Architects and housing

The orthodoxy is that the last time professional architects were allowed to design housing on a large scale in Britain they did more damage than the blitz, snuffing out historic street patterns and fracturing communities in their fervour to ‘improve the lives’ of the poor.

But experts (demographers, mostly) tell us we’re going to need 3.8 million new homes in the next couple of decades. Old people and single person households are to blame. We’re currently replacing our housing stock so slowly that every house that’s currently standing will need to keep doing so for about 1,000 years to cope even with current demand. We need those architects.

An exhibition at the RIBA shows a dozen or so medium-to-large housing projects designed by a new breed of ‘architect-planners’, people sensitive to social and human context as well as to the purity of form. Keywords for the projects on show are ‘sustainable’, ‘flexible’, ‘self-organising’, ‘human scale’.

The signs are encouraging: there’s nothing programmatic, ideological or arrogant about these schemes – although inevitably much that is fashionable. Mistakes will still be made but in this more modestly-scaled work, they should be self-limiting. Feedback loops will be short enough to encourage constant revision of the master plan and prevent the decades of blight that overcame the huge post-war housing estates.

Some projects are even flexible enough to be continuously reworked in response to new demands – walls can be erected to add rooms as kids arrive, a lift punched through the ceiling as occupants age and can’t use the stairs – all without planning permission or a structural engineer.

A new house building boom is about to begin and, on the strength of this exhibition, it might turn out to be a renaissance for the professionals.