Affordable housing can present some of the most challenging and yet rewarding work for a designer.
Whether working on a Housing Association site or the affordable element of a private development, designing social housing usually means dealing with both budget and space constraints.
However, that should never be an excuse for scrimping on quality of design. Just because it is a product that won’t be sold for profit doesn’t mean developers and their architectural advisers shouldn’t aspire to excellence in design.
Indeed, very often quality design is even more necessary in affordable housing, especially when it comes to the living space: these units will often be occupied by people who are out of work and so spending the majority of their time in them; occupants may also have some form of disability, meaning it is crucial that we don’t discriminate through poor design and create spaces that are unlivable.
In the country’s most cramped space of all – the capital – the London Housing Design Guide (LHDG) was introduced to ensure that both private and social housing delivered quality living space, and not the kind of cramped living conditions that London Mayor Boris Johnson referred to as “Hobbit Homes”.
While the LHDG is not yet mandatory for housing developments in all London boroughs, some boroughs have adopted it as part of their planning criteria, and all Housing Associations developing sites in the capital must adhere to LHDG to meet their government funding requirements.
However, because the LHDG is not yet enshrined in planning law, there is often a clash between the kind of sites that receive planning permission and the kind of sites that are required to meet LHDG standards. Typically, a landowner will obtain planning permission for a site and then sell it on to a Housing Association or private developer.
The kind of basic design that makes it through planning rarely lives up to the standards in the design guide, and so the housebuilder will come to an architectural solutions company like Ashby Design to bring the project up to standard.
The two areas where design standards are typically lacking are the outside amenity space and the inside living space.
For example, the LHDG requires a minimum of 5m2 of private outdoor space for dwellings of one to two people, with another 1m2 for each extra person after this.
Typically in London on a block of flats this private space will be a balcony.
With each balcony having to be a certain size relating to the occupancy, it is not only the space planning of the unit that is affected, but also the planning permission, as creating balconies of varying sizes will change the aesthetic of the building.
Going back to the planners will add both time and cost to the project.
Such problems can be multiplied once the impact of the LHDG on internal layouts is considered. The LHDG sets out “Essential Gross Internal Area (GIA)” for each dwelling based on the number of bedrooms, occupants and storeys.
For example, a single story flat with two bedrooms for three people has an Essential GIA of 61m2. In addition to this required total floorspace, there are criteria for every room and area within the property, such as minimum sizes of hallways and bedrooms.
For many, the first instinct in tackling internal living spaces that fall short of the design guide – for example a second bedroom that is too small – is to start moving walls around.
However, going down this road can mean increasing build costs, especially if the walls being moved are party walls and steels need to be installed.
Rather than move walls around, another consideration may be to change the occupancy levels of a property. This will obviously carry a significant cost implication, although this need not always mean an increase in costs: in the work Ashby Design carries out for developers we find that occupancy levels of units can go both up and down as we refine the designs to meet the standards.
If the occupancy level goes up, then the housing association is able to accommodate more tenants. Obviously if the occupancy goes down then the opposite is true, and this will have an impact on the housing association’s budget.
One positive note in such a situation is that the association may be able to save costs in other areas that will help to mitigate this lower occupancy level, such as negotiating down the level of payments that need to be made towards local infrastructure under a project’s Section 106 Agreement.
However, all of this reworking, redesigning, and multiple visits to planners is really just treating the symptoms of a failure to think about design standards at the start of a project.
At Ashby Design we are typically called in by the main contractor after they have been hired by the housing association, and up to this point little thought has been given to the design standards, other than that they will be something the project will have to meet.
If the LHDG was rolled out across all London boroughs – indeed if a national design guide was handed to every council in the country for both private and social housing – and made a mandatory criteria for granting planning consent, then most, if not all of these clashes could be eradicated.
If good design was considered at the very start of every affordable housing project, before a single boot has stepped onsite, then tenants would have even better living spaces and housing associations could see their build costs tumble.