Our House, in the Middle of Our Street

‘The house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.’ (Bachelard, 1994)

Despite this glorious, French philosophic perspective, homes are now viewed as investments as much as dwellings. Resale value is all too often the overriding emotion at the point of purchase. We consider the needs and dislikes of the next occupier to be more important than our own. For home owners, and developers, finance has taken the place of more vital considerations.

Our local authorities are as guilty as any of us, selling off their assets to balance their accounts rather than put them to use by the community. They fund new schools by building on the playing fields of old ones, selling the current sites for development. And the developers give us more of the same new houses that litter each missed opportunity and inhibited the lives of their successive inhabitants.

The vast majority of houses that have been built in Britain in the last twenty years have become increasingly small, cheap and nasty. Outside of our small plots, playing spaces have gone missing, replaced by more flats and small homes. Small patches of green that remain often have signposts forbidding play. 

Despite appetite for change within the design community, budget still rules for most developers. Large new homebuilders spend an average of £150 per dwelling on design. (Grey 2008)

When we wake up in the morning do we want to see a wall so close to the end of our bed? Do we want to see a ceiling so near to our heads? A view of another house just feet from our tiny window? Should this trend prevail, many of us will be living in dark cupboards in the decades ahead.

Ask any estate agent in the UK and they will tell you that, given the choice, people will choose a home built in a different era over most of what has been built here in recent years. The quality of build and design and the perceived longevity of a home is as low as it’s been for hundreds of years, despite all the technological advantages. Why should we expect our families to reside and grow in such limiting dross?

If you ask property developers why they build the sort of houses they do, they’ll tend to respond with a down-to-earth and apparently invincible argument: because this is what the market wants. Some might add that if more interestingly designed houses sold well, they’d certainly like to start building them, yet they dare not make the first move.

Economic success is not proof of having fully satisfied one’s audience. After all, many soulless motorway service stations, with awful food and facilities, make a handsome profit, simply because there are no other alternatives.

The property developers’ defence of existing tastes constitutes a denial that human beings can ever come to appreciate anything other than what they are already purchasing. Imagine how much taste could evolve if only new styles were placed before our eyes. An array of previously ignored materials and forms would quickly reveal their stunning qualities, while the status quo would be prevented from coercively proclaiming itself to be the natural and eternal order of things.

In some areas developers say that news designs are held back by narrow minded authorities, yet I wonder how many planning officers sit and wait for something more interesting to land on there desk.

Our conscious demand waits, thirsty for new ideas to choose from. In the UK we rely on a few creative individuals, bashing their heads against inflexible bureaucracy, and arbiters of taste on our TV screens like Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs – one of the few property shows that targets beauty rather than profit.

‘I think there’s no better phrase to sum up what architecture should do than ‘make you feel like a better human being.’(McCloud 2006)

In the South East corner of the UK, particularly, house builders are determined to fit as many homes into small spaces as planners will permit, with each home having as many bedrooms as possible, rather than fewer of a size that suits us. As a consequence, families are growing up in cramped spaces, with small gardens. Residents compete for all available space, extending wherever possible and constantly arguing over parking space, boundaries and fencing. Thin walls offer little peace and privacy relies on window coverage. It is human life inhibited by design.

  

In 2005 the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) produced a report that said just 17% of new houses in Britain were any good and the rest were either ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor.’ Its Chief executive, Richard Simmons, said that the vast majority were ‘not very nice places to be.’ Yet MPs still appear on our screens, visiting ‘Affordable Housing,’ and micro apartments, proudly shouting of what they perceive to be success – ‘Look how many workers we can fit in this small space!’ – seemingly oblivious to the real cost.

In buying a motor vehicle we consider a product that has been proficiently designed, after sophisticated research and development. In buying a house we are purchasing high priced land, with a thin crust of budget driven, highly regulated design plopped on top of it; squeezed in amongst many clones, often next to motorways; further anaesthetising ears, eyes and minds.

With the housing market in the UK currently suffering its worst period for many decades, buyers have been empowered and able to demonstrate their preference for better design. Good design increases land value by 15%.(Day 2006) The sad thing being how difficult this is to find. All too often, buyers have to look to the past if they are to find a well-built, beautiful house, with character, good size rooms, and adequate gardens. The more recent the build, the less it is worth, which doesn’t seem right, does it?