I might have made my name in the 1980s with Red or Dead but these days the mantra is more like Green or Dead. Politicians compete to display their eco-credentials, whilst hardly a day passes without another big company outlining their new “sustainability action plan”.
Nowadays, I’m designing housing schemes and while it’s obviously great to see the challenge of climate change climbing to the top of the housing agenda, we need to approach sustainability in a much broader way than at present.
The Code for Sustainable Homes – the government’s new environmental rating scheme for housing – has now kicked in and is the number one issue for housebuilders. But while I think the Code is a real step forward in ensuring environmentally sustainable design, it’s becoming clear that to meet the costs of sustainability other crucial areas of design are being compromised.
Sustainability is about far more than just wind turbines or solar panels. It’s about producing places people cherish, protect and enhance – places where people will still want to live in 70, 80 or 100 years’ time. After all, if a development has to be pulled down after 30 years – like we’re now doing with much of the housing built in 1960s and 70s – its overall carbon footprint will be huge, no matter how many windmills are on the roofs. Regeneration may be the buzzword of the decade, but all that knocking down and rebuilding is so wasteful. We need to produce housing that can last for more than just a few decades – the Victorians did it, so why can’t we?
This means creating housing schemes with green open space for kids to play in (and for us dads to have a kick-about), local shops and schools that people can walk to, and streets that encourage pedestrians and cyclists rather than just cars. It means looking at landscaping and shared surfaces, and creating an environment that lifts the spirit the second you get off the bus and start to approach your street. It means getting the right mixture of tenure and house types, and offering a distinct character that gives an area its own identity. It simply means building places, spaces and homes that excite, places that people cherish and love and can’t wait to get home to.
These also happen to be the things people really value. A survey conducted last year by MORI with government advisors the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) asked residents to rank the most important aspects they wanted from a housing development. It found that that access to local services and facilities and provision of public open space ranked higher than more specific environmental considerations such as energy efficiency. But it doesn’t take surveys to tell us this – it’s common sense. Unfortunately though, common sense can go out the window when new legislation comes in.
The big volume housebuilders are well-placed to meet the sustainability challenge because of their scales of production. But they must ensure that the technical demands placed on them by government are not met at the expense of good urban design. It’s also vital that sustainability is built into schemes at the design stage – when value can really be added – rather than on site, when it’s too late to make a real difference.
Housebuilders have to adhere to the Code for Sustainable Homes, but when it comes to liveability there isn’t anything they have to adhere to. With every other product I can think of, if the supplier doesn’t serve our needs and desires adequately, a competitive market means we can choose a supplier that does. This is not the case in the housing industry, especially with the recent mergers and, most importantly, the acute under-supply of new homes.
However, in the last seven years working with housebuilders, I have seen an increasing understanding and commitment to liveability. It is still not resulting in the majority of housing developments becoming great places that will stand the test of time, and mature into neighbourhoods that are cherished by our grandchildren, but we are on an upwards curve. The worry now is that these advancements in long-term thinking about liveability and placemaking will be thrown out to pay for getting enough points to satisfy the Code for Sustainable Homes.
There is help out there for developers. Building for Life is a initiative led by CABE and the Home Builders Federation that promotes design excellence in the house building industry. Building for Life offers a flexible and wide-ranging criteria in the form of 20 simple questions that cover all aspects of sustainable urban design. This criteria has now been adopted by English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation and local councils.
It’s not good enough to say “urban design doesn’t matter anymore, we’re concentrating on sustainability” – design and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. The green agenda must embrace wider concepts of longevity and liveability to create the sorts of attractive neighbourhoods that are truly sustainable in the long-term environmental, social and economic sense.
Wayne Hemingway is a designer and Chair of Building for Life: www.buildingforlife.org