Late last year CABE called for every publicly quoted volume Housebuilder to have a ‘design champion’ at board level with responsibility for delivering design quality. I wasn’t entirely convinced that the result would be swift or positive. Maybe it would be one of those ideas that just drifted. But happily my pessimism was unfounded and the increasing realisation by housebuilders that CABE has an influence on some of their land portfolio resulted, in March this year of the announcement that 6 major housebuilders had appointed “design champions”.
The press blurb went:
Paul Pedley at Redrow will establish a specialist Urban Design Centre to ensure all their planning proposals are of a consistently high quality. David Pretty will institute a top-to-bottom review of the complete Barratt portfolio of house and apartment designs, working with external architects. Graeme McCallum at Taylor Woodrow will be launching an awards scheme to recognise the best individual contributions to design from both employees and suppliers.
At David Wilson Homes, a senior management team led by James Wilson will assess the design standards of all new David Wilson housing layouts and the feedback will be used to spread learning across the business. Stephen Stone at Crest Nicholson will launch a new portfolio of “Intermediate” housing to provide more new family homes whilst also addressing the density requirements set by government. And Tony Pidgley at Berkeley Group will personally ensure that Berkeley’s next generation of developments set new and inspiring design standards.
All very noble, but my experience of housebuilders is that the Chairman and, in general, main board directors, do have an appreciation that good design helps them to access land, can speed up rate of sales, can speed up the planning process and contribute to shareholder value and some have an appreciation that they have a duty not to deliver soulless dross. But the problem can often lie with the regions that are often given autonomy, whose directors’ remuneration is often based on margin and whose appreciation and understanding of anything outside “of what they know” is low.
CABE’s initial blurb when they put a call out to Housebuilders to appoint “design champions” went:
Design isn’t just for high-profile projects. It should be an integral part of everyday working practice. Each new home, its surrounding streetscape and local neighbourhood context represents a chance to demonstrate the technical abilities and market position of your company
That signals the real challenge. Are these 6 “design champions” just responding out of duty, with an aim to use the fact that they have established “design champions “ to be able to use that in bids for English Partnership land and the like? Or is this the start of the major housebuilders making a serious attempt to integrate good design throughout their processes, to every corner of their business. Is this the start of major housebuilders aiming to leave a 21st century legacy of great places, adaptable buildings and streets that bequeaths modern, but equally loved places, to complement those left by the Victorians and Edwardians? If it is then these “design champions” will have to make sure that this message and the skills necessary to implement it become embedded in their regional businesses.
They could start by ensuring that every scheme, no matter how small, has a local “design champion” who isn’t just there as an employee with a title but who has significant design experience or a recognised design qualification but most importantly a desire to go back 10 years later to every site he or she has delivered and be proud that they have helped contribute something wonderful and joyous to peoples lives and to Britain’s built environment.