The CABE Experiment and housing design: where have all the leaders gone?

Bad design? Housing development in Melton Mowbray by Persimmon

Guest blog: Matthew Carmona and Lucy Natarajan

Here at The Bartlett, UCL we recently completed a major study of the eleven years of publically funded CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. We evaluated the work, history, and impact of the organisation, and the ‘tools’ it used to promote good urban design across England. When it came to housing design CABE had real impact and, as we argue here, the leadership it provided is sorely missed. But there are ways that planners, urban designers and the government can draw on the CABE Experiment, which will be increasingly important in light of the intended increase in the volumes of housing being built.

CABE was never well understood. External perceptions were often of a monolith swallowing up huge dollops of tax-payers’ money to conduct design review. As we reported in our book Design Governance: The CABE Experiment, the organisation was tiny by government quango standards, and only around a fifth of its staff were dedicated to design review. The rest of the staff worked on lower profile but typically highly regarded and effective activities such as: enabling within local authorities; its research projects; the work of its public spaces and parks arm (CABE Space); production of its very well used guidance and website; and various educational enterprises such as its summer schools.

These ‘informal tools’ of CABE were not mandatory or statutory and instead influenced and guided the professions. Yet they created a culture that improved design, for housing as for many other aspects of place. The work of CABE even reached some, although not all, of the volume house builders. Such progress will easily ebb away without continued efforts and leadership.

But how did improvement happen?

The answer is relatively simple: CABE’s tools were flexible and the activity was coordinated across the country, with the voice of government behind them. CABE addressed the issue of housing design from different angles, with:

  • national housing audits to embarrass the housebuilders with a stark national picture of the generally poor standards of their products
  • case studies and guidance to demonstrate principles and help raise aspirations
  • training for local authority staff
  • ‘enablers’ within local planning authorities working directly with councils, assisting with policy frameworks and large-scale applications
  • hundreds of design reviews were conducted on residential-led masterplans around the country

In addition, the Building for Life consortium helped establish nationally acceptable standards and an awards system for the best housing designs. And last but by no means least, government strengthened national policy, including on highways design in residential areas.

So where are we now?

Since CABE’s demise we have seen a large scale withdrawal of government, at national and local levels from engaging in design, and a fragmentation of the non-governmental design governance services that remain.  We have also seen a retrenchment of house builders, highways authorities, and planning authorities across the country back to the old ways of doing things.  Respectively, these are based on standard (and inappropriate) housing types, rigid and over-engineered highways standards, and planning authorities without the time, skills or confidence to challenge the house builders.

This is not to imply that nothing is happening. The Place Alliance provides a forum for ‘grassroots’ exchange and, bubbling up from these connections, UDL initiated and lead the work to produce a collaborative and comprehensive guide: The Design Companion Planning & Placemaking. This publication demystifies the principles behind ‘good places’ and explains with detailed examples how planners and placemakers can deliver the highest standards in urban design. In addition the largest metropolises particularly benefit from local leadership, particularly the Mayoral SPG for new build in London and Manchester’s City Council’s guide. However without the national coordination of such initiatives, housebuilders can and surely will cherry pick where they build quality homes.

But learning the lessons from the CABE era…

What should the government do now?

  • Show leadership: Minsters should speak out when residential design is poor and celebrate it when it is not, and appeal decisions where residential schemes were rejected on design grounds can provide rich illustrations for that work.
  • Support proactivity in local authorities: LAs can move away from reliance on generic policies in local plans and prepare simple non-statutory site-specific frameworks and design codes for housing sites.
  • Promote design review: This constructive peer-based checking and refinement mechanism should be made compulsory in the forthcoming revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for all major housing schemes.

Speaking up for better places and better homes will help those who are working on the ground, and as Design Governance: The CABE Experiment shows, this can have a great effect.  With little cost and no new legislation we can once again drive design quality up the national agenda.

