Long before working at Shelter, I had a bugbear about balconies. Yep, balconies. In my first few flats there was no little patch to grow plants, hang the washing up or just sit in the sun with a drink. That may sound petty, but whenever I see a new block of flats going up with measly little windows and no access to outside space, I want to scream.
We can all think of design features that we think are important in a home. Our guest blogger, Ben Marshall of Ipsos MORI, explains what these are – and why they matter.
It’s not all about quantity
Imagine that Britain built the 240,000 homes it is estimated it needs every year until 2016 to meet projected demand. What would those homes actually be like?
You would be forgiven for questioning why this matters. Recent debates about housing and planning reform have been framed in terms of quantity. This is surely right, but quality matters too.
It matters because public support for quantity wanes if quality is poor. Longer-term, the stakes are high; the lesson from history is that building high volumes of homes in certain ways might solve one problem but will create others.
Against this backdrop, the RIBA/Ipsos MORI report The Way we live now: What people need and expect from their homes makes an important contribution to the work of the Future Homes Commission, a national inquiry developing recommendations for how houses should be designed and delivered in future, but also how existing stock might be adapted.
Our research enabled us to get beyond survey findings like 89% agreeing “my home is suitable for my current needs”. We were able to move through the affection, and defensiveness, most have regarding their home, to a better assessment of qualities and limitations. We used filmed ethnographic interviews observing households’ lives, and whether and how the spaces they inhabit accommodate belongings and lifestyles:
You can watch the full series of interviews on the RIBA website.
These films show just how cramped and poorly planned housing can be, and the lengths people go to cope. They store hoovers, rubbish bins and even food in surprisingly inventive ways, using headphones when watching television because of poor sound insulation, and keeping blinds drawn all day to avoid being overlooked.
All of our participants used rooms for activities other than those they were designed for: parents use kitchens to oversee children’s homework, for example. However, how successful this is depends on design – some homes enable flexible use, others limit it.
Our discussion groups explored what people want from their homes. The biggest concern about new builds is their quality: the materials, fixtures and fittings, their sound insulation and energy efficiency. Space is an issue too – people think bedrooms in new homes are too small and that their size should be regulated. Our findings also point to the potential value of an independent, cross-professional body to regulate quality and provide free information.
The big picture is that Britain’s local planning authorities, architects and developers need to deliver quantity in recessionary times. If that’s not challenging enough, they cannot afford to neglect quality, nor forget the existing stock and the consumers living in Britain’s homes.