Posted by: Nick Duxbury29/06/2012
This blog post is about sustainability - but in a much bigger sense than I normally write about.
This week we reveal the plans of Black Country Housing’s respected green expert Richard Baines to tear up the rule book on how to build homes in the UK. His idea is simple, but also radical. Starting with a premise that social landlords may no longer be able to receive government grant from the Homes and Communities Agency to develop with, Mr Baines is looking to challenge some very fundamental assumptions about how homes should be built.
The question he is posing is this: if the government is not funding the homes being built, why should developers build to the prescribed standards that they would otherwise have to meet to be eligible for grant? If they don’t then there is a rare opportunity to look at homes and start from scratch – only build exactly what is necessary and, in doing so, keep costs down to a bare minimum. This means sacrificing standards and comfort in order to allow landlords to build more homes and charge lower rents.
Mr Baines reasoning is, you are unlikely to build enough homes to meet housing need, but you can at least make sure that those you do build are the right type of homes to adapt to housing need.
With this in mind, he has decided that the house of the future needs a long-life ultra-energy efficient shell that would be fire-proof, noise proof and meet level five or six in the Code for Sustainable Homes. In contrast, Mr Baines wants a massively flexible interior. One that could be changed quickly and easily so that a house could become flats and vice versa, a decent homes programme upgrade could be carried out in the space of a day, and if the exterior cladding of the house was looking tired or tastes had changed, they could be simply replaced. This means flexible partitions so that the number of rooms and lay out of the house could be switched without difficulty in order to adapt to local housing need as it changes.
Key to his plans is the use of pre-fabricated interiors, such as kitchens, that could be easily detached, and replaced. No need for electricians etc. Indeed, this would also allow tenants to install amenities as and when they can afford to pay extra for them.
The aim is to try to build homes for £40,000 (not including land). By anyone’s standards that is cheap – £20,000 less than the government’s £60,000 home competition from years back. Mr Baines’ low-cost ambitions are based on stripping the house of many things that are taken for granted such as a bathroom and downstairs toilet, not to mention a bath itself. More than shrugging off Housing Quality Indicator standards, this approach is also sacrificing sacred cows for social landlords such as space standards.
Ultimately this plan is a case of dropping quality in favour of reducing cost – a move that many will balk at, and one that the affordable housing sector has long criticised the private house building sector for. Interestingly, this idea was well received by housing minister Grant Shapps when Mr Baines pitched it to him a year ago. However, less surprisingly, it was not embraced by the HCA. Mr Baines is the first to admit this is a pragmatic, rather than ideal, approach to house building. But with housing need getting ever worse, flexibility of low cost housing could be an essential weapon in landlords’ arsenal in a zero, or vastly reduced, grant era.
Questions about how important these standards are to enabling tenants to enjoy a decent quality of life must, therefore, be asked. Black Country Housing is working with Wolverhampton Council to find a site with existing infrastructure where he can pilot this new breed of house. Until the two organisations have tested the idea it will be difficult to get answers.
However, in the mean time, it poses a useful challenge to the housing sector to ask what difficult compromises it is prepared to make in order to meet housing need.
From Green paper
Examining the latest developments from the world of sustainable housing.