Finding a place to call home

One evening last week, a few of us from the Policy and Campaigns division made a little expedition to RIBA’s ‘A place to call home’ exhibition.

It was refreshing to get out the office and away from the coalface of the housing crisis that occupies most of our time and thinking. The exhibition focused on the wider social and emotional history of homes in Britain – why home is so important, what people want to make a good home, how the design, policy and planning of homes and towns has evolved over the last few centuries.

My main take-home was from the Victorian housebuilding boom – when big areas of cities and towns would be bought up by speculative developers, and new streets and neighbourhoods sprung up around new transport links. One example in the exhibition showed how there were first, second and third class homes on these developments. But as stuffy and hierarchical as that sounds, the difference between the classes of homes was not so much in terms of space, but in the level of finish – how many bay windows they had, the detail on the cornicing.

The premise was that families needed a roughly even amount of space, including outside space, a similar quality build, and that differences in income would be expressed through décor. Of course, there’s a lot that I’m omitting from this idealistic spin on the Victorian years. Too many lived in squalor, overcrowding was rife, and rogue landlords were all too present.

But new homes were built at a rapid rate, and so many of those homes still stand today – people still want to live in them, they like Victorian streets, they like ‘period features’. In many parts of the country, they’d pay more to live in them. I know, as a first time buyer, that I much prefer the quality and feel of a well-maintained old home, but that’s only because I’ve hardly come across a new build that feels as solid and handsome a space to make home for the long term.

But the government’s talk of ‘new garden cities’ gives me hope for new development – maybe policy-makers, planners and developers will learn from the most enduringly popular homes and neighbourhoods that we’ve built. But quality and space will be important if new developments are to have enough long term appeal to future generations in search of a place to call home.