 

References

Carmona M, De Magalhães C, Natarajan L, (2017) Design Governance: The CABE Experiment. London: Routledge

UDL (2017) The Design Companion Planning & Placemaking. London: RIBA.


The Place Alliance were winners of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement in 2016’s RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. This award was sponsored by the Idox Information Service.

Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

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Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

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More, better, faster: the potential of service design to transform public services

Découverte

For government at all levels – national, regional and local – the year ahead promises even greater challenges.  The need to provide more, better and faster services, using fewer resources, while responding to unprecedented levels of technological, demographic, and social change is greater than ever.

Increasingly, public sector organisations are taking an interest in the concept of service design as a means of responding to these challenges and developing better public services.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of service design and consider how it can contribute to public service innovation.

What is ‘service design’? 

Initially a private sector concept, ‘service design’ is an innovative approach that has successfully been applied to the public sector in order to ‘do more with less’.

The Service Design Network defines it as:

“the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers”

Some of service design’s key principles include:

  • the creation of services that are useful, useable, desirable, efficient, and effective;
  • the use of a human-centred approach that focuses on customer experience and the quality of the service encounter;
  •  the use of a holistic approach that considers in an integrated way strategic, system, process, and ‘touch-point’ (customer interaction) design decisions;
  • an implicit assumption of co-crafting services with users (e.g. co-production).

Approaching service design in this manner has a number of advantages, including improved knowledge of user requirements, lower development costs, improved service experience, and improved user satisfaction.

Indeed, in 2012, the UK Design Council has estimated that for every £1 invested in the design of innovative services, their public sector clients have achieved more than £26 of social return.

Service design in the public sector

How should service design be applied within the public sector?

A report by the Service Design Network, drawing on research by public service designers around the world, identified five areas of the public sector that are particularly relevant for service design:

  • policy making
  • cultural and organisational change
  • training and capacity building
  • citizen engagement
  • digitisation

The report presents a number of examples of the successful application of service design in the public sector.  Two such examples are highlighted below.

Case study: Transforming mental health services in Lambeth

The London borough of Lambeth was under pressure to cut mental health budgets by more than 20%, at the same time as experiencing double the average rate of prevalence of mental health issues in England. In response, it employed a service design approach to transform its model of care for people suffering mental health problems.

The transformation was achieved over several years. Lambeth incorporated the use of service design by introducing a social networking site called Connect&Do, employing in-house service designers and prototyping new services through a multi-agency hub for community-based wellbeing.

These have all contributed to making Lambeth an award-winning pioneer in participation and innovative, collaborative commissioning.

Case study: Transforming services for vulnerable people in Brent

Brent Council worked with a design partner to support the review of three areas: employment support and welfare reform; housing for vulnerable people; and regeneration.

The council also wanted to strengthen its internal capacity by developing an innovation hub and training a cohort of managers and officers in service design methods.

Three reviews were conducted in parallel by a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers and managers. They conducted extensive research, including ethnographic interviews, observations, focus groups, pop-up community events, expert interviews, data analysis and visualisation. At key points, the teams came together to share insights and critique each other’s work as they progressed from research into idea-generation and prototyping.

The new innovation hub aimed to build staff capability, hold idea-generation events and provide an accepting environment for rule-breaking experimentation. It also included leadership development for innovation through specialist guidance of the senior management team.

Thinking outside the box

Service design encourages people to get alternative perspectives and develop creative solutions that go beyond their usual comfort zones. By doing so, it has the potential to positively transform public sector service delivery and improve efficiency. In effect, service design is all about viewing things from a different angle, which – as Albert Einstein observed – can often open up new possibilities:

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on service design.

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Planning for an ageing population: designing age-friendly environments

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In the UK, increased life expectancy means that people can expect to live longer than ever before.  While this is clearly good news – and has a number of potential economic benefits – the shift in demographic structure towards an increasingly elderly population has a number of significant implications.

