Build, don't repair

Most of Britain's houses are old, dilapidated, badly designed and inefficient. And their high cost ensures they'll stay that way unless we rethink our priorities, says Patrick Keiller
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The Independent Online

During the last 200 years or so, in the UK and other industrial economies, the amount of human labour required to produce the necessities of life has been substantially reduced, so that most of us are much wealthier now than we might have been had we lived, say, a hundred years ago. Food, for example, is generally a much smaller part of household expenditure than it was for most people in the 19th century. More recently, clothes and many consumer goods have become much cheaper than they used to be.

During the last 200 years or so, in the UK and other industrial economies, the amount of human labour required to produce the necessities of life has been substantially reduced, so that most of us are much wealthier now than we might have been had we lived, say, a hundred years ago. Food, for example, is generally a much smaller part of household expenditure than it was for most people in the 19th century. More recently, clothes and many consumer goods have become much cheaper than they used to be.

Buildings, however, are still very expensive. There have been major developments in technology, such as the use of cement and steel and the introduction of mechanical plant, but as a process, building is still very labour intensive. Other labour-intensive processes are now often carried out in places where labour is cheaper, but it is hard to do this with building. Building is, after all, the creation of place; it's difficult to do it somewhere else.

The UK's built environment reflects this in various ways. Much of it is rather dilapidated. Public buildings – schools and hospitals, say – are often undermaintained, and few new ones are built. Architecture attracts more media interest than it used to, but this is mostly devoted to a few high-profile examples – museums, galleries and so on – where the buildings themselves are increasingly thought of as being in the category of culture, or other substantial structures which are built because they generate very high revenues – airports, say, or the most modern, prestigious office projects.

Most new building, however, is ephemeral, peripheral and insubstantial – supermarkets, warehouses, fast-food outlets, motels, business and leisure parks. This is the new architecture of the consumer economy, and where much of the innovation occurs. These buildings tend to be one- or two-storeys high and are quick and cheap to build, often involving some prefabrication.

New houses, though similarly insubstantial, don't seem to be part of this consumerist architecture. In the UK, apart from the boom in luxury apartment building in some cities, house building is in decline and has been since the mid 1960s. The average age of the housing stock is rising. About 160,000 houses are built each year in the UK, representing 0.67 per cent of the total stock of 24 million dwellings.

Nearly all these are additions to the total, as rising incomes and the trend towards smaller households keep up the demand for residential space. The idea of replacing old houses has largely disappeared from the UK, even though many are in poor condition and make inefficient use of energy. The realities of the housing market and the high cost of building dictate that even the most unimpressive owner-occupied houses are going to have to last for ever.

At the same time, new housebuilding doesn't seem to be popular, either with buyers, most of whom are said to prefer older houses, or with society generally, which sees housebuilding increasingly as a wasteful and irreversible process producing ugly developments on land that was previously rural. In prosperous areas, however, housing is in such high demand that there is scant hope of buyers exercising consumer pressure on producers. Housebuilding remains the most backward sector of the building industry, with the exception of the even more problematic house repair and maintenance sector.

In Japan, where houses have been more ephemeral structures, it is not uncommon for home-owners to rebuild their houses on their existing sites, and housebuilding is still a major industry. Many new houses are produced by companies such as Daiwa, Sekisui and Toyota, using computerised production methods that allow factory production of one-off houses, but these companies don't seem to be considering export to the West. Apparently, the culturally specific aspects of houses make the house less attractive to a global producer than a more mobile product, such as a car. In a global economy, it seems, houses are too local.

Various initiatives have set out to modernise the UK's housebuilding. So far, the Peabody Trust's revival of prefabrication, in its Japanese-style development of flats near City Road in north London, appears the most successful. It seems significant that this project's use of a technology developed for fast-food outlets and motels has been pioneered, not in the private sector, but by one of the oldest housing charities in the country.

Until quite recently, it was beginning to seem as if the house, and domesticity in general, had become unfashionable subjects in an era characterised by mobility, communications and the establishment of identity and status through work. Only the emergence of the "loft" seemed to challenge this perception, until one remembered that a loft was originally an artist's studio – a workplace where some of the most fashionable kind of work is carried out.

Today, however, images of domestic interiors flood the media. Fashionable people proclaim their preference for staying in. The idea of postmodernity epitomised by the condition of being constantly in motion, in constant communication with everyone and everywhere, is passé. Nonetheless, one suspects that just as TV programmes about cooking are watched by people too exhausted to cook, the present interest in domestic architecture might indicate a similar incapacity to achieve the real thing.

In the past two decades, the development of telecommunications, supermarkets and so on followed the introduction of computers. Something similar has happened to housebuilding in Japan, but in the supply-constrained UK, the effect of new technology seems more likely to be felt as new wealth that drives up prices. Globalisation, rather than neutralising the significance of place, seems to accentuate its value. The UK's housing market is typified by enormous price rises at preferred locations, while elsewhere houses might be literally unsaleable.

The Government seems to address housing firstly in the context of social exclusion, then in the discussion about "brownfield" sites and urban regeneration. Housebuilding itself is left largely to the private sector. The dilapidation and poor quality of the housing stock, the extraordinarily high cost of housing, and the fact that the private sector has never been very good at producing housing of any quality, seem to be beyond consideration. Perhaps the majority of owner-occupiers are assumed to be content, forgetful that high house prices ultimately impoverish almost everyone.

It may be that none of this really matters. There's no reason why old houses can't be patched up for ever. Perhaps, in an increasingly virtual world, buildings simply aren't important. The question remains, however, why, in one of the world's wealthiest economies, do so many of us live in what are so often old, small, badly designed, dilapidated dwellings? And why we pay so dearly for the privilege?

Patrick Keiller's film, 'The Dilapidated Dwelling', about the future of the UK's housing stock, will be shown tomorrow at 6pm at the LSE's Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House, 99 Aldwych, London WC2 (seating limited) as part of Ruth Maclennan's artist's residency at the LSE Archive. A discussion will follow the screening

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