‘It is easy to think about housing in numbers, percentages, bricks
and mortar. But we should not forget that housing is
fundamentally about people.’
RIBA 2011 The Case for Space: The Size of England’s New Homes
More years ago than I care to count, I met two young architects. I have no idea of their names but as a couple they had won a fairly prestigious prize in architecture at the time and in way of celebration they had taken a trip to India which is where I met them. What I recall most from our conversation , was that although the place in which we live is fundamental to our happiness or at least our sense of security, I had never really considered the thought that goes into the design of a good home. They impressed me, these young architects who talked of how making good practical living spaces within large social housing complexes was the driving force behind their career decisions. Theirs was a socially-motivated vocation it seemed.
In my time I’ve lived in some living spaces which gave me what I needed and some which didn’t. I’ve lived a square peg life in round hole accommodation. I think it is fair to say that it wasn’t until the children came along that I became fully aware of architectural design. As a mother I’ve carried buggies, babies and shopping up far too many stairs; lived with toddlers and scary concrete steps down to gardens; and tolerated extortionate heating bills in poorly insulated and designed houses. Apart from one short year though, I have always been able to live with my children in what would be described as ‘a family house.’ In that physical sense my living situation has been suited to my needs. Someone, I know not who, sat down and designed these fairly functional spaces with generic families in mind, which I then, was able to live in. Kevin Whatsisname off Grand Designs would not be overly excited but these spaces pretty much did the job.
There is a new development near where I live now that makes me think about the interplay between architectural design and inhabitants each time I walk past it. It is a series of flats, three storeys high. The principle external material seems to be some sort of glass. The first and second floors have balconies also surrounded by a glass-like, transparent material. I imagine the people who choose to live in such spaces. Youngish first time buyers perhaps, setting up home and choosing their new furniture to suit the living space. Alternatively, older downsizers sipping their coffee on the balcony whilst admiring the large, attractive, tree-encircled park opposite. However, I see there are some families in them too and knowing this property wouldn’t work for me and mine, I wonder how it is for them. If I lived there the glass would be forever smeary from sticky hands and my nerves constantly on edge at the thought that a small child might fall from the balcony. Unlike my imagined youngish first time buyer, I would come with an enormous array of poorly matched second-hand furniture. And, I note, that poorly matched furniture would be on public display thanks to the goldfish-like glass exterior. Floor to ceiling curtains might help there but good quality all matching drapes like that would be way out of my budget. Most likely instead there would be a mismatch of curtains – again all on show. Definitely wouldn’t keep the clean lines the architect presumably had in mind when they conceived these spaces. Having spent two hours this morning clearing out my daughters’ toys, books and assorted plastic I shudder at the thought that I would have no enclosed garden space in which to put that kind of kiddie stuff. In short, I look at those flats and know they would suit some but for me and my family, they would be really difficult to manage. And on top of that, I know that those residents better suited to this accommodation type would resent my not managing. They would accuse me of bringing down the tone or devaluing their property. They would see the impingement on their lifestyle of my square-peg life being pushed into a round peg home as ultimately my fault.
But let’s be honest, I wouldn’t put myself into that kind of uncomfortable living situation by choice, none of us would. Research points to the fact that the space we live in affects educational achievement; the well-being of the individual; relationships in and out of the home; and impacts severely on NHS costs. However, sometimes we know there is no real choice for people. If the alternative was that I and my family were to remain in a B&B or in a couple of rooms or in an overpriced rental property then these flats would represent a step towards a better life. Of course they would. However, the current shortage of housing seems to me to result in an awful lot of people, particularly families, ending up living in accommodation which does not fit with their needs. Whether this is due to the price of rents, costs of mortgages or the way social housing waiting lists work, people are not experiencing the social and emotional benefits which come from having a home which properly works for them. We should be building to ensure that people have living spaces which are fit for purpose and which offer them the best opportunity to nurture and grow. Would that be so hard? RIBA research would suggest not. They have looked into the size of new homes being built in particular and concluded that building to minimum floor areas (so at least providing adequate space) would impact little on the numbers of homes built or on costs. Ultimately taking a more people-centred approach like this is unlikely to be more difficult than dealing with the inevitable fall-out of putting just too many square pegs in round holes.