Following Wednesday’s blog post on the implications for planning of the ageing society, today we highlight some of the ways in which planners can help support the creation of age-friendly environments by influencing the design of the urban environment, transport, housing and the wider community and neighbourhood.

The importance of an age-friendly environment

Age-friendly environments are underpinned by three key factors:

  • Safety
  • Accessibility
  • Mobility

Such environments impact positively upon the quality of life of older people by enabling and encouraging physical activity and social connection.  This in turn has a beneficial impact upon their physical and mental health, and helps to tackle social exclusion – which can be a particular problem among older people.

Conversely, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes, poor design can have a negative impact:

“older people who live in an unsafe environment or areas with multiple physical barriers are less likely to get out and therefore more prone to isolation, depression, reduced fitness and increased mobility problems”

Creating an age-friendly environment

There are a number of areas in which planners may have an influence on the provision of age friendly environments:

  • the design of the urban environment
  • supporting appropriate transport options
  • the provision of age-appropriate housing
  • adequate neighbourhood and community facilities

Urban environment

In terms of the urban environment, green spaces are an integral aspect of age friendly environments.  Access to green spaces supports the physical activity of older people, makes a positive contribution to their health and wellbeing, and provides opportunities for social interaction.

Research has found that green spaces that are poorly maintained, perceived as unsafe, or contain potential hazards resulting from the shared use of parks and walkways are less likely to be used by older people.  Suggestions for improvement include the creation of small, quieter, contained green spaces and improved park maintenance.

Paths, streets and pedestrian areas are also a key planning consideration. Older people have greater reliance on pedestrian travel and are more likely to be physically active in areas that are pedestrian friendly.  The perception of safety also influences use – therefore, lighting and road safety measures can help to enhance this.

Adequate public toilet provision will also become an increasingly important issue.  Recent cutbacks have resulted in many public toilets being closed – in their review of public toilet provision in the UK Help the Aged noted that provision was sporadic. They found that the majority of older people had experienced difficulties in finding a public toilet, and even when toilets were found, they were often closed.

Transport needs

Responding to the transport needs of different groups will also present a key challenge. For example, an analysis of major European cities  by the Arup engineering consultancy found that older people typically make fewer journeys, use private cars less, public transport more (trams and buses in particular) and walk more.  In addition to this, older people’s typical walking speed – as well as the average length of walking trips – were lower than younger people’s patterns.  These differences must be considered when designing age-friendly environments.

The growing population of older people in rural and semi-rural areas, and the reliance on cars in areas with limited public transport options were also identified by Arup as important issues.

Age-appropriate housing

There will be increased demand for age-appropriate housing that meets the needs of older people as the population ages. People are likely to have longer periods of retirement and possibly longer periods of ill-health. As noted by the Future of an Ageing Population Project, unsuitable housing can damage individual wellbeing and increase costs for the NHS.

In order to meet demand, it will be necessary to both adapt existing housing stock, as well as ensure that new housing can adapt to people’s changing needs as they age.  Age-appropriate housing that supports independent living can reduce demand on health and care services, and positively enhance the lives of older people.

Thinking ‘beyond the building’

There is also a need to think ‘beyond the building’. It is thought that interventions that improve homes are likely to be less effective without similar improvements in the neighbourhood.  The ability to socialise and to access services is considered to be particularly important.

Therefore, planning for the provision of local shops and other community facilities such as GP surgeries, post offices and libraries, in tandem with an increased focus on walkable neighbourhoods and public transport provision, will help older people to be physically active and more independent.

Raising awareness

Despite a pressing need for action, the provision of age friendly infrastructure in the UK has been constrained by a lack of resources, and assigned a relatively low priority.  However, there is growing recognition of the need to raise awareness of the potential effects of the ageing population and its implications for the design of cities, towns and villages across the UK.

Planning departments cannot address these implications in isolation.  However, for their part, knowing and understanding the potential implications of the UK’s ageing population is a positive step towards the creation of a successful age-friendly built environment.


