Britain’s housing crisis is causing misery and fear for millions of families. Here’s exactly why the nation needs its brightest minds to come up with new ways of delivering genuinely affordable homes…
The planning system in Britain is often dismissed as dull, restrictive and arcane, but the country does have a long history of making big, bold visions for new housing settlements come to pass. From the ‘garden cities’ of the early 20th century to the post-war new towns, the nation’s planners have fondly imagined a new parcel of land might offer a new way to live.
At the beginning of the year the government announced the location of 14 new ‘garden villages’, following on from plans made for seven larger new towns. It is not clear all of these schemes will actually happen – although one new town, Tornagrain (architect’s rendering, below), which has been recently built near Inverness, is currently opening its doors. Despite the Nimby crowd who hate to lose green space, and those who abhor sprawl outside the city, Britain’s housing shortage means new settlements need to be built.
If new settlements in the south of England have to follow existing rail lines or new rail projects like Crossrail, there is a danger they will become drab dormitory towns for London, however glossy the builders make their brochures. But if the nation can find the money for brand new infrastructure, it offers the chance for us to do things differently, whether in developing more eco-friendly housing, local energy grids or more sustainable forms of local transport.
Some experts have an alternative vision to increase housing stock: densify the existing suburbs. Not only would it allow for more homes, it might make the endless avenues and cul-de-sacs more sociable and interesting places to live.
The suburbs of tomorrow will need to establish traditional, mixed-use town centres in residential areas – attracting shops and businesses to relocate to new central cores. One suggestion is that extra floors could be added above existing shops and houses. Cycle lanes and attractive public spaces will also be key: the 21st century planners love to emphasis walkability over the car-centric visions of the past.
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The Big Issue has urged central government and local authorities to address the country’s housing shortage by incentivising use and exploring new ways to refurbish the nation’s derelict stock. Our Fill ’Em Up campaign has explored various ways to get them back into use. Many local authorities have tightened up on discounts on council tax for unlived in homes. And social enterprises like PHASES and Rebuild South West have launched innovative restoration projects, giving formerly unemployed people and ex-Forces personnel the chance to refurbish homes they then get the chance to move into.
Globally, people are looking for answers to the common problem of housing shortage. Future proofing BNKR Arquitectura, of Mexico City, have designed the ‘earth-scraper’, a 300-metre subterranean inverted pyramid, to bypass Mexico’s stringent building regulations and the city’s growing space problems. Preserving the natural area around it, the enormous 65-storey complex would house a museum dedicated to Mexican heritage and 10 floors of affordable housing, with the rest made up of commercial office and retail space, at an estimated cost of $800m.
BNKR’s futuristic architects have also began gathering funding for a bridge across Acapulco Bay. Primarily for road traffic and spanning 3km, it will also utilise often underused space, turning 700,000 sq metres into affordable housing.
You thought modern construction peaked with computer-aided design? Think again. Imagine a brand new home in a day for only £10,000. American firm Apis Cor successfully completed the first house printed using mobile 3D printing technology in Stupino, Moscow. The completed construction (including interior) took less than 24 hours for an open plan studio-style home, measuring 409 sq feet.
Then there’s SAM the bricklaying robot (pictured above), laying the groundwork for robotic construction. Designed to operate collaboratively with a mason, it can work six times faster than a human, laying 3,000 bricks a day. It’s hoped SAM will be introduced into the UK in the next two years after working on more than 16 construction sites across the US.
Drones have made their way on to the building site too, with Japanese construction giant Komatsu using drones as ‘the eyes’ for automated bulldozers. The drones scan the site, and feed the information to the machines to plot a course.
The last British housing crisis, following the Second World War, saw the introduction of ‘prefabs’ – homes that were built quickly and cheaply, and looking a little worse for wear in 2017. Fear not – modern flat-pack homes are much better designed and better put together, like those from German manufacturer Huf Haus. Shipping containers are another new addition to the prefab or modular concept. They are increasingly becoming less of a temporary measure and more of a must-have housing concept for the trendier among us.
