Housing models for the future

Housing is one of the challenges of our time. The task for architects and designers is to create affordable, robust housing that can accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing, but also ageing population. And it’s not as easy as simply building. The demands and expectations on house builders to also be community builders and the architects of mental and physical wellbeing through design have led architects and designers to consider alternative ways to house us in the future. This includes innovative use of materials and construction methods, addressing the issue of financing through co-operative living models and using bespoke design to create lifetime homes which can be adapted to accommodate the changing needs of our population.

Large-scale development

One of the big challenges for urban areas is large-scale development strategies for designing and delivering housing to meet need. For developers and planners going forward there are a number of factors to consider: the type of investment introduced to an area; how the schemes fit with a wider development plan for the city; and the importance of engaging the community in any plans to develop or regenerate an area.

“Placemaking”, not just house building is central to large scale development discussions, emphasising to planners, architects and developers the fact that they are not just building houses, but creating communities. As a result, designers and developers should be mindful of their important role in community building, to build the right sort of homes in the right places, at affordable prices and with a legacy in mind. They should, create high quality, long lasting units, which will stand the test of time but that also can be easily adapted to accommodate people’s changing needs.

Alternative construction and design

Innovative models and options for future builds have been discussed for a number of years but they are becoming an increasingly mainstream way to build affordable housing that meets the current need, particularly of students and young professionals, and of older populations looking to downsize or move into assisted care accommodation.

Offsite manufacture or modular homes  Offsite manufacture of timber framed houses is becoming increasingly common, with the constituent pieces of the house manufactured off site, then transported to the site and constructed on a concrete block where foundations and services such as plumbing have already been created. Offsite housing can either be open panel, which requires the finishing such as bathroom and kitchen installation to be done on site, or closed panel which provide the entire section complete with decoration and flooring (this is becoming a common way to build cheap, efficient student housing).

Custom build  Custom build projects are similar to self-build in that they give clients flexibility to select their own design and layout, However, custom build provides slightly more structure and certainty which can make it easier when considering elements like financing and planning applications. In essence, customers select the spec of their house in the same way they might make custom modifications to a car.

Build to rent  This model has been adapted from the United States, where build to rent is popular. The model is based on self-contained flats, with central and shared amenities, entrance and communal space. Designed to attract graduates and young professionals, these are being increasingly designed using a “user first” approach. Developers identify the sort of person they want to live in the development, identify what sort of things they might look for in a development, including floor type, furniture, layout, amenities, gadgets, and then build the development around that.

Dementia friendly – Building homes that are safe and affordable, but allow for independence in old age, is one of the major demands on house builders currently. Housing stock is seen as not suitable for current need, but building bespoke sites for people with illnesses like dementia has been seen as a bit of a niche previously. Virtual Reality (VR) is being used by some architects and developers to try to help them understand the needs and requirements of people with dementia and how they can build homes suitable for them to be able to live as independent and full lives as possible. Building dementia friendly homes not only means making them accessible and open plan, but also adapting the layout, adding signage where appropriate and if possible locating the homes within a wider community development. Dementia villages like those seen in Amsterdam are being used as the model for this.

Co-housing

Co- housing offers an alternative to communities in Scotland, and while lessons can be learned from elsewhere in Europe, where co- housing models have been successful, there are also pockets of good and emerging practice in the UK too. More traditional examples include Berlin, where almost 1 in 10 new homes follow the Baugruppe model, and Amsterdam (centraal wonen) where some of the oldest co-housing projects originate. In Denmark, 8% of households use co-housing models.

Co-housing provides the opportunity for groups of people to come together and form a community which is created and run by its residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together. A “Self-build Cooperative Group” is a joint venture between several private households who plan and build their own house together. Usually they are supported by an architect. Often co- housing groups are able to realise high-quality living space at prices below local market rates, although it is not really considered suitable for large-scale development within the current UK market.