For further information, you may be interested in our other blog posts on the creation of age-friendly towns and cities and the economic opportunities presented by an ageing society.

We have also published two members-only briefings on Ageing, transport and mobility and Meeting the housing needs of older people.

English Planning in Crisis: new ideas to recapture the purpose of planning in England

Housing estate iStock_000004526499Medium

“Essentially, the values of planning have been stood on their head, to the point where we have to ask whether the system remains fit for purpose.”

This is the stark assessment from the authors of a new book from Policy Press. In English Planning in Crisis, Hugh Ellison and Kate Henderson reflect on planning reforms since 2010, and argue that “the rich Utopian tradition that underpinned the town planning movement in England is dead, and needs wholesale recreation.”

The importance of planning

English Planning in Crisis highlights how essential planning is to the quality of life, noting that some of its key achievements have included securing mixed-use developments, the provision of social and genuinely affordable homes and protecting some of England’s most important landscapes. At its best, the authors contend, planning can provide for rich habitats and green space, good quality design, inclusion and resilience. But now, they argue, the once visionary town planning movement has become “little more than a residual form of land licensing.”

Reform and decline

The authors acknowledge that the decline of planning in England did not start in 2010. But they reserve particular criticism for the deregulation of policy on planning, housing and the built environment introduced under the coalition and Conservative governments.

Among the reforms in their sights are the withdrawal of the Code for Sustainable Homes, which had allowed councils to adopt their own sustainability levels as a planning requirement for new residential development, and the Deregulation Act 2015, which removed local planning authorities’ powers concerning construction, layout or energy performance of new dwellings.

There is also concern about extending the Right to Buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants, which the authors say has the potential “to transform socially and economically diverse communities into exclusively wealthy ones.” Similarly, they contend that the Conservative government’s Starter Homes policy (offering new-build houses at a price below their market value) will largely be of help to high earners.

Taken together, according to the book’s authors, reforms introduced since 2010 have resulted in a planning system that delivers poor-quality places, badly-designed dwellings, houses that are affordable only to middle and high-income earners, and ignores the challenges of climate change and an ageing population.

Planning beyond England

Before putting forward their ideas for rethinking the planning system in England, the authors look at planning systems elsewhere. They suggest that approaches adopted in Wales and Scotland provide pointers to how the English planning system can get back on track. They are particularly complimentary about Scotland’s framework for the spatial development of the country as a whole, which they suggest provides certainty and long-term thinking about planning. The authors also praise two regeneration initiatives in the city of Hamburg which have transformed derelict land into sources of renewable energy.

Ten steps to rebuild planning

The second half of English Planning in Crisis sets out a collection of evidence-based ideas for rebuilding England’s planning system. These include:

  • Replacing the current fragmented approach to planning for the future with a clear vision
  • Establishing a government department for spatial planning
  • Engaging with communities and individuals to develop solutions to the nation’s problems
  • Transforming the planning profession from an “old boys club” into a new generation of diverse and inclusive placemakers
  • Reform of planning education
  • A framework of equal rights in planning decisions
  • A national debate on house-building
  • Ensuring new homes are accessible for the elderly and disabled
  • Delivering sustainable homes, including a new zero-carbon policy
  • Fair taxation of land values.

The authors stress that these proposals are underpinned by the values of the Utopian tradition that inspired examples of planning at its best, including garden cities and the 1947 Town Planning Act. These values include social justice, fair rights to participate in decisions, and the fair distribution of resources arising from the development of land and primary resources.

In conclusion, the authors of English Planning in Crisis argue that only by reclaiming those essential values can England’s planning system recapture its purpose:

“Our future depends on the discovery of those democratic and altruistic qualities that once formed the ethos of town planning.”


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New ideas for housing in London

Houses-on-coins-by-Images-Money

2015 was the year London’s population reached 8.6 million, a peak figure last reached in 1939. The capital’s population is set to rise by a further 1.6 million over the next 20 years, and by 2050 may have reached 11 million, more than the current combined populations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The rising numbers will add exacerbate the shortage of housing in the capital, which the head of the London Housing Commission has described as “one of the biggest public policy failures of the last 50 years.”

