Build Britain Better: why our housing industry needs urgent modernisation

Stuck in the 1930s – but why?

Multiples of the same four houses are going up on open fields all round us. This isn’t a NIMBY article – we need houses and I actually build them – no, what intrigues me is the style.

I photographed what each and every site offers: four houses which are then repeated in seemingly endless closes. The arrangements are good; winding streets with adequate off-street parking and lots of landscaping, incorporating tree planting and play areas. But is a look at these designs a glimpse into the minds of developers, planners and, perhaps most importantly, house buyers? 

The sales rep proudly explained: “This is our most modern design – the 1930s house!” without even a hint of irony

All the designs of new houses around us in Sussex relate determinedly to the past, and with all the current debates about our relationship to our history this seems revealing to me. I looked at the show houses a while back and the sales rep proudly explained “This is our most modern design – the 1930s house” without even a hint of irony.

A row of new houses in West Sussex
Above: Little variation on a theme – new houses in West Sussex. Photo: author’s own

Ignoring 700 years of glass technology

When glass arrived in Britain from the continent in the early Middle Ages, it was blown and couldn’t be made in sheets, so it was combined with lead between small panes to make larger openings to let light in. Sheet or ‘plate’ glass subsequently revolutionised building, allowing for large windows without the need for bars, yet all these brand new, 21st century houses ignore 700 years of glass technology and have tiny windows in small panes. 

All the new building uses concrete-based products and brick, the manufacture of which involves a huge consumption of fossil fuels

This may seem like just a harmless nod to the past but, since the 1990s, ultra-high performance thermal double glazing has been standard, and large glass panels are now routinely used to create solar gain on south facing elevations, meaning that buildings require far less energy input. So having tiny windows in a modern house is actually a waste of potential natural energy efficiency. 

Then there are the building materials. All the new building uses concrete-based products and brick, the manufacture of which involves a huge consumption of fossil fuels and therefore has a massive embedded carbon footprint.

More new houses in Sussex under construction
Above: one of many housing developments currently underway in Sussex. Photo: author’s own

The truth about timber

Wood is frowned on by insurance companies, and thus developers, because it burns. Bizarrely this is largely a legacy of the Great Fire of London and the fire-bombing during the Blitz, and insurers are yet to revisit statistical modelling. Timber is used around the world for house building, is cheap and sustainable and, actually locks in carbon. (Of course, all these houses have traditional wooden framed roofs so the fire logic doesn’t hold up.)

Moreover, there are now some remarkably energy-efficient house-building panel systems, like Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), which use insulation sandwiched between sheets of Oriented Strand Board (OSB – itself a product made from waste trimmings of wood). These are constructed off-site in controlled factory conditions, then assembled quickly on-site to create a water-tight envelope for internal finishing in a matter of days. Instead of these, most contemporary developers pile up materials on muddy sites in the wet British weather and spend weeks putting damp bats of insulation into wet concrete block cavities, using technology invented by the Romans.

Sussex sunshine: ideal for sustainable energy

And it isn’t just how these houses are built that makes no sense. According to the government, all gas and oil boilers will have to start being replaced by sustainable energy heat sources by 2030, yet every single one of the 30,000 houses being built round near me in West Sussex has a gas boiler which, though energy efficient, will be illegal in less than a decade.

It would be perfectly possible when building on this scale to follow so many alternatives. Sussex has almost the highest number of sunny days in the UK, so is ideal for both photovoltaic and solar thermal panels which could easily supply 80 per cent of hot water needs across the year for a family house, and enough electricity to supply domestic needs and still feed back a substantial quantity to the national grid.

Solar panels in West Sussex
Above: West Sussex is one of many local governments to introduce schemes to help residents retrofit solar panels to their homes. Yet many new houses are still being built without them.

All this could be done for less than £5,000 extra per house. But when I discussed the idea with a sales representative from one of the major developers at an open day exhibition in our parish hall, I was told that only ‘eco-nuts’ like me wanted these niche products, which didn’t work anyway and would wipe away the profits of developers, thereby stopping them building houses altogether. I tried to suggest that if they were only making £5,000 on a house they were selling for £550,000, there was something wrong with their business model, but he’d already moved on to extolling the virtues of UPVC picket fencing to the next person.

