Excellent profile in the Guardian – what a pity then the RIBS has taken such a weak line on the downgrading of design policy, the abolition of guidance such as ‘BY Design’ and ‘Manuel for Streets’ which try to prevent such ‘Noddy Box’ housing, and its failure to include minimum space standards.
New homes must be fit for purpose, says leading architect
The new president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Angela Brady, wants to start a conversation on building better new homes
For Angela Brady, good design is a watchword. That means communicating its benefits on television, radio, at workshops for children, on public platforms and, in her new role, to the country at large.
The new president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) has a Channel 4 series featuring architecture in six European cities behind her. Right now, her passion is the lamentable design of much of the newhousing in England. She does not mince words, labelling buildings passing for detached homes as “Noddy boxes”. It is a criticism she heard time and again during this year’s party conference fringe meetings which outlined Riba’s Case for Space campaign, a drive to persuade house-builders to raise their game as new homes become significantly smaller.
Those Riba events, titled Leaving Legoland, attracted several hundred at the three party conferences. “The strong criticism that came from the audience was: ‘We’re sick of these volume housebuilders, the Noddy box houses in cul-de-sacs all around the country. We have to drive to improve them. They’re not built sustainably. They’re tiny, cramped.’ And they’ve got a fair point,” says Brady.
“People will say housebuilders have got a monopoly because they’ve got the land. We’re saying there hasn’t really been an analysis of how we live, what spaces we need, since 1961. So we’re starting the conversation. Let’s ask what people want.”
That is what Riba is proposing with a Future Homes Commission, comprising experts from a variety of fields. With the average new home in England 8% below the recommended minimum size (which can equate to a bedroom) the institute wants to find out what consumers want and need, then make recommendations to house builders and developers.
When I mention that architecture seems to be an afterthought in many new houses, Brady interjects: “If at all.” It’s a serious point because, she says, many homes are simply constructed off-the-shelf from manuals; even the once ubiquitous term “architect designed” has been ditched. She thinks it is symptomatic of a “let’s get something cheap, cheerful and quick”.
But Brady’s criticisms go further than house design; she thinks the layout and planning of new estates leaves much to be desired. She spent a year on a working group organised by the former Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment – an organisation, she laments, needlessly scrapped by the government – looking at the country’s post-war new towns. “There was some fantastic planning then,” she enthuses. “Just compare that with suburban sprawl, ribbon development, these sort of executive cul-de-sacs you’ve got to drive to and you can’t even buy a bottle of milk on the corner.”
Brady adds: “We need to really re-examine the way we live and play, and we need to seek better models for the next 20 years. We’ve got huge constraints, if you look at the pressure on the environment, and I believe we are the custodians of [that]. People are relying on architects, planners, to come up with the right answers – how to make the green deal, make homes more zero carbon. As architects, we’ve got so much to offer. Governments ignore that at their peril.”
Brady studied architecture in her native Dublin and sought early inspiration in her career with work spells in Denmark, and Toronto, before landing in London. In 1987, she set up an architecture practice with her husband Robin Mallalleu.
Brady is the second female president of Riba and has a record of activism in the organisation. She was a leading light in Architects for Change, promoting the progression of women alongside black and minority ethnic groups. “You can inspire children who would never think of going into architecture that it’s a worthwhile career,” she says.
In the contest for president, Brady believes that her activism proved the trump card. “One of the reasons I got voted in was because I was the only person pushing diversity in our profession. We’re only 18% women and I’d love it if we could push it to 40%.” Therein lies a dilemma because women, she says, constitute 37% of students in the country’s 44 schools of architecture . Brady says it’s not hard to discover why so many women subsequently leave. “They are the main child carers; take a year out, and it’s quite hard to get in again.”
Another passion is de-mystifying architecture – “taking it to the people” and involving them in the process. She believes the profession needs to broaden its appeal, and evangelise. “This is what’s missing, how are we architects going to help deliver the ‘localist’ agenda of the government?” she enthuses. “That means helping people make local plans, when there isn’t the revenue there in the support structure. Communicating with neighbourhood groups, helping them draw up local plans, it’s a long-term strategy that we want.”
Why, she asks, plonk houses miles from anywhere without the services to support families? “We want to make sure there is some infrastructure in place before people come and put housing down, to know that housing has been given proper consideration, is going to fit in, and it’s not going to be yet more ribbon development.”
And why, she wonders, build exclusive estates and properties for one privileged sector of society while housing others in separate enclaves? “If we look to Denmark and Holland, for example, they live as a community coming together without an ‘us and them’, the rich and the poor. It’s much more social,” she explains.
Brady is enthralled by the “rich mix” of the capital’s culture even after over two decades in London. She is appalled that plans for a cap of £26,000 on the amount of benefits one family can claim a year from 2013 will undermine that mix, driving the lower paid out of the capital. “People have a right to live in the communities where they were born,” she says.
That aside, she insists that the compelling case for many more houses should not mean poor design. “We’ve got a huge housing crisis, a shortage of 250,000 units a year. And there should be more opportunity for better housing. We need to build more sustainably, to cut carbon, it’s a matter of convincing the contractors to build for the long-term.”
No easy task. She has two years as president to make her mark.