A showcase for new ideas
A major exhibition highlighting new thinking on solving London’s housing crisis is currently taking place. Organised by New London Architects (NLA), “New Ideas for Housing” highlights more than 100 ways in which London’s shortage of housing might be addressed.

Ten of the 100 shortlisted ideas were selected as winning entries from a competition that attracted ideas from architects, contractors, manufacturers, economists and house builders.

Among the winners were:

The Urban Darning Project
Employing the sewing technique for repairing holes or worn areas in fabric, the project aims to encourage small residential developments in central London to ‘fill-in the gaps’ of the urban fabric.

Supurbia
This idea has twofold approach: redeveloping local main streets and parades as mixed-use places with increased housing and amenity provision; and allowing owner-occupiers of semi-detached homes to develop their land, creating rich diversities of housing.

Investing in London’s Future by Learning from its Past
Drawing on London’s former leasehold system, this idea suggests that separating the cost of housing as a physical product from land costs would make it more affordable to build and buy houses.

MegaPlan for a MegaCity
The originators of this idea suggest that in order to meet the shortfall in housing by 2050, less than 4% of ‘edge land’ (the inner belt running from the inner London Green Belt to the M25) would need to be released from the Green Belt.

Wood Blocks
This idea proposes scaling up the growing appetite for self-build homes. A structural, weatherproof, thermally- and acoustically-insulated shell would be built by a developer / housebuilder, which could then be partitioned and fitted-out by new owners, delivering faster and cheaper housing.

The ideas are described in greater detail in a publication accompanying the exhibition. The NLA Insight Study also examines the current state of play in London’s housing supply, addressing the barriers around planning, land, funding, construction, procurement and design.


New Ideas for Housing
Exhibition dates: Thursday 15 October – Thursday 17 December 2015. Opening time: Monday to Friday: 9.30 am – 6.00 pm; Saturday: 10.00 am – 5.00 pm.
Address: NLA, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT
http://newlondonarchitecture.org/

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Is there any value in preserving our built heritage?

By Alan Gillies

Concerns that Edinburgh may lose its World Heritage Site (WHS) status hit the headlines in October, as a team from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, UNESCO’s official adviser on cultural World Heritage Sites, arrived in the Scottish capital for a visit.

Two controversial planning applications for luxury hotels in the city were the focus of attention – the conversion of the former Royal High School (at one time the planned home of the new Scottish Parliament); and the redevelopment of the 1970s St James shopping centre.

The hotel on the St James site, with its ‘spiralling ribbon’ design, was approved by the council’s planning committee in August against the recommendation of council planning officers. The Old Royal High School application is yet to be decided, but is reported to have attracted over 2000 objections via the council’s e-planning portal. Historic Environment Scotland, statutory consultee for planning applications, has also lodged its official objection to the Royal High School scheme.

Although there is uncertainty over whether Edinburgh’s World Heritage status is genuinely under threat, the controversy has highlighted an important issue for planners and city policy makers everywhere. What is the value of conserving the built heritage of a place?

The benefits of World Heritage Site status

In terms of the World Heritage status itself, there are doubts over its benefits for sites like Edinburgh that are already well-known and established tourist destinations. According to Aylin Orbasli, Oxford Brookes University, “This is partly because the heritage tourism map of the UK is already drawn. Bath, Edinburgh, York and Oxford are all popular tourist attractions regardless of whether they are World Heritage Sites or not (Bath and Edinburgh are, York and Oxford are not).

UNESCO itself acknowledges that less well-known UK sites “potentially gain more” than those famous prior to UNESCO designation. As an example of the benefits for smaller sites, it highlights the Cornish Mining WHS, whose annual income has increased by 100% since gaining World Heritage status.

