Analysis: Housebuilding industry needs to act on design quality

An audit of large-scale housing development identifies poor design quality, and sets out how the industry could do better, finds Josephine Smit.

The audit looked at more than 140 large-scale housing developments across England
The audit looked at more than 140 large-scale housing developments across England

An audit of more than 140 large-scale housing schemes across England has charted the poor design quality of new development. The study, which was conducted by University College London (UCL) for countryside charity CPRE and built environment network Place Alliance, rated around three quarters of the projects assessed as 'mediocre' or 'poor'. “As RIBA architects highlight daily and this report emphasises, the design quality of new housing developments is simply not good enough,” RIBA president Alan Jones said in response to the launch this week of the findings.

The audit looked at housing schemes of at least 50 units, appraising them against 17 design led considerations - all but one of them relating to the external built environment and placemaking. These included such factors as community facilities, design of public spaces, pedestrian friendliness and legibility of streets as well as the development’s character, environmental impact and architectural quality. It drew on the methodology of the established Building for Life standard, which was used by the former Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to carry out a series of regional audits of new housing between 2004 and 2006.

Developments were scored in five categories, ranging from Very Poor, with an overall score of less than 40 per cent, through to Mediocre, with an overall score of more than 50 per cent and up to Very Good, with an overall score of more than 80 per cent.

Other findings included:

  • There were regional differences, with the east Midlands and south west scoring significantly below the English average and the south east, west Midlands and greater London being significantly above average. Developments in less affluent communities were found to be more likely to have sub-standard designs. However, the audit notes that the cost factors separating good from poor design are likely to be a relatively small proportion of the total development value
  • Schemes assessed generally scored well on health and safety and on the range of housetypes provided. The worst aspects of design included developments dominated by access roads and poor integration of storage, bins and car parking
  • Large developers were inconsistent in delivery, and lower density schemes on green fields generally scored more poorly than those closer to the urban core.

Changing practices and processes

The audit gives recommendations for government, covering areas from density to car parking, and advocates a series of measures that housebuilders and local authorities can take to improve their own practices and processes. Professor Matthew Carmona of The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL, who is chair of the Place Alliance and led the research, says, “Planning authorities are under pressure to deliver new homes and are, therefore, prioritising numbers in the short term over the long term negative impacts of bad design. At the same time, housebuilders have little incentive to improve when their designs continue to pass through the planning system. Some highways authorities, meanwhile, do not even recognise their role in creating a sense of place for communities.”

To help remedy this, the report calls on housebuilders to adopt a more responsible, ethical approach to design and invest in in-house design governance teams and processes. Mechanisms for internal learning and coordination on design could help larger housebuilders achieve greater consistency across regions and subsidiaries, it says.

It advises local authorities to be clear in setting out their aspirations using tools such as site specific design codes, establish or commission a design review panel as a chargeable service, and integrate highways and planning, perhaps by setting up multi-disciplinary urban design teams. 

“Collectively, housebuilders, planning authorities and highways authorities need to significantly raise their game,” stresses Carmona. The way ahead is clear, says Sue Morgan, The Design Council’s director of architecture and built environment. “A Housing Design Audit for England provides further evidence of why the industry needs to take urgent action. It highlights that, with the right practices, processes and support mechanisms in place, good design can be afforded and achieved.”

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