Architecture: Yesterday's mistakes, tomorrow's ghettos: Housing associations are suffering from a lack of imagination, say Julian Birch and Peter Dormer

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The Independent Culture
ARCHITECTS have lost their leading role in the construction of public housing, and most accept that the old system under which they designed and supervised the building of every estate had its problems.

But many claim that the new public developments are ghettos in the making; that the mistakes of the Sixties - hurriedly, badly or unimaginatively designed and overlarge estates populated only by the poor - are being made once again.

Local councils no longer build homes, their architects' departments are defunct or barely breathing, and those in private practice are shunned as too expensive or too demanding of quality. Who needs bespoke design for cheap public housing?

These changes stem from the 1988 Housing Act, when housing associations took over from local authorities as the main providers of social housing. The associations are grant-aided by government, but they have to raise money from the City. Last year the grant was 72 per cent of their needs, but by 1995 it may be only 55 per cent, and many fear that the associations will have to make up the difference by raising rents and lowering standards.

In the late Eighties, construction companies began offering housing associations fixed-price, design-and- build contracts. The builders employ their own architects to design a set of patterns, and clients choose what they want. Some associations are generating their own patterns, so the architect is being demoted from team leader to just another supplier.

Jon Watson, development director of North, one of Britain's largest housing associations, says the only thing he misses about the old system is the higher costs. North has 28 standard house types designed by its in- house architects, and uses its buying power to strike volume deals with builders to reduce costs.

Builders like clients who buy in bulk. 'I don't believe design standards are prejudiced in any way by that,' says Michael Hill, a director of the building company Countryside in Partnership. The firm uses 21 standard house types in its South Thames Housing Partnership, a joint venture with three associations that is producing 1,500 homes.

'There's little point in going to the cost, risk and delay of commissioning an architect to design a two-bed, four- person house when you have already designed five of them before,' Mr Hill argues. 'There are only so many ways you can design one before you start to repeat yourself.'

'I didn't feel that the old system was the best way to procure housing,' says Bernard Hunt, of the architects Hunt Thompson Associates. 'It did not mean the best partnership between designer and builder. It became tilted towards confrontation and was counter-productive.'

But design-and-build can put too much emphasis on reducing initial costs and not enough on the long- term value of the house to a tenant, or the costs of maintaining the property.

In order to work properly, housing estates need an overall vision and a coherent plan that takes into account current use, future needs and the relationship of the estate to the rest of the town or city. David Levitt, of Levitt Bernstein Associates, says: 'The question is whether you're simply trying to produce more homes by using more efficient means, or more homes by cutting standards.' All manner of factors can distort the design of an estate, but the social mix is fundamental. If housing associations are forced to raise rents, only people on housing benefit can afford them.

When David Page issued his report on housing for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in April, he warned that the average income of tenants on new housing association estates was just 33 per cent of the national average. Estates are being populated by poor families, with many or most of the adults unemployed and child densities three to six times the level recommended by the Department of the Environment and the Home Office.

And the new estates, created on greenfield sites and poorly connected to towns or cities, are too large. Since 1988, there has been a shift from rehabilitating old houses to building new ones. Greenfield sites cost less to develop than urban ones, and buying in bulk means cheaper houses: hence the temptation to buy large estates.

The Rowntree report encourages associations to develop smaller schemes - of up to 40 dwellings - because it believes these can be integrated more easily with existing communities. The report urges, as does the Royal Institute of British Architects, that more street properties should be bought and refurbished.

But can housing associations afford such expensive proposals? Certainly most of them find smaller infill sites especially expensive because these do not offer economies of scale. 'The overriding criterion at the moment is initial capital cost,' says Mr Hunt. 'But housing has a role to play in creating whole communities, and it will be a tragedy if we don't look to that.'

Some architects remain optimistic. Mr Hunt believes that design will become vital in the public and private sectors once it is realised that, guided by an architect, new design and building methods allow individuals to choose and design their own homes. 'There is a large new theme to be worked, which should give benefits of efficiency and individual choice,' he says. 'Somebody could come along and stun the house market.'

(Photograph omitted)