Wednesday saw a gala launch of the “Building for Life” scheme in Nottingham, a voluntary code of practice from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment that encourages house-builders to up their game, and deliver individual excellent schemes of housing rather than boiler-plate plans that could be anywhere.
Building for Life is a set of 20 questions to ask about any new development in the hope of grading it objectively. The list of questions is here, and currently, my favourite is “Do buildings or spaces outperform statutory minima, such as Building Regulations?” In planning committee, I have been asking this question about sustainable technologies included in buildings from day one. Since we adopted a form of Merton on all large developments last year, builders have a responsibility to include at least 10% of energy from sustainable sources. Unfortunately it appears that many are seeing this as a target to be met. In fact, it’s a minimum. People should be aiming to do as much as they can, not sticking to the low target.
The launch event in Nottingham was interesting and I’m glad I went. It was a seminar with a buffet and all sorts of house building practitioners, including development control councillors which is why I was there, then town planning professionals, builders themselves, and architects.
Speeches came from various people, but the most striking was given by the MD of Barratts Homes (who I had met previously at an estate in Chesterfield where they had built houses with solar panels). I’m not sure he’s terribly used to public speaking but he used his time cleverly, I think. His speech started off with the planning professional’s bon mot – “good design shouldn’t cost any more” – and asked “any more than what?” He then proceeded to list every various bit of the policy framework that surrounds housebuilding – every housing act, every change to building regs (there are quite a few in the coming years), every bright idea from a think tank about changing buildings like EcoHomes, PassivHaus, Buildings for Life, Lifetime Homes and so on, every environmental audit like bat studies, flood studies, newt assessments. He managed to make his list last over ten minutes. He very effectively pointed out that house-building is far from an unregulated activity.
Then we ate and chatted amongst ourselves, answering the seminar question “what are the barriers to good design?” My input was limited, because it was interesting listening to the planning and housebuilding professionals on my table, but my main point was that of the various schemes that had been shown during the afternoon and lauded as good design, many of them are the sorts of things that loads of people write into the Evening Post about to complain. (Eg The Pod)
Other interesting things I learned:
- 80% of new build in the Midlands in the last few years has been judged as “poor” or “average”, and nearly 40% should never have received planning permission
- an argument could be made that the planning system is the only reason people still live in cities (if you could build on any available acre in the countryside, how many people would prefer to do that than stay in a crowded city – even if it meant a commute?)
- social housing is built to a much higher standard than private housing estates – and yet Joe Public prefers the latter.