The size of the matter

Modern housing might look good in a brochure, but it often isn’t an optimum use of space. Hugh Pearman thinks that the personal touch of an architect is the way forward.

It’s possible that most readers of Design Week believe Louis Hellman does nothing to occupy his waking hours but dash off a cartoon a week to illustrate this column. You might imagine he cartoons elsewhere – and, indeed, he does – but you ought to be aware that Hellman is an architect and critic as well as a doodler of no mean ability. And – sparing his blushes, since he must read these words before he produces this week’s pocket cartoon – he is much in my thoughts right now. With another architect, Barbara Weiss, he has co-authored and illustrated a Mitchell Beazley book, Do It With an Architect, which is the clearest layman’s guide that I have yet encountered to the sometimes vexed business of inviting an architect to tackle your home.

Why should this concern me now, of all times? For two reasons. The first is that I have been out to Essex and have seen what the spec housebuilders are covering England’s green acres with – is it to be 2 million such homes by 2020, or 2.5 million? I forget. But be aware that the product is not very nice. It is land-hungry, built to lazy suburban densities. It is designed in this order: roads first (big wide ones with as many large roundabouts as possible); landscaping second (dense thickets, earth banks, no-fire zones extending a long way to either side of the roads), and houses third – any style you want, from Jacobean to Edwardian. It includes double or triple garages, naturally, but, of course, never modern.

This is because, apart from in certain urban apartment developments, spec builders just don’t do modern. Architects do modern, and architects, by and large, have nothing whatsoever to do with volume housebuilding. Go to Essex – or any other county in the South East – and you’ll see the real heavyweights of the industry – the Barretts, the Wimpeys, the Bryants and Countrysides – hard at work. There may be a few token “brownfield” developments on old hospital or military or industrial sites, but mostly what you will see is the green fertile acres of prime farmland being eaten up, even faster than during the “ribbon development” boom of the interwar years.

Hellman and Weiss’s book, however, is wise enough not to engage in the battle for England. Modest to a fault, it knows that the one proven way to achieve better design quality in private housing is to involve individual architects with individual clients. Which brings me to the second reason our cartoonist’s book is in my thoughts right now. I know how true it is. I have just moved house. The old (1870) house, by the time I left, had received the attention of two very good young architects who redesigned key parts of it over a decade. The new (1890) one is a just-completed builder’s refurbishment. It is better than most of its kind, but like all builder’s jobs, it is designed for show rather than substance. For a quick sale and a fast exit, rather than a design fee and maybe a repeat commission.

I stare around my new builder’s kitchen with its flash wide-screen cooker and the maximum possible number of small cupboard doors lining the entire room – but concealing shallow, poky spaces. The difference between this and the bespoke version in my last house might leave you thinking they were for entirely different purposes. The old one was designed – not pieced together from a catalogue. It took account of our wishes. Same went for the bathrooms – the old one a clever use of minimal space; the new one designed purely to look good in an estate agent’s window. So when I told the agent I was buying the house purely for its size, and didn’t care about its kitchen and bathroom fittings, he seemed baffled. It would appear that most people looking for a house work the other way round.

And there, of course, is the problem. The spec builders know their market absolutely. It was they, not architects, who built these houses in the first place. They keep an eye on the delayed reaction to interior design fashions – ripping out the fireplaces and cornices one decade, putting them back the next. And are they wrong today? Not in sales terms – all those stylistically inept houses being built in Essex sell for large sums as fast as they can be built.

I acknowledge that those of us with different tastes are a minority. Hellman and Weiss’s book will help to expand that minority. But if you put together all the people who think of using an architect, you’ve a fairly large market. Can’t some volume housebuilder out there in the shires recognise this as a niche to exploit? And then call in a decent architect to design it for him? I fear that the day the spec builder does this, pigs will be seen flying over Essex.

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