The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Architecture and Happiness – or who deserves good design

15th December 2014

I am a chief executive of a small housing association that has a modest development programme, and we take the view that good design of new developments is very important. I am aware that there is a big tension between good design and producing lower cost ‘boxes’. Private developers and housing associations (and local authorities), all want to maximise the use of the footprint of a piece of land, but for different reasons.

Unfortunately too much design of our homes across all tenures, is frankly uninspiring and dull. What message does it say about me if I live in a poorly designed ‘box’ with sketchy access services, uncared for common parts and prairie like landscaping?

Housing associations, who build a lot of homes each year should be more concerned about this than we are. What might be the long term value in social cohesion in having designed and built homes that say ‘we value our homes because we have spent time and money building designing them and part of that is about valuing you the resident’?. I wonder if the designers of those really interesting office spaces for example, calculate that the expenditure on posh sofas, breakout areas, hot desking etc will give them a return in better productivity? Is this related? If so, could the same be true of a reduction in crime and vandalism if homes and estates are not perceived as just ugly, utilitarian and poorly maintained?

Does architecture and design have an almost moral dimension? Should anyone building and designing new homes be required to contemplate the value of possible the moral uplift? I feel sure that someone could put a cash value on well-designed homes and impute this as monetised social value.

The converse view is that is it far too airy-fairy to talk about design above the necessary minimum, ie to fit more homes onto the footprint of land available and good architecture is expensive, when money is too tight to mention and saving a few quid here and there on the ‘nice to have’ but not essential stuff, will mean more homes – even if they are rather less lovely. With a performance indicator on unit costs starting to tick up you might be forgiven for thinking … ‘surely our job in life in the sector is to build and manage as many homes as we can, and, given the enormous and growing demand, we can’t afford to pay a bit more for fancy architecture. Good design in the current housing market in London for example sense is not necessary pre condition because (a) our customers have a limited choice and (b) the demand is so over whelming we can build almost anything and people will live in it.

An extremist view from the other end of the spectrum about design and happiness is proposed by Alain De Botton, who argues that the ancient Greeks took the view – (and my apologies to any real philosophers reading this ‘shorthand’ take on Plotinus) – who stressed the value of beauty, (and for this read good design), and its capacity to reinforce the perception of the qualities of goodness. Perceived beauty, he argues, is valuable as it is capable of reinforcing goodness or the perception of goodness through beauty. Surely not a bad thing, if a little rarefied! The converse of this is perhaps more testable in the real world- that the perception of ugliness and the opposite of beauty, reinforces the perception of ‘evil’, however defined.

What the utilitarian argument doesn’t address is the value in future proofing new homes from a demand point of view. Quite apart from the aesthetics and whilst we no longer worry about the moral rectitude of the working classes, we are all concerned about crime and the impact of historically poor estate design on perceived and actual levels of threat and delinquent behaviour.

So although the philosophy is a bit rarefied, I would say it makes good business sense, quite apart from a moral good argument, that well designed, and well managed and maintained homes, work towards a larger sense of social value and inclusiveness where excellent design can allow/ enable people to ‘say’ that their homes speak well about them, and that their landlord invested significantly in time and resource to make a good place and environment to live in. Something almost about being ‘cared for’ and a sense where the vernacular design or the pile em high ‘box’, only talks about someone else’s expediency.

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