Even for more established sites, UNESCO argues that money invested in conservation by authorities in connection with World Heritage status encourages private sector investment. Using the Edinburgh World Heritage Site as an example, it reports that £414,246 in public grants for building conservation leveraged in additional funding from private sources of over £1.9 million in 2011-12. The most recent figures  for 2013-14 from Edinburgh World Heritage still show that every £1 of public spending leveraged in about £5 from other sources, albeit on a lower level of spend – just under £180,000 in public grants resulting in a total spend of £971,563 on conservation.

Are there drawbacks to WHS status?

A 2010 Oxford Brooked University study of Bath World Heritage Site commented on the planning and development pressures created by the status, including as an example the city’s controversial redevelopment of another 1970s shopping centre (Southgate).

The study found that the city’s WHS status “places additional responsibilities on the local council that are beyond its normal duties”, incurring costs that have to be met by the council itself. It concluded that “Bath does not gain any discernible additional economic benefit from being a WHS”. However the report does suggest that the status had enabled better preservation, stricter development control, attention to detail and investment in the public realm that may not otherwise have been as rigorous.

Wider benefits of the built heritage

Studies of the value of the built heritage more generally have been more consistently positive.

English Heritage’s most recent estimate is that built heritage tourism contributed £5.1bn in the UK in 2011, and that, after including indirect and induced effects, the total economic impacts of built heritage tourism included 393,000 jobs and £14.0bn of economic output.

From a business location perspective, the popularity of historic areas has been highlighted by research for the Heritage Lottery Fund, particularly for those in “the most highly productive parts of the economy” – professional services and the creative and cultural sector. It also found that the ‘heritage premium’ associated with the occupation of these listed buildings (the extra gross value added (GVA) they generate over and above the amount generated by businesses in non-listed buildings) is £13,000 per business per year.

Social and community benefits

There are also non-financial benefits. A study by Newcastle University in 2009 found “the first robust evidence” that living in more historic built environments is linked to a stronger sense of place, and that interest in historic built environments is also linked with higher levels of social capital.

The value people place on historic environments has been further shown in a study by researchers at the LSE, which found that house prices in conservation areas averaged around nine per cent higher than other areas. From a planning perspective, this study was also interesting in that it suggested that conservation areas were actually a popular planning policy both among planners and among the public. Planning officers appreciated the heightened ability to push for high quality new build in designated areas. And, surprisingly, home owners in the conservation areas who had applied for permission were more likely to have positive attitudes toward planning controls than those who had not applied. Perhaps this indicates that the perception of how restrictive planning controls are in conservation areas is not borne out in practice?

Heritage and city development

Of course the danger to be avoided is the temptation to regard historic areas as something to be ‘pickled in aspic’. Cities are living, changing places and the aim of designations such as World Heritage Site and conservation area is not to prevent development.

In fact the main objectors to the two planning cases in question in Edinburgh are not against the building of the hotels as such, but are based on certain specific design grounds. In the St James case, objections were over choice of materials and the effect of a height increase on the skyline; and in the case of the Royal High School, Historic Environment Scotland has objected over the scale of the proposed hotel, which would “dominate and overwhelm” the existing building.

Whatever the outcome of the current planning cases in Edinburgh, and the questions over the city’s World Heritage status, the available evidence does indicate that the built heritage provides significant benefits for cities. The challenge for planners is to find the right balance between conserving the historic nature of such sites but at the same time allowing them to continue to develop to meet the needs of current and future generations. As it says in the Scottish Government’s historic environment strategy, the historic environment should be “cared for and protected, enjoyed and enhanced.”


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on planning and development. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading:

Can cities exploit, conserve & promote their historic environment?

Values and benefits of heritage

Our place in time: the historic environment strategy for Scotland

The economic impact of the UK heritage tourism economy

Heritage works: the use of historic buildings in regeneration – a toolkit of good practice

The economics of uniqueness: investing in historic city cores and cultural heritage assets for sustainable development

The costs and benefits of World Heritage Site status in the UK

The Aktivhaus: is this the future of sustainable living?