Opportunities for a new way forward

Practitioners are often challenged to push the boundaries of design and building in their field. Looking to new models for future building design provides an opportunity to think creatively about alternative uses of materials and space and to consider options for construction, funding and investment in the built environment that challenge the norm. Learning lessons and exchanging ideas from elsewhere, architects and planners have the opportunity to come together to consider how the built environment in Scotland can help to create places  not just buildings  and how this can contribute positively to the wider wellbeing and happiness of people living in Scotland in the future.


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The 5G arms race: the UK’s strategy to become a global leader in 5G technology

By Steven McGinty

On 8 March, the UK Government published their strategy for developing 5G – the next generation of wireless communication technologies.

Released on the same day as the Spring Budget, the strategy builds on the government’s Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy, and sets out the government’s ambition to become a global leader in 5G.

Accelerating the deployment of 5G networks, maximising the productivity and efficiency benefits to the UK from 5G, creating new opportunities for UK businesses, and encouraging inward investment, are the strategy’s main objectives.

If the UK makes progress in these areas, the strategy argues, 5G infrastructure has the potential to become an enabler of smart city technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and advanced manufacturing, and to support the expansion of the Internet of Things – the interconnection of people, places, and everyday objects.

5G Innovation Network

Although the strategy highlights the enormous potential of 5G, it makes clear that 5G technologies are still in development, and that the majority of funding will need to come from the private sector.

To support the growth of a commercial market, the strategy explains, a new 5G trials and testbed programme will be introduced – through a national 5G Innovation Network – to coordinate the development of 5G services and applications. This programme will help government and private sector partners understand the economics of deploying 5G networks, ensuring that technologies can he delivered in a cost-effective way, and enabling best practice to be captured and knowledge disseminated.

The government is investing an initial £16m into the programme (involving partners such as UK Research and Innovation and the Government Digital Service), and has targeted a trial of end-to-end 5G (high speed connectivity without the need for intermediary services) by 2018. In February, Ericsson announced that they had a successful end-to-end 5G trial in Sweden, alongside partners SK Telecom Korea.

Improving regulations

To support the development of 5G, the strategy suggests that there may need to be regulatory changes, particularly in the planning system. As such, the government has committed to reviewing current regulations before the end of 2017, and then to conduct regular reviews, as partners learn more from their 5G trials.

Local connectivity plans

The strategy highlights the important role local regions play in the deployment of mobile technologies, and explains that the government will be consulting with councils on how planning policies can be used to provide high quality digital infrastructure.

However, it also suggests that there may be a case for introducing ‘local connectivity plans’, which would outline how local areas intend to meet their digital connectivity needs. Interestingly, the strategy highlights that evidence, such as local plans, may be taken into account when the government is making funding decisions for local infrastructure projects.

Coverage and capacity, infrastructure sharing, and spectrum

The strategy accepts that the move towards 5G won’t be as straightforward as the move from 3G to 4G. Instead, 5G technology will be developed alongside the expansion of the 4G network.

In addition, the government has accepted the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s ‘Connected Future’ report, which states that unnecessary barriers to infrastructure sharing between telecommunications companies must be tackled. The strategy states that it will explore options for providing a clearer and more robust framework for sharing.

Increasing the available radio spectrum was also highlighted as key to developing 5G technology. The strategy notes that the government will work with Ofcom to review the spectrum licensing regime to help facilitate the development of 4G and 5G networks.

5G strategy’s reception

Natalie Trainor, technology projects expert at law firm Pinsent Masons, has welcomed the new 5G strategy, explaining that:

“…technology and major infrastructure projects will become much more interlinked in future and that the plans outlined can help the UK take forward the opportunities this will present.”

In particular, Ms Trainor sees the establishment of the Digital Infrastructure Officials Group – which will bring together senior staff from across departments – as a way of providing greater awareness and co-ordination of major public projects that involve digital infrastructure. Ms Trainor also hopes that the new group will encourage the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to work with industry to develop digital connectivity on the UK’s road and rail networks.

Professor Will Stewart, Vice President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, similarly welcomes the new strategy but highlights that the funding announced will ‘not come anywhere close’ to the investment required to deliver 5G across the UK. In addition, he also makes it clear that coverage and regulatory change will be vital, stating that:

The biggest challenge for government will be improving coverage for all, as 5G cannot transform what it doesn’t cover. And achieving universal coverage for the UK, outside high-capacity urban areas, will not be affordable or achievable without regulatory change.”

