House Doctor

IN CASE you haven't noticed, there is a glut of new housebuilding going on at the moment; the building industry is going through one of its rare periodic up-turns. And, since it is well known in the trade that what goes up must come down, they are going at it full throttle.

The boom is due to a number of factors, including reported sightings of a stable economy, and the much bandied-about government projection that, despite a falling birth rate, the country will need another four million homes by 2016. Housebuilders are doubtless relying on this last statistic to persuade the planners to let them build wherever, and whatever, they like.

I've got no objection to anyone building houses. I was a bricklayer for 15 years, and, believe me, building houses is one of the most creative, worthwhile things you can do for a living - as long as you don't mind getting up at five-thirty in the morning, that is. But what troubles me about this boom is that wherever you are, the houses all seem to look the same, and they are invariably described as "luxury executive homes".

The "luxury" bit is meant to be taken with a pinch of salt. There isn't much that is luxurious about the materials or techniques used to construct these buildings. They are usually made of timber frame or cavity wall construction, with factory-made interlocking concrete tiles on the roofs. And the internal partition walls are softwood studwork with plasterboard tacked on either side. (If one person sneezes, everyone else hears it.)

And as for "executive", well, this is designed to appeal to our instincts for upward mobility, but it is meaningless. Do executives want different- shaped rooms to motor mechanics? Do they need special toilets? (Is there something we haven't been told?) No, the reason is simple: you need an executive's salary to be able to keep up the mortgage repayments. In terms of value for money, I don't think I've ever seen a new house built by a speculative builder that could hold a candle to a decent old Victorian pile.

Of course, modern housebuilders will protest that Victorian houses were also built cheaply, and that, at the time, their mock-classic designs were ridiculed, but that we have gradually come to love them. This may be true, but Victorian houses at least had solid brick walls, built with lime mortar, and their internal partitions, if not brick, were seasoned timber faced up with split laths and plastered with lime and horsehair. They were sturdy enough to stand the test of time. How many of today's new houses will still be around in a hundred years, to be subjects of the debate?

Some people will always swallow the advertising dream, and yearn after a new house. They think a new house is like a new car; that it must, by definition, be better. So how about some life-expectancy figures from today's housebuilders, so that we can make an informed judgment on the value of their wares?


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