A New Model of Contemporary Housing

Terry Farrell's plan for Bicester garden city is highlighted as an exemplar in the government's new housing design guide.


A 20-page document named the Starter Homes Design, is the first product of the government’s new housing design advisory panel, led by the traditionalist triumvirate of Quinlan Terry, Roger Scruton and Terry Farrell.

Terry, 77, is Prince Charles’ favourite architect, a purveyor of classical confections from his drawing board in the quaint Essex village of Dedham. Scruton, 71, a philosopher of aesthetics, is a vocal enemy of modern architecture and author of The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism (as well as I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine). Farrell, 76, is the Tories’ architecture tsar of choice, acting as adviser to both David Cameron and Boris Johnson on matters of the built environment. His tastes are harder to pin down: seemingly willing to turn his hand to whatever his clients desire, he builds folksy cottages in the Chilterns with one hand, while erecting soaring glass totems in China with the other.



“Windows can have flat arches, gentle arches or full arches,” is one helpful suggestion proffered by the guide, which takes the form of eight “exemplar” case studies, from a white rendered terrace in Bude to a neoclassical mansion block in Islington. “Materials,” it continues, “can vary from a more generic render (which can be plain or coloured to give variety), or locally found materials or bricks can be used.”

These points are illustrated with an example of a small terraced street in Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’ model village in Dorset, designed by classical architect Craig Hamilton. The row of two-storey, two-bed homes is singled out for the fact that it has “non-aligned windows, giving a less formal feel.” The choice of one window upstairs, rather than two, gives a cottagey feel – and may well bring the same warm glow of picturesque pleasure that you get from watching a Hovis ad. But behind the net curtains of that lonely single window will lurk a more dingy room. Window tax might be long abolished, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at some of these case studies.

That’s the edge of everything that’s wrong with this document, which is alarmingly intended to be a template for the UK house building industry, a means “to ensure we achieve high quality design,” says housing minister Brandon Lewis. It betrays a fundamental disinterest in what homes are like inside and how it is to live in them. Such considerations are entirely absent from the guide, whose authors focus solely on what a house should look like from the street, concerned that is should be pleasing to the nostalgic eye.

Praise is lavished on “traditional six pane over single pane sash windows”, arched brick lintels, slate rooftops and the use of “traditional materials”. Meanwhile, there is no mention of internal layout, space standards, ceiling heights and the size of windows – all the crucial things that are endlessly squeezed by house-builders. There is little joy in a six-paned sash when it is the size of a postage stamp, nor much fun to be had in a terraced-house bedroom that can barely hold a double bed. But as long as it recalls something from the earlier part of the last two centuries, it will receive the design advisers’ blessing.

Highbury Gardens in Islington, designed by Porphyrios Associates with the Prince's Foundation, is hailed as a model that 'blends traditional architecture with contemporary design'. 

With its focus on exterior dressing alone, the approach will no doubt be welcomed by the volume house building industry. The exemplar projects would be at home in the catalogues of Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon, Berkeley and Barratt, alongside the cosy ticky-tacky charm of the Bancroft and the Conway, with their stick-on porches masking the hutches within. Indeed, by emphasising outward appearance, the design guide will only encourage the practice of what is known in the industry as “jacketing” – simply wrapping the same standard house type in different cladding to satisfy local planners and the market.

But beyond the nostalgic cladding, the guide only distracts from the true disaster of the entire starter homes initiative: that these houses, of which the Tories hope to see 200,000 built by 2020, will be exempt from the usual planning obligation to contribute towards affordable housing. To incentivise house builders to actually build houses (god forbid), section 106 payments and community infrastructure levy will be waived.

The reason? Starter homes will apparently be offered at “a discount of 20%” to young first-time buyers. Yet there is no mechanism to ensure that discounted price is actually a discount, nor any suggestion of how house builders could afford to offer homes at 20% below the market prices or how the shortfall could be financed.

The proposal has been slammed by the National Housing Federation as “yet another short-term initiative that fails to address the root of the problem,” while Labour has warned that the planned homes may be stuck on the edge of town, remote from bus services and schools, and tacked on to business parks or industrial estates.

Still, when you’re stranded in industrial exurbia with no services in sight, at least you’ll be able to take comfort in your mansard roof; and the view of the surrounding wasteland will thankfully be obscured by those tiny leaded windows.

Article from Guardian.com