Time to get with the 21st century

Britain needs new homes – but will Britons want them? While we all fawn over Georgian this and Victorian that, Helen Brown tracks down the fresh designs that will make you question your period prejudice
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The Independent Online

With a population predicted to rise from 61 million to 65 million in the next 20 years, it is clear that Britain needs more homes. An estimated 200,000 per year, in fact – and that's before we even consider the effects of rising second-home ownership or the falling number of people per household.

But, as a nation, we're suspicious of new builds: all the most innovative and desirable new properties seems to be at the two extremes of the spectrum, with the most exciting architects being drawn either to the challenge of good social housing or the blank-cheque possibilities of landmark luxury builds.

Those of us who fall between the two camps of "no choice" and "all the choice in the world" are struggling to see the appeal of the many monotonous new homes being built around the country. They're dull and, we fear, not very well crafted.

According to the first national audit of new private housing design published by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) earlier this year, it seems our suspicions are correct. Cabe claims that 82 per cent of homes built over the past five years aren't well designed and fail to measure up to the building industry's own benchmarks. Nearly a third are so poor, says Cabe, they wouldn't have got planning permission as they stand.

When I bought my own home outside Chelmsford last month, my estate agent sighed when I stated my requirement for a pre-war house. "That's what everybody wants," he said, "something with character. They're rare and it'll either cost you lots more per square metre than the new builds, or it'll need renovating."

When they're done right, new builds are designed to meet the needs of 21st-century Britons far more efficiently than Victorian terraces and country piles. They should conserve energy, offer light and space, and include all the Wi-Fi and plumbing needed. My friends and I are spending thousands knocking through walls and ripping out asbestos in our charming old money pits. But are we on the cusp of a building revolution? Are our younger siblings going to find themselves offered new-build properties they can trust and admire?

"I think that's the way things are going," says Steven Lees of smartnewhomes.com. "The problem over the past 20 years has been the volume of 'standardised' houses that developers have been churning out - building and selling quickly. Creativity means waiting for planning permission and it hasn't been in their commercial interests. For us, it's about changing mindsets and waiting for the reaction to the more innovative projects by smaller developers to prove their worth. Buying a new home should be like buying a new car: it should be aesthetically appealing to you as an individual. It should meet your requirements for gadgetry. It should be more environmentally sustainable and energy efficient than the old."

While this is the hope, the aspirations of the revolutionaries often find their foundations knocked out by the fiscal realities. When Wayne Hemingway criticised the "Wimpeyfication" and "Barrattification" of Britain, he was delighted to be approached by George Wimpey who asked him to co-design the £70m, 800-home Staiths South Bank development in Gateshead. The idea was to combine modern design with a nod to community values. But the result was deemed "lacklustre", "rigid and repetitive" by Cabe.

But there is hope. Steven Proctor – head of the Riba Housing Group and of Proctor Matthews architects – says that architects are now homing in on the middle-market. "We're looking back to the 1960s when architects like Eric Lyons created exciting community housing with cutting-edge designs that were desirable to young professionals. We're doing it today by focusing on the eco-house and by giving new properties real character through the use of good-quality tactile materials. We're paying attention to detail. For a long time architects were exiled from the interior of new homes but now there's a demand for us to get back inside."

Proctor Matthews' "Abode" development – part of a 21-hectare project outside Harlow – has been described by John Prescott as "a model of the communities we have to build", combining the sense of occasion afforded by one-off houses with the economies of volume house building. The 82-dwelling "home zone" won a gold-standard accolade in Cabe's Building for Life awards. Its "innovative, desirable and affordable" philosophy should serve as a blueprint for many more new developments in the years to come.

Chimney Pot Park

A glorious adventure in urban regeneration, Chimney Pot Park comes from the avant-garde drawing board of the hip developers Urban Splash. They have taken rows of more than 300 red-brick, Coronation Street-style terraced houses, kept the traditional facings and rebuilt everything behind them to create "upside-down" homes with two double bedrooms on the ground floor and an upstairs living space that uses all the internal space right up to the roof, incorporating a mezzanine. "Loft living in a terrace house" is how they bill it: the perfect combination of cosy and cool.

The houses start from £130,000, but under the First-Time Buyers' Initiative, people only need to raise a minimum of 50 per cent through their mortgage, and English Partnerships funds the rest. www.chimneypotpark.co.uk

Brocks Mount, Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Somerset

For those who want the convenience of new build in the character of old school, West of England Developers have created "Brocks Mount' in Somerset. It's set just outside the quintessentially English village of Stoke-sub-Hamdon. Like the older properties in the village, the new homes' traditional exteriors feature mellow stone, natural slate, thatch and timber. They all include fully fitted kitchens and reclaimed oak floorboards.

Prices start at £250,000 for a two-bed apartment and rise to £455,000 for the renovated Church Band Hall (Grade-II listed) which is now a four-bedroom home. Palmer Snell Land: 01935 642 000

Waterstone Park, Greenhithe, Kent

There's a splash of Bauhaus in the bright, bold, boxy design of these houses. Just 17 minutes from central London by rail, the Waterstone Park development is set within seven acres of parkland. Countryside Properties has created a range of one- and two-bed apartments and two-, three- and four-bed homes. There are 146 homes in the newest part ("Fusion") and seven of these will be mews houses (like those pictured). Light and space have been maximised with full-height glazing, conservatories and roof terraces.

They will range from around £170,000 to £420,000.www.waterstonepark.co.uk/fusion

Abode, Newhall, Harlow

Described by John Prescott as "a model of the communities we have to build", Abode is a part of the unique Newhall development 25 miles north-east of London near Old Harlow – a quaint small town. Newhall is unique in comprising four developments designed by four leading architects. Abode, designed by Proctor Matthews architects, won a Cabe Building for Life gold-standard award for its 82 striking dwellings, which range from single-bedroom apartments to five-bedroom houses. While their blockish appearance is contemporary, upper-level facing of dark rough-sawn timber shiplap boards reflects local farm buildings.

There's one house still available at £325,000. One- and two-bedroom apartments start from £150,000.Countryside Properties: 0845 402 3261

Birchleigh, Holborough, Kent

Can you picture yourself leaning on your wooden balcony of a morning, gazing out at the ducks landing on the lake? It sounds like a scene from a holiday cottage, not a lifestyle for modern new-build living. But Berkeley Homes have built these traditional New England-style homes just five miles from the M2 and even closer to the M20 to provide a tranquil home for commuters. Rather than splitting the young professionals from the families, the development mixes apartments with houses all built from sustainable timber and fitted with "Super E technology" (a Canadian insulation and ventilation system designed to improve air quality and reduce heat loss). Interiors are high spec: kitchens include Bosch stainless steel appliances. Bathrooms feature contemporary wall tiling and suites by Hansgrohe and Villeroy and Boch.

One-bedroom apartments start from £160,000, two-beds from £175,000. Three-bedroom houses are available from £250,000, four-beds from £300,000 and five-beds at £420,000. Berkeley Homes: 01634 244 666