George Clarke rails against a system that prioritises profit over beautiful design

In the summer, the Housing Minister Robert Jenrick announced a new National Model Design Code and a revised National Planning Policy Framework.

The new design code and the revised framework are intended to enable the design and construction of “beautiful, high-quality homes”.

Also, at last, the government seem to have realised that it is not only the design and quality of homes that needs to be massively improved, but we also need to design the spaces and places around those homes to be much better.

So, in order to try and sort this out, the government have also announced a new ‘Office for Place’.

These initiatives came about following a brilliant report published by a commission co-chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton and by Nicholas Boys Smith called ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’.

I was so angry I was actually speechless!

George Clarke George Clarke Architect and TV presenter

A small glimmer of hope

The word that stands out from all of these announcements is the word ‘beautiful’.

This is a very rare word in government and for me it provides a small glimmer of hope.

I’ve used this word ‘beautiful’ more than any other word since wanting to become an architect at the age of 12. Yes, I used the word ‘beautiful’ even more than ‘amazing’!

Architects always want their buildings to be practical and functional, but they also want them to be beautiful too.

Even when projects are on the drawing board (or computer) we even want our drawings to be beautiful and if the drawings are stunningly beautiful then there is a good chance the finished building will be beautiful too.

Unfortunately, even the drawings submitted to planning departments for large housing developers are pretty bad. If the designs are bad on paper what chance do we stand of ‘Buiding Better, Building Beautiful’?

The battle of styles

We all know people can see beauty in different ways. The perception of beauty is subjective - what one person finds beautiful another may not. The famous phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” sums that up.

I come across this all of the time with architecture and the arguments about style and beauty go all the way back to ‘The Battle of Styles’ in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Battle of the Styles was between Neo-Gothic architecture and Neo-classical architecture.

Neo-gothic (or Gothic Revival as it was often referred as) was regarded as the true English style as its roots lay in historic English Medieval buildings.

Neo-classical architecture,  inspired by Greek and Roman classical building, was seen by many as being an alien style and not truly English.

In some cases Religion played a huge part in the defining the style of some 18th and 19th century buildings.

The neo-classical architecture of Italy and Rome was often seen as the style of the Roman Catholic Church, whereas the true English style of Neo-Gothic was seen as the style of the Church of England.

Hence why we have many more neo-gothic style churches throughout the towns and villages of England than neo-classical. 

Inigo Jones

Even the brilliant, British neo-classical architect responsible for the Banqueting Hosue in Whitehall, St.Paul’s Church in Covent Garden and The Queens House in Greenwich, Inigo Jones (1573-1652), was seen as a ‘lonely genius’ and completely misunderstood during his lifetime for innovating with neo-classically designed homes.

But he was then praised many years later when the classical style he so advocated would bloom throughout the eighteenth-century, Georgian period.

Who doesn’t love a beautiful neo-classical, Georgian terrace?

Now, up and down the country, we list and protect thousands of neo-Gothic and neo-classical buildings, not just because they may be historically significant, but because we universally find them beautiful.

Architecturally crap

The battle for the design of beautiful homes is more apparent today than ever before.

Why? Because we are building nearly a quarter of a million homes across the country every single year (that is a staggering 20,000 finished homes every single month!) and most of them are far from beautiful.

In fact, most of them are architecturally crap.

Everyday, as I travel around the country for work, I see sprawling, noddy-box housing estates being built on fields on the edges of villages and towns.

I can’t even credit them with any architectural style as they are so badly designed. The homes are basically four brick walls, built without any regard for proportion or beauty, with a cheap pitched roof on top.

And how they are positioned on an estate is often dumb. High-quality ‘Place-making’ just doesn’t exist. You may as well get a plan of a field, draw loads of access roads across it and then drop lots of monopoly-style houses in the gaps that are left over.

Squeeze in as many as you possible can with very little regard to the orientation of the houses or the spaces around them.

Monopoly style

There you go. I’ve just realised that I’ve invented the perfect architectural style name for bland and boring mass, suburban housing estates by all of the massive housebuilders. ‘Monopoly Style’.

Monopoly Style seems very appropriate, firstly because the houses they build look similar to those boring houses on a monopoly board and secondly, because the game is all about making money and that’s the same for the majority of the house-builder PLCs. 

Profit before people. Done!

Speechless with anger

Just as a small aside. A few years ago, I came off stage following a debate about pushing up the standards of aesthetic design and ecological design across British housing estates.

A guy who had been one of the panellists on stage with me was a senior director of one of the big housebuilders (who I won’t name, but he had been brilliantly media-trained and actually played it beautifully with the live audience).

