Good design begins at home

Terence Conran says we deserve better than boxy new houses with fake 'traditional' trimmings

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An Englishman's home is, supposedly, his castle. These days an Englishman's home - if it's newly built - is a stronghold against nothing more than the fear and suspicion of change.

For the most part, house builders remain adamant that the identical estates that they build from Bodmin to Billericay to Bradford simply reflect the demands of the public. Yet the boom in "loft living" - adapting old industrial buildings for residential use - that has swept London and other big cities suggests that our living patterns are changing, that there is a real demand for domestic environments that are more imaginative and more flexible than the traditional two-up, two-down.

As we approach the end of the century, isn't it about time we had the confidence to develop a style of domestic architecture of its time, rather than one that is kitsched out with the inappropriate accoutrements of past times - fake Georgian porticoes and coachlamps, ersatz Tudor beams and the like? Rather than row upon row of identikit houses, couldn't we look at introducing some variety in the sizes of plot, the use of materials, the means of demarcating boundaries? New estates built by local people using, where possible, local materials would address the communities they are meant to serve. Consultation and representation can result in houses where people take a pride in their broader environment, fostering a sense of community.

The house builders may tell you that they are simply building what the public wants. But if the public is given no other choice, the public has to accept what is on offer. If you do not offer alternatives, how do you know if what you are offering is what people truly want?

The layouts of most homes today still conform to an antiquated mode of living. As pressure is put on both the amount of time available to spend with our family and friends and the amount of space available for our homes, open-plan living spaces - where the cooking, entertaining, eating and relaxing all take place - make practical and financial sense. They also provide an opportunity for far greater ingenuity and individuality than three separate rooms.

When I was a judge for the City of Architecture and Design award, one of the things that particularly impressed the whole panel was the approach to housing in Glasgow's winning bid. The council and the housing associations actually consulted their tenants about the plans to replace some of the meanest high-rise blocks that the Sixties produced - and the answer, despite the errors of the high-rise, was good modern housing. These people weren't afraid of the benefits of technology; they didn't want to hide kitchen appliances behind panels adorned with wheatsheaf motifs, didn't shy away from using contemporary materials such as concrete or fibreglass. They weren't afraid of modern design; and they relished the opportunity that the consultation process gave them for stamping a little of their own personalities on the look and layout of their homes.

While private developments give little cause for optimism, there are encouraging signs that new public buildings are back on the agenda, and that the criteria by which they are judged take quality and design into consideration.

The government-funded organisation English Partnerships is responsible for bringing together private, public and voluntary groups to plan and build new developments. The launch last month of its guide Time For Design, suggests that it cares about our built heritage. Its criteria for partners seeking financial support show a holistic approach to buildings and their environments. All buildings affect people, whether they live in them, work in them orpass them in the street.

New projects should be sympathetic to existing buildings and the general landscape. They should acknowledge that both new projects and regeneration projects are not just about the exterior of the building: they are about the interiors, too, the fixtures and fittings - specifications should penetrate to the detail of design.

Good design improves the quality of life. Far too often, it seems, design is viewed as expensive, superficial styling. It is not - design is fundamental to success or failure, whether of a new product or a new building.

The writer is a designer, retailer and restaurateur.

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