[3000 Words; 23 Minute Read] The last few decades globally has seen a move away from seeing housing design as part of the development process and technical construction towards better design as a central policy objective. In many cities, we have seen the market provide a huge number of high-density apartments in our main cities. The result has been the construction of investor-led dwellings of variable quality with limited local facilities leading to half-empty large urban blocks with a stunted relationship with the surrounding townscape. The ongoing economic constraints provide us with an opportunity to revisit the appropriateness – in design terms – of this housing boom and allows us to examine the factors that led to this type of housing growth, not least because this is the very housing sector that has suffered so much in recent years. In addition, we will examine why the housing product has been so variable in design quality terms given that there has been an advance in policy and other regulatory instruments.
To explore the issue of new urban housing design in more depth, the article will be structured in the following way. At the outset, we examine what we might consider being ‘good’ design quality housing before exploring market conditions that encourage certain types of housing design. We then demonstrate the type of developer in the housing design process, particularly given the speculative housing market and the producers of new housing influence the quality of new urban housing. Site conditions are then discussed to consider the unique set of characteristics of a particular site, as well as the value and ownership issues. The ‘opportunity space’ of a developer is then put forward in order to explore these urban housing design issues further. Finally, conclusions are drawn about the ways in which housing has been produced as units and consider how institutions such as planning authorities might ensure the inbuilt design of quality of housing in the future.
The good design of new development is an ‘elusive quality’ that has been a central concern of modern town planning since the post-war period. We have witnessed, however, a move away from planning as a design-based discipline, or rather art, to one that can be conceptualized as a science. In other words, we saw, in the 1960s, a shift to a systems view of planning interested in the processes of planning rather than the object that town planning deals with. This shift is interesting to us for two reasons. Firstly, it underlines, in many ways, how planners became less concerned with the outcome of the processes they were involved with from this time onwards, and secondly, it indicates that there have been times when planners have successfully sought high-quality environments in the past.
We can define good design as a break from the commodification of homes sustained through real estate markets or through an over-reliance on institutional power to impose residential solutions without significant recourse to the people and communities that will have to live there. In other words, we accept a definition of housing design quality that sees communities at the centre of the process of housing production and thereby see design as having a social as well as aesthetic value. This is crucial given that new housing is often produced by the speculative house-building industry.
It is important to frame new urban housing is an arena of mediation between developers, designers and planners in a range of agencies at different spatial scales. It is useful in the first instance to examine the role of each of these in producing housing through the planning system. Firstly developers, the private companies that build housing, are key to the production of housing. Secondly, speculative developers often dominate the market with mass-produced housing and little opportunity space for designers to intervene in the form of the finished product. So we can see an environment where speculative house-builders lead the production of housing through land acquisition, active intervention in plan production (to influence the number and location of new homes) and negotiations over individual applications for development. Indeed, the typical design approach to the private housebuilder is determined by:
- Maximization of unit amenity;
- Market research, and,
- Public policy and regulations
Housing quantity has been one of the overriding preoccupation(s) of planning for much the last Century. In more recent times we have witnessed what has been called the ‘affordability-led’ housing supply debate where the main issue for housing policymakers has been to plug the gap between the long-term increase in house prices and its consequent lack of affordability for increasing numbers of households. House building is a risky and uncertain business, partly due to the time lag between the start of the development process and the sale of the completed house. The housing market is also volatile and particularly susceptible to ‘shocks’ that affect the demand side of the market, such as interest rate movements or credit availability.
Additional sources of uncertainty derive from planning regulation: whether the land will receive planning permission, and under what terms. Paradoxically, planning is meant to increase certainty for developers, but delays in the preparation of plans and the discretionary nature of planning control, mean that planning is often a source of uncertainty in addition to market volatility. In this context housebuilders have traditionally been attached to a restricted range of standard house types, which are tried, tested and sell. Build costs are predictable, design costs are minimized and allegedly conservative mortgage providers and new home buyers are not put off.
As such the debates about design quality stemming from issues of housing quantity are interesting. In the affordability-led housing market, it is interesting that a number of commentators indicate that market pressures lead to ‘product homogenisation’. In other words, the type of development produced by the housing market is a result of the restrictive planning system that appears to favour certain types of developer over others. The experience of the past decade also reminds us that the credit market can influence the pattern of housing supply in important ways. The wholly unanticipated emergence of the buy-to-let phenomenon in many towns and cities have, it can be argued, shaped the pattern of provision to respond to the requirements of investors rather than consumers. This is a specific example of the commodification of homes in particular market conditions.