DEU, Stuttgart, Dokumentation Aufbau Pavillon Wei§enhofsiedlung, Werner Sobek Design GmbH , Fertigstellung: 2014 , DIGITAL 100 MB 8 Bit. - ©Zooey Braun; Veroeffentlichung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Beleg / permission required for reproduction, mention of copyright, complimentary copy, FUER WERBENUTZUNG RUECKSPRACHE ERFORDERLICH!/ PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR ADVERTISING!

Photo reproduced with permission of Werner Sobek Design GmbH , Fertigstellung: ©Zooey Braun

By James Carson

Earlier this year, we looked at a style of building known as Passivhaus, which is playing an important role in creating energy-efficient homes. Now, another concept – the Aktivhaus – is taking this approach even further, graduating from energy-saving to energy-generating homes.

The Aktivhaus concept

Like Passivhaus, the Aktivhaus has its origins in Germany. Stuttgart-based architect Werner Sobek defines Aktivhaus buildings as those which:

  • offset their annual total energy consumption in a sustainable manner;
  • anticipate and react accordingly to relevant changes both inside and outside the house;
  • continuously measure and optimise all energy streams.

Sobek’s idea has been realised in the form of a building called B10. This prototype Aktivhaus – prefabricated offsite and assembled in a single day – is located at the Weissenhof settlement in Stuttgart. It’s an appropriate site for applying a revolutionary concept – in 1927 the Weissenhof estate hosted a housing exhibition that included designs by leading lights in modern architecture, such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The Aktivhaus enacted

On the face of it, B10 is an 85 square-metre box with a full-length window. But its sophisticated design means the Aktivhaus can generate twice as much electric power from sustainable energy sources as it consumes. This means it can not only satisfy its own electricity needs, but can also power two electric cars and a neighbouring house built by Le Corbusier for the 1927 exhibition.

The ‘active’ element in the Aktivhaus is a mini computer, connected to the internet, that monitors weather forecasts and enables the house to respond accordingly, with different rooms heated or cooled at different times of the day. Other elements include a highly efficient heating system, web app-operated functions to control lighting and window blinds, and 17mm thick vacuum glazing whose three layers keep heat in and draughts out.

Werner Sobek believes that the Aktivhaus concept is not only applicable to new homes. “Our system is very helpful for old buildings,” he told the New York Times.

Some might feel it best to leave the imperfections as they are and not invest in major energy improvements and instead rely on the surplus energy from a ‘sister house,’ but the system can also help you decide to make modest changes to the windows or to improve the boiler.”

DEU, Stuttgart, Musterhaus Wei§enhofsiedlung, AWerner Sobek Design, Fertigstellung: 2014 , DIGITAL 100 MB 8 Bit. - ©Zooey Braun; Veroeffentlichung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Beleg / permission required for reproduction, mention of copyright, complimentary copy, FUER WERBENUTZUNG RUECKSPRACHE ERFORDERLICH!/ PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR ADVERTISING!

Photo reproduced with permission of Werner Sobek Design, Fertigstellung: 2014: ©Zooey Braun

Over three years, researchers will study B10’s performance as a real-life residence. The building can later be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere, and when it reaches the end of its life almost all parts of the Aktivhaus have been designed to be recycled.

With construction costs of €100,000 and the technology inside priced at a further €600,000, the Aktivhaus is hardly an affordable housing option. But eventual scaling up of production could drive those costs down.

In the meantime, the ideas coming out of the Aktivhaus project may influence those looking for ways to tackle the ongoing issues of housing shortages, climate change and fuel poverty.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on energy-efficient housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading*

PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Thermal vision (energy-efficient retrofit for social housing block)

Warmer outlook (energy efficient housing)

Building sustainable homes

Footprint: three Passivhaus projects

Building the future: the economic and fiscal impacts of making homes efficient

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service