the Essex Design Guide first focused attention on the issue, it might be assumed that housing design has by now risen significantly above the mediocre. Not so, according to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). Its research shows that more than half of all new housing is merely average, while nearly a quarter is poor. Yet the remainder, which CABE describes as good or very good, shows that meaningful numbers of schemes can get it right.

So why don't the rest?

The exercise was not a vague assessment of 100 developments based on the subjective preferences of a judging panel. It used audit criteria based on the Building for Life awards, which reflect the national standard for housing design and good place-making. These can be grouped under four headings: character; roads, parking and pedestrianisation; design and construction; and environment and community. But for visual emphasis, the audit omitted consideration of tenure, environmental impact and community cohesion, adding instead architectural quality, service provision and waste storage.

CABE found that some good urban design principles are adopted in most schemes. More attention is paid to the scale of the surroundings, active frontages at ground level and establishing a coherent relationship between public and private space. However, on the negative side, highways continue to dominate and their rigid standards "too often win out" against other considerations. Poor schemes tend to fail on all criteria. In CABE's view, this points to inadequate design processes and insufficient intervention by planners.

Echoing Egan, CABE recommends improving the skills available to developers, their advisers and local authorities. But it focuses first on training for council officers and members, emphasising the improvement of plans and development briefs, better urban design capability and in-house expertise in appraising, financing, managing and local development partnerships.

CABE believes that better training and guidance is needed to get highways authorities and urban designers to work together to achieve better streetscapes.

The commission also calls for a review of the way that policy and practice interact, with guidance on "what constitutes good architecture".

Most of these endeavours will merely cost money, but there is little evidence that sufficient totals will be forthcoming. The last, welcome though it might be in planning circles, would cause a storm among architects.

CABE's wish for "a contemporary approach to design" rooted in a local rather than generic vernacular would enhance the sense of the uniqueness of places, but developers and their designers are yet to get the message.


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