The type of developer
The source of the ‘poor design problem’ according to a development process perspective lies in the social and state-market relations prevalent in the house building industry. Speculative strategies, while enabling high profits to be made in the short-term result in a lower quality, often poor value for money product. For some cities, the emphasis on brownfield development posed a challenge to the traditional speculative housebuilder model, which evolved when most new residential development took place on greenfield sites. It has been argued that building on brownfield sites implies that developers will not be able to rely on gains from land value, as such sites command higher prices and are typically acquired and developed over a shorter time scale. Brownfield sites are also more problematic, standardized designs are less appropriate and developments will have to be acceptable to and integrated with existing urban communities.
The house builders with the greatest resources of money (from being able to raise the appropriate level of capital) and land are the ones that have been able to acquire the ‘best’ sites and invest in complex and expensive marketing strategies that promote certain visions of lifestyle. We might call this an accountancy-model where economies of scale determine the design and sale of the housing product. Those specialist house builders, which are normally more modest in scale, operate somewhat differently. In essence, these types of developer are much more interested in the quality of the final product and are far more willing to engage with more complicated sites. Indeed, accountancy-model developers are less likely to engage with sites that are smaller and more complicated. So we see that what we can term the quality-model developers have managed to find a niche within which the housing product has the potential to be of greater or better quality.
The particular conditions of a site are an important element in the production of housing. There are two aspects of the speculative residential development process that are argued to militate against better design. First, speculative residential developers at times can control all of the stages of development from identifying land, obtaining the necessary permissions, organizing construction and marketing the finished product; construction is typically subcontracted to other firms to maximize flexibility.
The land is an essential resource, and consequently, enormous effort and resources are deployed to ensure continuity of land supply. Developers also expend significant resources to influence planning policy so that sites in which they have an interest are allocated in plans and receive planning permission. Sites are sometimes held in a land bank for a minimum number of years for operational reasons, and some sites may be held for much longer, normally under option or conditional contract, while allocation or planning permission is sought. Sites are also traded between developers.
Significant potential exists for housebuilders to benefit from inflationary gains in land value between buying the land and the eventual sale of the completed houses (or of uncompleted sites where land is traded). Because land costs are often high relative to the cost of the completed houses, housebuilders’ profits can be substantially enhanced through land trading or through gains from the increase in the price of land. Hence, one business strategy of housebuilders is focused on capturing inflationary gains from housing and land markets through skilful ‘opportunity identification’ and land dealing. The corollary is that much less emphasis is placed on improving the quality of the houses being produced, and on achieving efficiency in the construction process through innovation or investment in prefabrication and the like.
With some emphasis on brownfield land in cities, the issue of land remediation and how this impacts upon the production of housing is particularly important. There is a view that the easiest brownfield sites have already been developed a meaning that those that remain have major problems in terms of bringing them meaningfully forward for development: contamination, poor access, weak demand, unsuitable locations, high costs for example. The key point is that for difficult brownfield sites opportunities to generate profit from land speculation are reduced, with more onus on generating profit from the development itself. However, the costs of remediation and the like can also put pressure on other aspects of scheme quality.
One suggestion is that the more demanding (brownfield) regulatory environment has created an ‘opportunity space’ for design and designers, compelling developers to invest in design as ‘opportunity space’ is diminished Developer’s opportunity space is seen to have three main forces – the physical context of the development site, the regulatory context, and the market context – these forces press in and constrain the developer’s room for manoeuvre or opportunity space. It is also the case that large-scale greenfield urban extension sites can be equally demanding, given the scale of investment required, and the need to incorporate significant community and other infrastructure. The proposition that new urban housing built on brownfield sites is consistently better designed is certainly debatable. However, the social relations between regulators, designers and developers, and the ‘space’ for design, is delineated by the context of specific developments, is useful. Context is defined in terms of:
- site conditions – the complexity of problems to be overcome;
- the competitiveness of market conditions -design quality as a competitive strategy,
- coupled with more discerning, design-aware, urban consumers, and
- the scope of regulation -the formal requirements of gaining planning consent,
- together with the use of tools such as master plans and design codes
The concept of opportunity space is a useful starting point for the development of hypotheses and empirical testing of urban housing design. Furthermore, the opportunity space framework could be extended and refined in a number of ways, to provide both a fuller understanding of influences on housing design quality and the interaction between contextual features. Three points of discussion are noted here with respect to the opportunity space for urban housing design given the multiple forces by the market, site and regulation.
