Social housing. The very term carries with it a heavy load of preconceptions: not homes but housing, not belonging to you but to someone else. Glance at the design and aesthetics of our homes and it is quickly clear where we sit in the pecking order.
One problem is that developers are so keen to mass-produce "safe" designs that few even use architects for new social-housing schemes. The result is dull uniformity. "Most house-builders think that good design takes longer and costs more, which is bad news when they're working fast and to tight budgets," says the fashion and property designer Wayne Hemingway, the chair of Building for Life, a panel presenting annual awards for new housing.
There is another way, though. Time House at Clapham Junction in south London has been built on a brownfield site that had been empty for some years. It is a new building of 36 apartments, due for completion in September. All are being sold under shared-ownership schemes, some allocated specifically for key workers. The scheme was jointly designed by the developer Berkeley First and the Thames Valley Housing Association, which will co-own and manage the apartments after completion, with residents buying a share of their home and the housing association buying the remainder. (The financial details will be announced nearer completion.) It is in an area that suffers from a shortage of homes for young, usually single, renters and buyers.
Time House defies expectations about social housing. It is a dense block of studios and one- and two-bedroom flats in a "stepped" design, with each higher storey marginally smaller than the one below it. There is plenty of outdoor space in the form of private balconies and a large communal, landscaped roof terrace with seating and decking and views towards Chelsea and the Thames. It is well located in the heart of one of London's busiest transport and shopping hubs and not in the kind of urban backwater reserved for so many social-housing schemes. A modern version of a landmark clock that used to stand on the site is proudly reproduced on the façade.
"Our philosophy has been about reducing the gap between what people can afford and the quality they expect," says Matthew Biddle of Berkeley First. "'Affordable' is a term that's fast losing its meaning." One reason that Time House does not look like many other social-housing schemes, he says, is that a housing association was involved at the design stage. "This cooperation is absolutely vital to change the image of social housing," says Yolande Barnes, head of research at the property consultancy Savills and a judge in the annual Building for Life awards. "There's a mixed-tenure estate in Borough, south London, where the housing association forced the developer to improve the design. As a result, the private part of the estate is less attractive and drags down the overall appearance of the scheme. Gradually, more housing associations will begin to act like corporate clients. They'll recognise that they are the customers receiving the output of the builders and will start to demand more improvements."
But there is some way to go with most social-housing schemes. Usually, it is still a case of identical small "units" tucked away in awkward corners of swanky private developments or built separately in mini-ghettos in less desirable parts of town. People are, however, realising that this needs to change, and the rallying cries are coming from all quarters. "Everyone is entitled to live in a well-designed home," says Steven Proctor, the chairman of the housing group of the Royal Institute of British Architects. "We believe that all housing should be of the same quality and standard."
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) has identified a series of designs on a range of schemes across the UK that show how varied and interesting social housing can be. "Good design is about including people in their community," says CABE's Michael Murray-Fennell. "We can all move in to a new home and try to rectify a problem with a door or a kitchen. But what can we do when the property is ugly or badly designed or a window looks out on to a brick wall because the scheme is poorly thought out?"
A sea change might be on the horizon, though, thanks to the housing market's downturn. "Developers used to rely on buy-to-let investors for buying many low-cost homes, but private landlords buying one or two units don't care about design," says Yolande Barnes. "They want to know about square feet, yields and appreciation, but not aesthetics. In the current market, though, investors have all but disappeared. Developers will have to pay a lot more attention to housing associations, which will be a big part of their business. It's time for those housing associations to flex their muscles. That way, design of social housing really will improve."
Shared-ownership apartments in Time House ( www.time-house.co.uk) go on sale in late March
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