Former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth, Professor William Webb, has also applauded the government’s plans, even though he is an outspoken critic of the 5G industry. For Professor Webb, the strategy recognises that we are in the early stages of 5G technology, and that there is still a need to develop 4G networks.

Final thoughts

5G technology provides the UK with the opportunity to become a genuinely smart society. Yet, as the strategy acknowledges, 5G is still in its infancy and the idea of a 5G network across the UK is a long way down the road.

The new 5G strategy includes a number of positive steps, such as listening to the recommendations of the NIC report, and exploring the realities of deploying 5G networks. This cautious approach is unlikely to show any significant progress in the short term, but does provide a focal point for academia, government, and industry to rally around.


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Single sector Business Improvement Districts: the future of BIDS in Scotland?

As a model to promote economic development, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have been a success in Scotland. Under the watchful eye and guidance of the umbrella body BIDS Scotland, the framework has grown and in many ways looks very different from the 5 initial ‘pathfinder BIDs in 2006 (the first being Bathgate BID). However, the underlying principles, values and aims remain constant.

Single sector BIDs

The traditional model sees businesses within a local area enter into a financial partnership, with each member paying a levy towards improving and promoting economic development within a community, in partnership with local authorities and other bodies. By working together businesses can reduce costs, share risks and create new platforms for growth, while for local authorities the benefits include the potential to drive growth and investment in the local area and to obtain help in raising additional funds to do this.

However, the flexibility of the model and the way it fits it with both local and national agendas has been a big part of its success, and groups are now trying to apply the framework to new contexts in alternative and innovative ways. One of these new style frameworks is the idea of single sector BIDs. Their role was part of the discussion at the BIDS Scotland 10 year anniversary conference held in Perth last month.

Image via Rebecca Jackson

Image via Rebecca Jackson

Single sector BIDs, as supporters have pointed out, come with their own unique sets of challenges and benefits compared to the traditional BID model, but they are no less effective. They allow groups of businesses with common interests and common agendas to come together, cooperate, organise and collectively promote their goods and services with a view to develop not only their own businesses but those of others in their area and the local community as a whole.

A BID for food and drink

Within East Lothian plans are currently under way, and awaiting ballot, to officially form what is thought to be the world’s first ‘food and drinks BID’. They have adapted the BID model to cover a wider geographic area than the original BIDs model intended, as it was initially focussed around town and city centres and encompassed a number of different types of business.

Instead the single sector BID model encompasses businesses which sit within the food and drink industry, with a view to promoting East Lothian food and drink, support local business and create a unified voice and brand to market themselves and East Lothian as a quality provider of exquisite produce. They have had strong support from their local authority as well as from national bodies like Scotland Food and Drink. Together, local producers and sellers have been working with these statutory bodies to form their BID partnership. In May 2015 the partnership was awarded a seedcorn grant to develop their Food and Drink BID in East Lothian.

Because the businesses within the proposed BID are varied in terms of size and scope, it was decided to create levy bands relating to the number of employees, rather than rateable value, as had previously been the traditional model. The BID group also introduced a voluntary levy scheme for businesses such as farmers, who wanted to be included in the BID group as producers but were not eligible to under the current BID legislation.

The issue with legislation regarding urban and rural BIDs and the increased difficulty rural businesses have in joining BIDS, (both because of their geographic isolation and their size and categorisation within current legislation) is something which the BID group in East Lothian have stated they are trying to address and mitigate as best they can.

Rural_Urban Landscape_iStock_000004526499Medium

Many observers are watching keenly to see if the single sector BID model could be applied across a wider geographical area, or across additional sectors. Suggestions have already been put forward for a canals BID within Scotland, a universities BID, as well as potentially creating food and drink BIDS in other areas such as Ayrshire and Perthshire. These could potentially form a network of BIDS across the food and drink sector, enabling individual businesses to create a stronger lobbying voice.

The future of BIDs in Scotland?

