Why are our houses so bland?
Friday, June 08, 2018
Who designs our houses? Not always architects, it turns out. Looking at modern housing developments, we can see a wave of monotony overtaking the places we live, as row upon row of "pattern book" houses roll off the production line and onto our pavements.
This has led urbanists and architects to chafe at the "steady homogenisation of built environments into ‘blandardised’ edge-cities, clone towns and commuter villages."
Why are our housing estates becoming so soulless? What lies behind these "identikit" rows of faux-traditional executive homes on the outskirts of our cities?
There is a widespread view that, while in places we are warming to the idea of more progressive modern architecture, many of us don’t actually want to live in contemporary "grand design."
But this issue goes beyond taste. It might have more to do with the structure of the industry.
Design and build contracts: squeezing out the architect
In the construction industry, we have seen a steady increase in the use of the so-called "design and build" model in the construction industry.
While under the traditional model, the project owner negotiates separately with the architect of a building and the builder, under "design and build," the project owner hires a single company to do both tasks.
Seen as more efficient, this model is becoming increasingly popular for residential projects. However, it has been criticized for "value engineering" the professional designers out of the process.
'Pattern book' houses
However, what leaves the biggest mark on the quality of design in our housing is the dominance of the "pattern book."
When housing is mass-produced, large house builders generally say they seek to squeeze some individuality into their estates by using a portfolio of standardized housing designs or patterns – which seek to distinguish themselves from each other in variations to their finish and external detailing.
By taking design out of the equation, these pattern houses allow housebuilders to quickly estimate development costs on a short time schedule. But the range of "types" is limited, as it adds significantly to construction costs, often leading to only momentary breaks in the monotony.
The bottom line is that good design, as a resource-intensive and iterative task, raises costs. Instead, the developer concept of "buildability" tends to win out.
The alternative: smaller housebuilders, design guides and master developers
One way to nudge the character of our developments toward becoming more exciting places to be is to break up the increasingly dominant oligopolies of large housebuilders.
In continental Europe, in contrast to the U.S. and the U.K., the market share is much more widely distributed between a number of smaller house building companies. That is reflected in their finer grain, more eclectic cityscapes.
Another tool increasingly being used to avoid the monotony are Design Guides (and Design Reviews in the U.K.) for approving new development. They lay out the expectations from developers and can help to ensure that individual contributions to the city come together coherently as a whole.
However, consensus on what these expectations should be is far from easy, and guidelines tricky to write. Crucially, they must go beyond requests for developments to be "inkeeping." They must have real teeth, and the ability to capture the character of an area.
Finally, the "master developer" model can be used creatively to nurture better places in new developments.
Some housing master plans are now come with a set of overarching design guidelines produced by the "master developer," after which a diverse range of architects and builders are invited to develop different plots. This "parcelization" process can be an alternative to monolithic development and create a more complex, diverse "urban grain."
Making the case for good design…
Developers are led by profit motives and some compromise must always be negotiated. However, the subordination of design to speculative profit in our homebuilding industries is leading to barren estates that mar the quality of life, and often the environmental impact, of our communities.
We need advocates for good design in our development industry -- not as a luxurious flourish, but in creating buildings that are good environmental stewards, that respond to their environment, and that stand the test of time.
More diversity in the actors involved would be a good first step.
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