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Housebuild regulations are too exacting

Comment 23rd July 2010

Houses are much too expensive to build and too long-lasting. Social requirements will change much more rapidly than the life of modern houses… for instance, the huge amount of land taken up in bungalow estates (created just 40 years) ago now looks very wasteful.  Some so-called temporary housing methods (often created during wartime) proved remarkably resilient and well-designed, but were very cheap to build, had a light 'footprint' on the earth, and were popular.

Regulation also means that there is too much uniformity, too little local dialect in architectural styles and materials, too little creativity. Regulation mostly derives from standards of construction required by government and administered by local authorities. Of course, such things as drains, water supplies, foundations, safe roofing etc, must reach a certain standard of safety, but there are thousands (millions?) of older houses built to lesser standards which have proved very safe, so the modern standards can be shown to be too high.

It would be of great advantage to have lower standards, using modern technology and materials as well as local traditions to make short-life housing, designed perhaps for 50 years of life instead of 200 years (I don't know what life is expected of modern houses but it is far too long). This would be cheaper (main advantage) and allow new families to set up home. It would allow more flexibility as communities could actively plan for renewals and changes of land use. Old-style builds (present standards) would either go up in value if seen to be attractive, or go down if too expensive…so this would challenge the market to perform better.  It would allow innovative designs to flourish, including strawbale building and the like.

I do not mean that we should encourage shanty towns or poor plans. Just relax the requirements for structure, encourage more renewables (timber instead of concrete) and recycling, bring 'Grand Designs' down to an achievable level for ordinary people. The cost of housing is far far too high in people's budgets – home ownership is unachievable for most people under 30 at the moment and not likely to become so in the foreseeable future. If houses were cheaper, more people could afford them, and more money could be spent on education, arts, sport and the environment.

Why does this matter?

At present, becoming a home-owner is nigh-on impossible for huge swathes of younger people. They are enough in debt as it is with the cost of their education.  The cost of housing is too high, not only because of the financing difficulties but because of the cost of construction and land. This market is artificially inflated and needs to be brought more into line with affordability. 

The nation has a habit and interest in home-ownership, and has proved to be a good custodian of property – most (though not all) homes look smart and are a source of pride for their inhabitants. If the home-owning sector could be expanded and kept more affordable, this pride in possession (which is essentially responsibility) would also increase.  

Building homes would become less a matter for huge corporations who exert undue influence on design, with appalling results in terms of interior living space, and more a matter of demand. People would be able to get houses they really wanted. These not be flimsy or of poor quality – in fact the quality of construction and life in many present new homes is shocking, superficial, and inferior to that achieved in Victorian 2-up 2-down cottages.  I am thinking here of poor soundproofing, lack of storage space, rooms described as bedrooms but with space only for a small bed – no room for wardrobe, show-house with the doors removed to fake up the sense of spaciousness, no room for bookcases, musical instruments, arguments, guests, invalids, drying laundry on a line, play, or workbenches. These conditions must surely contribute to family breakdown and divorce, and no-one should touch them. We need much higher standards for our new homes. In all of Europe, the planning requirements for allocated living space for new houses is lowest of all in the UK. 

The big developers have convinced the markets that they alone know how to build, and they have made a poor job of it. They have cosied up with the planning departments and it's all been underwritten by the Building Regs departments.  Any trip abroad shows up the quirks of UK newbuilds – how long it takes, how uniform and ugly, how dispiriting, how boring, how inflexible, how little suited to people's needs within the community.    Today, employment as such is shrinking and is likely to dwindle more as we face competition from the new economies of China and India etc, so people may be working from home and not need to commute… so they all have to build garden offices to manage. These garden offices give us a good idea of what can be achieved – well-constructed, attractive, planned short life, flexible, insulated, low-weight, low-impact, low-cost.  Why do we need to spend so much on our houses?S

Slash these regulations, free up the market, encourage new technology and variety, bring the costs down, challenge our excellent designers and architects to produce templates for people to use, wake the thing up, and stop the spread of those huge massive ugly estates over the green land – anyone can see they are out of date before their deep wasteful footings are even started.



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