Design Standards

Was I the only one that found Grant Shapps’ announcement about design standards this week a bit cryptic?

I get that the new (April 2010) version of the HCA design standards is not going to become a grant requirement and that the standards would have increased the build cost. But I also understand those who say – yes but what about the increase in financial, social and environmental value? The cost led nature of that part of the announcement did seem designed primarily for the volume house builder audience.

My bigger lack of understanding was the stuff about local standards to be produced jointly by local authorities and house builders. On one level that seems to play into the localism agenda, although some standards (or perhaps design guidance is a better description and something to be welcome) will need to be neighbourhood specific, local authority boundaries not having been set with housing design guidance in mind.

Quite what will appear from the new Local Standards Framework remains to be seen. The challenge of creating something that allows volume housebuilders to build standard house types across the country and also creates homes that fit their local context seems great. And the challenge of linking this to community plans will also be interesting.

For me the bigger point is that standards don’t achieve good design. For that we require design intelligent clients and good designers. At best, standards drag the worst projects upwards slightly. The need to do this was starkly illustrated by the release yesterday of the Building for Life scores on the HCA Kickstart projects. BfL is not a perfect system by any means but the full horror of the low design quality of the majority of Kickstart schemes was quantified in the announcement. Fifteen of the 52 Round 2 schemes scored 10 or less but at least there weren’t any more like the Round 1 schemes that scored 1.5, 2 and 3. The HCA repeatedly made the point that these schemes all had planning permission – cast iron evidence of the inadequacy of the English planning system to secure good design. 

The idea behind Kickstart, to keep housing supply going through the recession and to ensure that our towns and cities weren’t dotted with abandoned building skeletons, was spot on. But the political imperative to deliver housing, however poor, was a substantial error, and one that this country has made before.

The generally poor quality of housing built over the last fifteen years or so has been well documented by Cabe and more recently by Owen Hatherley in his book, A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain. On Monday there was an entertaining evening at the Royal Festival Hall where Owen spoke intelligently about the subject. But the killer question – ‘What do we do about it’ was answered with ‘I’m only a critic. Thats for others to answer’.

One idea was that designs should be selected competitively. If the process of community planning results in design briefs for key sites, with requirements that balance financial, social and environmental outcomes, we would start to get a process where the market was used to improve quality not just price. The Darwinian nature of markets would soon remove the developers that couldn’t achieve it and most of the big boys would transform themselves quickly. I think there might be something in that, and something that might appeal to the sophisticated policy thinking around Nudge and Big Society.

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