First, the regulatory framework is, as we have discussed, wide-ranging, with complex trade-offs between policy objectives to promote investment and regeneration, the achievement of housing targets, negotiation of planning gain and design quality. This points to the significance of power relationships in different economic and market contexts, and of the (softer/ cultural) expectations and aspirations of local planning authorities. In other words, regulation is variably interpreted and implemented over ‘space’.
Second, while speculative gains from land ownership may be limited in urban redevelopment contexts, issues of land ownership and the values sought by landowners continue to be crucial in determining development densities, the mix and type of housing and the scope for negotiating design qualities. There are often in economically tough times, calls for a bigger public sector role in land acquisition and development to reduce risk and ensure higher quality, but the prospects for a radical re-shaping of the residential development process now seem rather remote. However, the ownership of land, the attitudes and expectations of different landowners and the terms on which owners sell, and developers bid for land are a key influence on the ‘space’ for creating a better design.
Thirdly, it is clear that different developers adopt different strategies, including the degree to which they are prepared to be flexible with regard to design, and the significance of design quality as part of their business strategy. Typically smaller, niche developers are credited with producing higher quality design, and medium-sized firms are seen as more ready to yield ‘opportunity space’ to designers.
In this article, it is argued that there are a number of features of the changing residential development process that provide incentives for housing developers to invest in design, and yield space to design and designers. These include the more challenging conditions of brownfield sites or large-scale urban extensions and the emergence of developers who give a higher priority to the quality of their product. There are also features of the housing market, the residential development process and the regulatory framework that undermine design quality.
The general scarcity of housing supply compared with demand reduces the competitive pressure on developers of new housing to ‘up their game’; in locations where demand pressures are greatest, design quality may be compromised without affecting sales of new housing. Furthermore, the significant growth of investor demand for new apartments in urban areas has arguably distorted the market by providing incentives for developers to build a product that meets the requirements of investors rather than those of occupiers buying for the longer term.
The residential development process emphasises buildability and standardisation, in a market context characterised by risk and uncertainty, and scheme design for developers tends to be dictated by the aim of maximising the return on the number of units on relatively costly land. In planning policy design quality is now seen as a more important consideration, but there are competing priorities, for investment, regeneration and selling ‘units’. It is also claimed that many planning authorities lack the skills needed to negotiate better design.
Consequently, design quality is highly variable, and only a minority of schemes achieve high standards. Schemes that are judged to meet the highest standards tend to result from situations where an enlightened private landowner and developer have worked closely with the local authority to agree on a master plan and detailed designs at the very outset of the development process, or where a public sector agency is a landowner, enters into a partnership with the developer and can impose conditions on the development that drive up design quality. This highlights the significance of particular factors in shaping the process of negotiation and the product which results.
First, the nature and quality of relationships and the focus of the negotiations between landowners, developers and local authorities. We would argue that a partnership rather than an adversarial model of the relationship between local authority and developer is needed. Our view of planning as a forum for place-making rather than a regulatory only government function suggests that planners should mediate the often competing interests of development. This is crucial given that there have traditionally been some tensions between developers of housing and local government planners.
Second, the timing of intervention, with the need for a process where dialogue and negotiation start at a point where the costs associated with achieving higher design standards are reflected in the land value negotiated between the landowner and developer. Again it could be argued that the role of planner as a mediator is crucial here: traditionally planners and planning have not taken economic considerations into account during the development control process. In this instance, this would seem to be counter-productive given that there are arguments made by some developers that the ‘cost’ of design is prohibitive.
Finally, local planning authorities need to be given incentives to take a more positive stance with respect to housing development in their areas. This is recognised as a long-standing difficulty, as often it is central government emphasis on housing targets that encounter both practical and political problems. The dismantling of this higher governance structure creates a great deal of uncertainty. It remains to be seen if the move away from prescriptive targets set at higher governance levels to a more local approach to set housing targets, combined with fiscal incentives, will enable a sufficient quantity and quality of housing design in urban areas.
This is an updated version. The original full and formatted version of this text can be cited as:
Short, M and Squires, G. (2014) ‘New Urban Housing Design in the UK’ in Inzulza, J y L. Pérez (eds.) ‘Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Urban Design for the Contemporary City’. Santiago, Chile: Universidad de Chile & Universidad de Concepción Press. ISBN: 978-956-19-0846-8