Even the raw materials are advancing. Good old-fashioned timber is making a comeback, and thanks to advance construction techniques (including honeycomb structures), it is being used to build sky-high towers. Urban design specialists Perkins + Will are teaming up with the University of Cambridge to develop the River Beech Tower (detail pictured below), an entirely timber 80 storey structure.
On the other side of the material spectrum, we have the use of plastic bricks. Danish student Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard developed the concept of recycling the plastic bags that dominate India’s landfills and turning them into bricks. The colourful bricks can withstand up to six tonnes of pressure and if exposed to the monsoon season are likely to be able to hold up better compared to the current clay brick homes that are often washed away.
The promise of bringing back life to empty buildings remains a compelling vision in the derelict areas of many of Britain’s towns and cities. Manchester, where decaying 19th-century industrial warehouses have been transformed into offices, apartments and artists’ studios, is a fantastic example of what happens when the new is forged from the old. Residential properties left empty are particularly galling when homelessness remains on the rise. The latest figures show there are a staggering 200,000 long-term empty homes in England alone. These properties, unused for six months or more, have a combined estimated value of £43bn.
Community Land Trusts (CLTs) represent one of the most exciting ways ordinary people might just loosen the grip of a tiny number of large developers on house-building in the decades ahead. There are now 225 CLTs across the UK and there are plans to have 3,000 homes built by 2020 through this game-changing mechanism. With so many first-time buyers struggling to get on the market and evictions among hard-up renters soaring again, the beauty of a land trust is that it allows the community to dictate the terms of the rent or sale prices (so long as it can obtain land or secure a long-term lease on a bigger developer’s site). Any homes sold by residents who want to move will have their price set by the CLT. This ensures other local people can still afford to buy.
The Big Issue has reported on the recent completion of the London CLT’s project in Mile End, where 23 new homes were built on the site of a redeveloped psychiatric hospital and sold at roughly one third of market value, a feat made possible through the ground-breaking idea of linking house prices to local earnings. In Liverpool, the Granby Four Streets CLT (pictured above) has restored 10 once-empty terraced homes in a rundown neighbourhood. So far, five have been rented out by the CLT, with three more put up for sale, prices linked to the city’s living wage.
The NHS is known for saving lives, but with the housing crisis lurching into a full-blown nationwide emergency, the architect and TV presenter George Clarke has called for a new NHS – a ‘national home service’.
The scheme, he suggests, would bring together Britain’s greatest designers, planners and construction teams to create a new generation of affordable, modern council houses, transforming the way the country views lower-cost accommodation.
“We need a national home service where the government commissions the very best design and builds teams to create amazing council homes,” says Clarke.
Known for his renovation work and innovative use of small spaces, Clarke has proved a tireless campaigner on housing issues. Following the Channel 4 programmes The Empty Homes Show and The Great British Property Scandal, he was made an independent advisor to the government on empty homes in 2012, tasked with finding new ways to bring derelict properties back into use (the latest figures showing 200,000 homes in England sitting empty for at least six months during 2016)
Clarke has also backed The Big Issue’s Fill ’Em Up campaign – our own efforts to get local and central government to find new uses for empty buildings and fund more community-led empty homes projects. “There are hundreds of thousands of empty homes that could and should be saved from the bulldozers and refurbished,” he says.
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The restless architect also recently announced ambitious plans for another new project, the Ministry of Building and Innovation (MOBI). The idea is to inspire young people to enter the construction, design and housing professions and transform the way we think plan and construct homes both in the UK and abroad.
In conjunction with Teesside University, George and his project team have developed a suite of courses in advanced home construction, ranging from HNCs right through to MSc level. The course will take a new look at the building industry, bringing together multidisciplinary facets from design, technology and advanced manufacturing processes.
“To have a long term and stable place to call ‘home’ should be a fundamental right for everyone in a modern, civilised society,” Clarke explains. “MOBI won’t be able to solve all the problems in the housing industry but by harnessing the talents, ideas and energy of the young people of today and by actively disrupting the current failing system, it is certainly going to give it a try.”
Got a radical idea that could solve the housing crisis? Tell us @BigIssue / firstname.lastname@example.org
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