He turned to me backstage while taking off his microphone and said “that is all a load of rubbish to be honest, we have housing targets to meet and shareholders to worry about”

I was so angry I was actually speechless!

He didn’t care about the people who would be living in those houses, the communities they were creating or the environment they were screwing up along the way.

This was only around 4 years ago. I really hope he’s retired now.

Mass market housebuilding

So, ‘Monopoly’ architecture is now the defined style of the UK Mass Housebuilding industry.

I hate those estates. You might like them. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But we can all agree that mass-monopoly housing developments are a fiery and divisive subject.

The housebuilders say: “we are giving people what they want and all of our house sell”.

I’m not sure they give us much choice to be honest and many of us will know that the ‘public consultation period’ for local people to express their views during the planning process is often token lip-service.

Hundreds, if not thousands of locals can object to a bland, new housing development being planned on the edge of their town, yet somehow they are ignored and it still goes ahead, because a council will say “we simply need to build more houses”.

And when the big housebuilders have so much power, central government and local councils are now dependant on them to meet their housing targets.

Battling NIMBYISM

There is a counter argument to say that NIMBY-ism is rife across the UK and people will simply object to any development in their back yard no matter how good it is.

I come across this a lot too. But I do believe that if housing developments were beautiful, green and highly-sustainable with beautiful place-making  and an innovative, sympathetic developer who worked with the local community, rather than ignoring them and battling against them, then NIMBY-ism would exist less.

Design principles

If we step back from ‘style’ and just look at all the elements of estate planning and home design, I’m sure there are many simple design principles we could and would all agree on.

Let’s list a few out.

We would probably all agree that we want houses to be ecological, to be highly sustainable, with renewable energy heating and power, with good space standards where there is enough room in a bedroon to actually fit a wardrobe and with decent high ceilings

We’d surely all agree on the need for good-sized south facing windows to get a bit of solar gain from the sun in our temperate climate in the winter and smaller north facing windows to reduce heat loss.

We want our homes to be built using beautiful materials that will not only be sustainable, but that will also stand the test of time and look more beautiful the older they get.

We want our homes to be wonderful spaces to live in and to be safe and secure. We want those spaces to be so well designed that they improve our health and well-being.

We might also appreciate a bit of thought given to aesthetics and proportion so our homes actually look good. In terms of how they are positioned. We want gardens to be south-facing rather than north-facing to make the most of our sunny days.

We want as much green space as possible and safe spaces for our children to play. Thankfully most of us love trees so lots of them too please.

Most of us have a car, some families have multiple cars, but we’d love for them to be less dominant on our estates and we want safe and beautiful pedestrian-friendly streets rather than streets dominated by tarmac roads and cars half-parked on pavements. We’d probably all love to use our cars less if we could.

We’d also love to have beautiful local shops within walking distance and maybe even a local pub. We all love our kids to be able to walk safely to school and have to travel shorter distances.

It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty obvious and simple stuff.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few housing estates that achieve this. They are out there, but they are few and far between.

They are definitely the exception rather than the rule. The eco-towns the government promised years go haven’t been built. The zero-carbon homes legislation the government said would be the legal standard for every home built in from 2015 was scrapped by George Osbourne and didn’t happen.

We don’t even have a successful green initiative for new build housing as every green deal the government has tried to make work has been scrapped.

You could argue the system is more broken than ever and its not good enough!

Doing the obvious

We need a long-term plan from government where we get on and do the obvious very well.

There really isn’t a long-term and sustainable plan. It would help if Housing Ministers actually had the depth of knowledge about the industry they need and stayed in the job for more than 5 minutes.

Robert Jenrick has been sacked and replaced by Michael Gove. What experience does Michael Gove have in the housing industry?

I actually feel sorry for those civil servants working in the departments of housing and communities because of the revolving door of politics. Just when they think they might be getting somewhere it’s all change again and often not for the better!  

We need strong, new legislation to make all of our new-build homes better, greener and far more beautiful.

Without the legislation it won’t happen.

We need powerful developers to be on the same page and want to do the right thing.

We also need housebuilders to WANT to create beautiful homes and communities.

If they did, they would employ the very best architects and ecological consultants in the country to build the very best green and beautiful homes we can.

And this isn’t something that can wait any longer. We have to get on with this now!

There are many things that we can universally agree on that are beautiful when it comes to home design, building and place-making.

We all just need to work together to achieve it.

The battles that currently exist throughout our broken housing and planning systems due to weak government and poor legislation are holding us back.

George Clarke is an architect, writer and TV presenter