Summary of discussions at Housing and Wellbeing Seminar (Part 2)

Ten months after the first seminar on housing for the project, at a time when the national crisis in inequality and housing provision has deepened even further, and the day before a march on housing took place in London, this event brought together colleagues from the Bartlett School of Architecture and Faculty of the Built Environment UCL, the University of Liverpool and ETH Zurich, to consider how wellbeing and design interrelate in: contemporary design teaching contexts; architectural and urban histories of post-war housing, and housing commissions undertaken by small practices.

Across the presentations, the design of flexible or adaptable housing was the most recurrent view about the contribution that design can make to improving housing standards, housing stock provision and quality, and in light of the historical contexts that form today’s situation. However, there were different opinions of how current practices, and historical evidence defines these aims, and how they be implemented to improve current and future housing needs in UK society:

Peter Bishop underscored how the (currently absent) political will to improve the quality and provision of housing has been highly successful when it supports high quality housing design guides and standards (e.g. historically, the Parker-Morris space standards and, more recently, the impact of the Design for London Housing Guide for the Government’s housing consultation). Secondly, this political will has resulted in very successful housing when carried by local authority housing, architect, planning and design teams (e.g. the 1960-80s, London council boroughs, the GLA, Camden Council or Greenwich). Current guidance also emphasises high standards in the ‘performance’ of housing as part of a commitment to environmental wellbeing: by linking wellbeing with environmental design defined by carbon-reduction criteria, cities and their housing can be more strongly established and ensured. Simon Pepper’s ‘three ages of post-war housing’ reinforced the historical evidence of previous political commitment to quality in housing design, highlighting how 1950s-60s progressive Conservative and Labour Governments committed to housing as a political priority, which disappeared in the 1980s, and now wholly absent from the global economic asset-driven context of today’s housing market (e.g. where international property investors purchase flats, especially in London, that will remain unoccupied; or the resale of ‘right to buy’ flats which previously housed a family to be occupied by single young professionals). Stephen Gage also highlighted how the mid-Victorian terrace still provides an extremely resilient housing model for affordable adaptive design principles through which mixed social, economic and environmental standards achieved across different client groups and demographic needs.

For Jan Kattein, Patrick Weber and Sabine Storp, the wellbeing of the client/home-owner or tenant can be improved in collaborative and adaptive approaches to the local public space, and design ownership of a ‘home’. For these architects, design which isn’t determined by the larger professional scaled interest of building standards (and which Jan Kattein felt can stymie the capabilities of the smaller architect to work with their clients, or the ability of progressive developers and Housing Associations to best maximise their provision). Their presentations emphasised the importance of responsive and reflexive design approaches in which the architect collaborates with the household/home provider (Kattein) or recognises non-standard (e.g. non-European) models of adaptation (Storp Weber) so that housing design performance extends the importance of wellbeing from internal space/density ratio to enliven/reclaim external spaces of the neighbourhood as parts of the ‘home’. Patrick and Sabine also showed how a principle of low-cost adaptation has now revived the social housing failure of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation housing project in Le Briey, northern France.

These nuances of scale of design highlighted how, whilst there may well be a tendency to identify two opposing approaches – that is, the ‘generic’ regulatory approach versus the ‘specific’ singular design approach – also visible are flexible/open-ended design approaches by architects and their respective professional and client communities which do not solely promote one approach at the exclusion of the other. Nici Zimmerman’s graphic modelling of the social, economic, political, environmental and cultural forces that drive the contemporary housing and wellbeing landscape, provided an interesting analytical assessment of how these relations are multi-faceted and complex both on the micro and macro scales. Her ‘long-view’ approach to ‘integrated decision-making’ for improving effective environmental design of housing and the health of UK cities and their inhabitants helped to capture, clarify and visualise the complex formation of wellbeing in built environment discussions.

Finally, in his closing remarks to the day, Adrian Forty observed that the conversations could be defined in three ways: first, that while today’s current political outlook is clearly poor for housing, the presentations show us that architects working with housing are mindful of these situations, but also choose to work beyond them; that is, architects have always, and still do, respond to their political and social contexts by exploring how design can change the built and social realities of their clients and society.  Second, there was concern about whether regulated design standards are beneficial, and third, architects are, perhaps one of the few, or only groups able to make sure that wellbeing is an ethical standard in housing

Adrian’s points highlight that there’s merit not to assume a binary position of either exclusively supporting an approach to regulated housing design or non-regulated criteria; rather a mix of approaches at different scales may provide greater flexibility and effectiveness to tackling the issue. Also, wellbeing is an ethical principle in housing design: for example, also following Adrian’s responses, housing is a social asset in which wellbeing is an inherited or genetic principle of value that does not produce its entire or measurable contribution to society in the immediate present. Instead, its ethical contribution may emerge or be realised over a historical period of time.

Podcasts of the day to follow.