Opinion: What the customer wants

The design of the UK's new homes is a product of our delivery system, but the customer needs convincing that there could be a better way, argues Chris Brown.

"I don’t know why architects think they understand better what people want than the housebuilders." This quote was recently attributed to chancellor Philip Hammond, though whether he said it I cannot say. It got me thinking.

I was privileged to attend an event in Glasgow recently with some of that city's best architects. It was part of a Scottish government programme to encourage custom build, through which six firms of architects had each been asked to design a three bedroom, 97 square metre, terraced home for a hilltop site close to Glasgow city centre.

Each firm presented their design to the assembled company in the citizenM hotel's rather cool screening room. Each explained the customisation potential their designs offered.

But at the end of the day, I thought, there isn't going to be much variety because they are all basically the same thing. And they are all governed by the same set of building regulations and the basic constraints of the brief: three bedrooms, 97 square metres, terraced, the existing masterplan.

How wrong I was. Each of the architects had also produced a model, all built by the same model maker in the same material, timber, and to the same scale. The revelation was seeing these side by side. Each had different dimensions, width and depth, different elevations and different roof treatments. And internally there was flexibility for customers to adapt the home to their individual needs and wants.

Magnificent street

The combination of variety of design and harmony of scale and materials that the brief and the model materials created produced a magnificent street. And not just at the front - where there was a consistent building line imposed by a back of pavement to front of house dimension - but at the rear, where the variation in depths produced some beautiful, undesigned, corners and shelter and variety.

Ironically a number of the architects, influenced perhaps by the possibility of their housetype also being picked for a speculative phase, emphasised the beauty of a street comprising their housetype alone. They even showed pictures of streets in London’s Bloomsbury that had been built over the centuries, resulting in harmony and variety. But, in comparison to the exciting variety in the street of models designed by different architects, the individual architect’s street images, even with variations on their housetype, were tidy, ordered and boring. Each architect thought their design to be ideal and struggled to recognise the breadth of different choices that individual customers might make.

My conclusion from this is simple. Neither architects nor developers know what any individual customer will want. Developers and architects have their own influences. Speculative developers are usually building for the average lowest common denominator customer at lowest cost. Architects are often aiming more for what they would like to live in and what might win prizes.

The chancellor, if he said it, is wrong on so many levels. Our housing delivery system is too. Only great custom build exemplars will convince people that there is a better way.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration.

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