It is now the case that BIDs in Scotland are not restricted to town and city centres and can be developed in areas such as the tourism and visitor sector, commercial or industrial districts areas, rural areas, agriculture or, as this blog has highlighted, single sector business groups. The flexibility of the model and the increased levels of partnership working act as ways to spread accountability, create legitimacy through collective action and generate additional funding for a local area.

Together these elements make BIDs an interesting proposition for many businesses in Scotland and it is this flexibility, legitimacy and promotion of partnership which has driven the BID model into new and innovative areas, transforming the nature of the relationship between local businesses and statutory bodies within communities and transforming the nature of economic development and community resilience agendas.


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Rural transport: connecting communities

By Rebecca Jackson

For many people the buses which run through rural towns and villages in the UK are a lifeline.  However, with councils under increasing pressure to reduce costs and deal with significant budget cuts, some communities are being cut off by the loss of local services. A cycle of low passenger numbers, rising costs of running services and a reduction in the frequency of services is hitting rural communities the hardest.

 

Community-wide impact

Often, when rural buses are discussed, it is their role in enabling elderly people to remain active and involved in community life that is emphasised. However, younger people within rural communities are also increasingly feeling the impacts of cuts to services. Such restrictions can influence their social life and can limit their opportunities to find employment.

According to statistics, two-thirds of job-seekers in the UK have no access to a vehicle or cannot drive, meaning that they are reliant on public transport not only to find work but then to travel to and from work each day. But rising costs are putting some off even finding work in the first instance; and with some modern apprenticeships paying less than £130 a week, and the cost of transport  being as much as £100 a week, it is not surprising to see why some don’t think it’s worth it.

Practical solutions

Councils and members of the public will have to come to terms with the fact that there is just less to spend, and transport, in many instances, is not top of the spending agenda (despite generating £5 for every £1 invested for local economies). This is particularly the case when up to 70% of the councils’ already-reduced budget is pre-allocated to fund statutory services. This means that councils and communities have to be smarter with how they spend their money and look at alternative methods to fund and run bus services within rural communities. Potential strategies which have been considered by local authorities already are:

  • Focusing on key routes and securing funding for them
  • Putting routes out to tender for private firms to run (although they tend to only take on the most profitable routes, leaving people even more isolated – of the 56 million miles which have been lost in rural bus services, only 13 million miles of that has subsequently been taken up and run by private bus companies)
  • Increasing fares, which has its limitations due to the number of bus users who are exempt from paying fares through the use of a concessions card.
  • Providing an on demand mini bus service which only runs and stops when required
  • Promoting or supporting the creation of a community bus service

Digital solutions

In addition to this, despite funding difficulties, advances in digital transportation technology are making rural routes more and more accessible and cheaper to run in the long term. The proposed roll out of contactless technology by 2020, described by the Transport Secretary as the “smart ticketing revolution”, is helping to build a modern, affordable transport network that provides better, more cost efficient journeys for bus users. It is possible that this can be used in rural areas to promote the remaining bus services, and increase their accessibility to all users. The long term savings made by going “contactless” could then be reinvested into routes.

Real-time passenger information provided by companies like Cloud Amber can be another particularly effective solution for increasing passenger usage in rural areas where buses are less frequent. This increases passenger confidence that a bus is on its way and therefore use increases, leading to a more robust service requiring fewer subsidies.

There is a recognition that bus services in rural communities can have a positive environmental and economic impact. Effective saving without cutting services may be possible, whether that is through: long term strategic or community based planning; flexible services, able to integrate digital technology to drive passenger use; or the development of services and routes which are robust enough to run on reduced funding.

Final thoughts

The effect of transport cuts on rural communities shows us that transport is about more than vehicles and logistics; it is about connections: allowing people to form and maintain them; allowing communities to be sustainable and to grow; giving young people the chance to maximize potential; enabling older people to remain engaged and active, with a reduced risk of social isolation. Potential solutions are available and councils now faced with reduced funding will have to consider the best of these options for their local areas.


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Cloud Amber is a member of the Idox group of companies. Its smart solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network.