The Government has committed to building thousands of homes to fill the ever increasing gap in our housing market. Is a quick fix going to do the job? The truth is, unless we create long-term buildings, the housing crisis will become a long-term issue. Borrowing from the past and building traditional terraced housing is our best bet.
Last week the Government published its much-awaited and long-delayed housing White Paper – promised as the once in a lifetime chance to revolutionise housing in Britain. The paper, in many ways, hits the nail on the head. There are no smoke and mirror attempts to deflect the Tories inability to sort the housing crisis even after 7 years of power. The title ‘Fixing our broken housing market’ admits some responsibility. We have left the housing problem too late for just Build to Own. So let’s Build to Rent.
Ultimately the problem is simple: not enough homes are being built quick enough.
Which means the solution is equally simple: build more quicker. The paper dedicates most of its time to discuss how the Government will facilitate greater home building by; ensuring every authority is covered by a plan, simplifying plan making, investing in infrastructure, encouraging high density developments and incentivising prefab houses.
However, the danger in an emphasis on building quickly means not much thought will be given to what is built. This could result in a number of things: losing green space, destroying the local community and building poor quality, ‘temporary’ homes.
As we emerged from WW2, Britain required 200,000 homes to replace those lost in air raids, and so Churchill proposed to address the shortfall with the creation of 500,000 prefab homes. Between 1945-51 a total of 1.2 million homes were built, with lifespans of 10 years. In 2017, we are not emerging from war, yet we are requiring homes to be built at an astonishing rate of 250,000 per year. Will our new homes be as temporary as those built after WW2? Tech and construction have moved on, but the White Paper’s call for prefab homes is highly concerning short-termism that will scar the physical landscape (and future Governments’ housing budgets).
But there is an alternative solution, one that ticks all the boxes. And, if done well, could kick the issue of housing well into the 22nd Century.
Terraced housing. Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. Two-storey and mid-rise.
Look at 19th Century London. The population grew from 1 million in 1800 to 6.7 million in 1900 as the British Empire flourished and London became the political, financial and trading capital of the world. Countryfolk flooded the city for work, Lower, Middle and Upper Class alike. Where did they then live? Georgian, followed by Victorian terraced housing. Ranging in size, but popular for all, the hard wearing, compact, communal streets housed London’s thousands. Fast forward to 2017, and these same houses are worth anywhere in the £1-10 million mark. They are as loved and desired as ever – even 150 years after being built. Why is this? Well the glass and steel flats of Vauxhall might be light, clean and spacious; but to buy a Victorian terraced flat allows you to buy a piece of London’s rich history. To own 100 square ft of London, a space with timeless character and homeliness.
So terraced housing is a hit for renters and home-owners. But what are the actual benefits from a town planning point of view?
Well, for developers, there aren’t many. Wood, brick and load bearing masonry sounds like a lot of work. The big players like uniform flats: a quick concrete core up in weeks, followed by a concrete frame, then fake brick walls slot into place before the insides are decked out in stock furnishings.
But if, for a second, we switched our short term thinking hat for our long term one, there really are benefits for a traditional terraced revival.
The critically acclaimed classical architect Quinlan Terry observes that traditional building techniques and materials help classical architecture take the place as the most sustainable form of building. In his essay Designing a Sustainable Future, Quinlan references 5 points of focus for the sustainable building: longevity; carbon emissions; thermal mass; recyclability; and thermal movement.
Using this framework, it is easy to compare quick-build modern flats and traditional terraced housing.
We are still happily living in Georgian flats and houses from 1700. That is a lifespan of over 300 years and counting. Modern flats have a lifespan of 40-70 years. From an environmental point of view, even if made to emit zero emissions once occupied, modern flats’ constant construction and demolition cost a lot.
According to Quinlan, stone, brick, lime mortar, slate and timber all get an A energy rating whereas steel, reinforced concrete, large areas of glass, aluminium, and PVC get a B or a C rating.
In essence, the fluctations of the internal temperature. New builds are reliant on responsive heating and cooling systems depending on the time of year. Traditional stone or brick buildings retain optimum temperature – imagine walking into a stone European church on a scorching day in summer – the temperature will be quite amiable with no air con.
This really is only an issue for the new build – which lifespan means it will require recycling. However, even if classical architecture requires rebuilding, brick, stone, and timber can be easily reused.
Traditional materials are almost inert to temperature fluctuations. For modern buildings, however, temperature change is the primary reason why they last only a handful of years. The expansion of glass and metal in modern flats mean that rubber expansion joints are required, giving the building a weak spot, leading to leaks and rapid ageing.
In sum, traditional building construction has a far lower environmental impact, and lasts for quite literally hundreds of years.
But the appeal lies more than in its sustainability; traditional terraced housing can be built by local bricklayers and builders, using proven techniques handed down through the generations. Materials can be sourced locally and built on site – with no prefabrication. A terraced revival could mean a traditional construction revival – allowing small players to compete with those corporations building Meccano-kit flats in foreign warehouses before assembling on site in weeks.
Terraced streets are good for social housing too. The vast number of failed modernist social housing experiments across the 20th century surely calls an end to using the poorest as toys for sociology professors. Let’s build the family favourite! Terraced housing. Forget the ‘green’ space and open air of our modern council estates, left to ruin with piled up rubbish and overgrown with weeds. Terraced streets feel like home. Solid, aesthetic, timeless – for all classes and people.
Crucially, this is not a romantic ideal. In 2013, the Policy Exchange published the report Create streets – not just multi-storey estates, which laid out the case for transforming London’s 1950-70s high-rise council estates into proper terraced housing. The report states:
The empirical evidence is overwhelming. Large multi-storey housing blocks (be they high-rise or medium-rise) are usually disliked and are correlated with bad outcomes for the people forced to live in them. They are bad for society and crime levels and a very poor return on investment for those who own them in the long-term. They cost more to build, maintain and fall into disrepair sooner. They are very bad for children and families, yet in particular children in social housing are forced to live in multi-storey homes.
But how will terraced housing provide enough homes in the little space we have to build on? There is an assumption that multi-storey flats (both council and private) are the best option for high-density housing. This assumption is wrong. The 2002 LSE Cities Programme concluded that,
Notting Hill, Lancaster Gate and Earl’s Court-with five and six-storey houses … – are among the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the country, but prove that density can be achieved without very tall structures.
And if this is not convincing enough, the diagram below portrays how three different developments can hold the same number of houses (and therefore people).
If, therefore, terraced and mid-rise Georgian and Victorian-style housing can provide the same density of homes as high-rise towers, a cultural change must take place. Proposals for the wholesale construction of community-less flat complexes should be replaced with the championing of terraced streets, with street names and coloured doors. Brownfield sites can become new communities, ugly council estates can be flattened and replaced with Victorian flats, some for council tenants, others for sale; recreating the true fabric of society. In no other form of housing is compactness and community found. Open green space on a micro level is practically worthless – planning legislation should zoom out, focus on parks and greenery in the wider locale, in central areas big enough to chuck a frisbee or go for a run. Let’s get compact in town, and enjoy parks and the greenbelt.
As the Government looks to flood the country with prefab structures, there is clearly a better option than to build whatever, wherever, as fast as possible. The Government should empower local councils to create new streets, using local knowledge, local resources and local manpower. Why reinvent the wheel when we’ve got the solution on our doorstep? Surely only traditional terraced housing will preserve the British towns and countryside of the past, whilst creating the homes of the future. And by pursuing traditional architecture, small businesses will thrive, people will be homed, communities will grow, and our broken housing market can be fixed once and for all.