Typical blooming architect! Fellow PW columnist Jo Cowen recently heralded the “death of the cul-de-sac” in a tirade against housebuilders. Well I live in one and I reckon society would benefit from more culs-de-sac and less architectural hauteur.
Cowen’s diatribe castigates this supposed vestige of the 1960s for its “closed streets offering no penetrability to the wider urban locale”. Well, our Victorian example of the genre is a safe, friendly community spanning all ages and a range of nationalities and has a small Church of England primary school as its fulcrum – inward looking in the best sense.
We look out for each other; kids run from door to door without dodging joyriders; impromptu sozzled barbeques are pretty much open-house. Many families in the street have clearly outgrown their compact terraced homes, but we cling on, because it’s so bloody nice.
By contrast, my wife and I lived for several years in the sort of classic terraced street Cowen would probably approve of. We had no more than a nodding acquaintance with the neighbours on one side and our only contact with the council block on the other was when a nice policeman came round to investigate a murder there. Our car got broken into in an example of the opportunistic theft that is facilitated by open-ended streets. So much for “penetrability to the wider urban locale”.
Ours is not in any way a gated community, but we all keep our eyes peeled and the criminal fraternity’s risk-reward analysis points them in the direction of nearby streets, like our old one.
Having dismissed housebuilders of the past, Cowen’s column turns to the current crop: “Volume developers remove all natural contours from land to cut building costs and cram in as many identikit homes as possible.” That could have been penned by any member of architecture’s ruling luvvie brigade.
Naff as many housing developments are, housebuilders build the stuff that people want to buy. That’s why some are obscenely rich. Architects all too often design buildings with their peer group’s approval in mind rather than the punters’.
Numbers are at the heart of building viability and, sadly, the greatest critics of housebuilders among architecture’s haut monde don’t really ‘do’ numbers.
“Sadly most people can’t afford to buy period properties of a higher quality built by our Georgian and Victorian predecessors.” By the looks of her practice’s website, the desirable designs are aimed precisely at the minority who can.
For the rest, there is simple arithmetic. House prices are dictated by local secondhand values and the price of land is derived by subtracting assumed build costs and the developer’s margin. Unless the homes are built even more cheaply, a rival bidder will nab the site. The alternative is to ramp up densities. Well, sorry, most families want to live in houses not flats.
She’s right in her prognosis that build-to-rent (BTR) can allow a greater degree of quality. I agree that BTR will (eventually) become a major tenure in the UK. But with long-term returns subject to the whims of local rental levels and occupancy rates, nailing down building costs is even more critical than in bog-standard housebuilding – and there are likely to be a few bloody noses in some of the first wave of BTR developments, a senior figure in the lending community confided to me.
Any architects fostering ambitions that BTR will augur an era of enthralled patronage from rental developers are likely to be quickly disabused. Housing designs with a longer shelf life and built to last, yes, but forget about the blank cheques.
Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and consultant