No techs please, we’re British

And don’t get me started on the bizarre, white conservatories tacked onto the back of houses – usually irrespective of solar orientation – which aim to ape Paxton’s designs for Victorian glass houses. Since the 1920s, European architects – from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean – have integrated solar gain and shading to create passive heating and cooling with glazing. A century of building technology is of no interest to modern British developers.

I can accept – grudgingly – that the ultra-conservative taste of the British means that people genuinely want to live in houses that look like they were built some time over the last seven centuries, but does this have to mean energy-guzzling, dark boxes with a high carbon footprint?

When every hour you can watch some Grand Designs spin-off, with people knocking out the back of a Victorian house to create a vast glass-box-kitchen-diner, why are none of these innovative ideas creeping into our new house building?

Post-war prefab explosion

The British have a curious relationship with architecture. The immediate post-war housing ministry (tasked with a far greater need than today’s) explored revolutionary new ideas about materials and ways of living. They had huge successes, like the prefabricated estates – many of which lasted, with very happy residents, into the 1980s. 

And yet in 1951 the exploratory part of the department was closed down and, in an act of vindictive vandalism, nearly the entire Festival of Britain site – a marvel of modern design and building technology – was destroyed. (The prime site remained vacant until the 1970s.)

Instead, four broad house designs were approved for wide-scale permitted building. They had mock Tudor half beams and pebble dash stucco with leaded light windows. It was less than two decades since design, from fashion to architecture, had exploded with Modernism, and British house building was rejecting it all and rooting itself firmly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, where it remains to this day. 

Form and Function: why the aesthetics of architecture matter

Architecture is a social influence, not just a high-fallutin’ concept for those with cash. The aesthetics of our surroundings creates the physical experience of home and community that we live in every day, directly affecting the way we see the world.

Building 250,000 houses each year for the next decade, most of which are designed to appear as if they were built a century ago, is an act which will have a profound and lasting effect on the outlook of the nation. The destruction of the Festival of Britain was the Churchill government’s way of putting an end, not only to Modernist building but also to Modernist thinking. Their view – fuelled by the gasp-filled enthusiasm of the public for the futuristic exhibits – was that if people couldn’t see what the future could offer, they wouldn’t demand it. How right they were.

The architecture of our house building is a political statement.

Back to the future: manicured lawns and deadheaded roses

Every house being constructed in the style of the suburban 1930s is encouraging the thinking of the suburban 1930s. Though there is still much to be said for stable, family values, manicured lawns and beds of regularly deadheaded roses, that is not the world inhabited by most of Britain in the early 21st century. 

Today we have a far richer mix of heritages on which to draw. What if, for example, a development of houses could be built around a communal, Islamic-inspired garden with a water feature, instead of dividing up tiny parcel gardens with high fences enabling you to hear but not to see your neighbours?

Why settle for a sentimental evocation of the past when you could aspire to an exciting journey into the future?

What if a development of 100 properties had a shared, ground-source heat pump supplying the needs of the houses? Needs that were anyway negligible because the houses had been orientated to benefit from solar gain, with large glazed areas and air-tight insulation? What if, instead of miles of tarmac, brick drives and inadequate downpipes running into overflowing Victorian storm drains, a development had porous gravel drives and ponds fed by the rain landing on 100 angled roofs? Collected rain water which could, in turn, be fed back to households to wash cars and water gardens, while the ponds offered a wild-life haven and natural education environment for children.

Embracing the future – and its exciting, endless possibilities

Not only could all these things add pleasure to our day-to-day lives, but they might also lead to a subtle shift in attitudes. If we lived in genuinely modern houses which made active use of our environment and weather to heat, cool, water and power them – as opposed to ones which were dumped on the landscape in spite of it – might we feel differently about where we lived?

If our borders with our neighbours were soft, low and alive instead of hard, high and lifeless, might we find it more necessary – and easier – to get on with that family next door? And if, designed into the public landscaping, there were shared amenities which brought us together – play equipment, ponds, picnic areas, built-in barbeques, community centres with nurseries, corner shops – might we actually bump into our wider neighbours too, and discover how much we had in common?

Perhaps it is a tall ambition for Britain’s house builders, but why settle for a sentimental evocation of the past when you could aspire to an exciting journey into the future with all its possibilities? In this world of three word slogans, could we be bold enough to replace “Take Back Control” with “Embrace The Future“?  Now that’s something I would like to see on the hoardings around a new development.

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