Kevin McCloud: "Housing divides are abhorrent"

Adam Forrest Jun 25, 2013
Kevin McCloud

In the first of a series of architect interviews, Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud says we must aim to “build homes that make people happy"

Your own company Hab (Housing Architecture Beauty) completed a 42-home sustainable development in Swindon back in 2011. You’re very big on public and green space around housing development. Why should builders be thinking more about it?

We believe that important social sustainability stuff happens in the space between buildings. Most developers still think the green space is the fluff you tack on at the end. The problem with the idea that an Englishman’s home is his castle is that home is often very small so the castle is small. But if you have a play space in front of the house and a community vegetable garden round the corner, your sense of ownership actually extends. Unfortunately we live in some of the darkest, most cramped houses in Europe (see more on RIBA’s Be Homewise campaign here). It’s partly to do with the fact our land is so expensive, so we build very small.

Your project in Swindon mixed social housing with market rents. But developers still build token social housing away from their development, or pay councils to do it for them.

Yes - basically shunting the social housing elsewhere. I don’t think that practise is going away unfortunately...I believe it’s a mark of civilization that you can live with people of all kinds of backgrounds and get on. I’m appalled by the way social housing carries this terrible stigma. That crude kind of class-based division, I find abhorrent. It doesn’t happen in places like Holland or Germany to the extent it does here. I like blind tenure: you can’t tell who owns and who rents or who is part of other, different shared ownership or assisted purchase models.

Are architects too precious for the business of housing?

They’re normally never asked. The architects I talk to are fascinated by the idea of housing schemes because it affects so many lives. So they’d love to do it. It’s a sadness to me that it’s considered almost eccentric to employ really good architects on housing projects.

Why are we so bad at make our homes energy efficient?

I think the construction industry is diseased; sick. You can bring a team of experts together to design an integrated system – ventilation, heat pumps, air tightness – to a high standard. Then it goes out to tender and goes to building contractors and the integrity of it gets dismantled. It’s do with an obsession with best value – cheapest, and a lack of skill in the construction industry. We haven’t been training properly for 30 years.

What do you tell people who say this green stuff is all very well, but it’s not helping build homes?

Well, I answer, it’s all very well, and the year after next it’s going to be compulsory and law. It’s not a question of being accessible or inaccessible – in 2016, every new planning application has to be code level 6 – zero carbon, and we’re struggling to put up level 4 at a decent rate at the moment. Anything that helps improve the coherence of the construction process should be welcomed.

Has some of the eco technology been... a bit crap?

Well, some of it’s designed by nerds for nerds, and actually, unless it’s like the iPad I often struggle to use it. There are some eco builders who believe that technology is the answer. But I’m more interested in the less active house, the house that kind of looks after itself: high thermal mass, lot of insulation, reasonably air tight, and doesn’t resort to too much trickery. If you keep it simple, homes can be more flexible. You’ve got allow for change, as new people come in and do what they want with the place.

So the couples who go on Grand Designs might make more low-key and sensible plans in future?

No, no - people are utterly convinced about their big plans and righteousness. Aren’t we all? Without all that self-belief they wouldn’t be building, wouldn’t have got that far. But haven’t got this far, they won’t be deviated or really listen to someone like me. They’re on a mission.

The nation is stuck in a housing crisis. Instead of listening to politicians, might architects have the answers? Share your thoughts @BigIssue

Help us to help our vendors. By subscribing to the Big Issue you get more great articles like this one every week and provide us with the additional revenue to build our street-based support for our vendors. Subscribe here