Housing – the Future?

BEFS newest team member and Policy Officer, Ailsa Macfarlane, reflects on the Scottish Government’s recent conference on housing.

Housing – the Future, run by Scottish Government Planning & Architecture Division (PAD) as part of the RIAS Festival of Architecture 2017, in conjunction with Architecture & Design Scotland (ADS), was a high-density programme.

Kevin Stewart’s Ministerial address focused on supporting the delivery of well-built homes to develop ‘great places’ – the current planning review to ‘strengthen and simplify’ the process was seen as a key element within this. The Minister also took the opportunity to launch the new £90K Challenge Fund, designed to enable those wishing to build their own home to make bold decisions based on their needs – due to open for applications, late October 2017.

The day was split into three distinct areas of housing focus: Strategic Scale, City and Town centre delivery models, and Rural design opportunities.

During Strategic Scale we heard about the importance of consultation, of affordability and solutions from the past informing the future; we heard what is possible when a city (Copenhagen) can take a long-term view, investing in infrastructure to support development of a new municipal district.

There were diverse examples from those with responsibility for Mancunian re-population developments, made possible through joint ventures and international investment – developments intended to enable a city to broaden/deepen its tax base, as well as house its population; and of those advocating for diversity of supply through self-build, small brown-field site development, co-housing and more adaptable homes for our aging population.

The City and Town Centre delivery models showed different ends of the scale spectrum, from smaller bespoke developments where ‘custom builders’ choose from a design-guide of pre-agreed solutions; to the tallest modular-built structure in Europe.

Within Rural Design, attendees saw the greatest range of new opportunities presented – here the focus on place, legacy and environment were at their most overt.  Mat Johnson was passionate about allowing the ‘story of a building to continue’ – exploring how existing housing stock can be adapted, mindful to the issues of practicality around developing some rural sites.

Different models for building were examined: we heard of a collective custom-build tenement, and also R.House units designed for a rural environment and rural economy. Each demonstrating the evolution of a building type, evolved for modern living and modern environmental standards – but rooted in their sense of place.

Within each section of the day there was time set aside for Q&A – and whilst the topics ranged more widely the questions grouped themselves into queries around: funding challenges with lenders – regarding both planning and building type; how land value can be realised for greater civic benefit; and the planning possibilities/realities around custom/self-build schemes. All topics which presented more challenges than solutions.

Despite reiteration from many speakers that place making and quality, as well as customisation were key – what came across during the conference was that land-value, and speed of construction (urban and rural), as well as personalisation, were currently at the core of our housing future.

Rooted in place, considering individual needs, embedded within unique landscapes – should these not be integral to the future of housing? Or are we looking to/for strategically planned, mass developments and modular building opportunities which can be quickly created and personalised according to need?

The lack of examination throughout the day of the role existing housing stock, and the historic built environment more generally, can play in this multi-layered housing future seemed to tightly crop the housing picture, limiting a fuller view.

Enabling developments of many kinds and utilising the existing housing stock to play a part in delivering quality place making should be both possible and preferable – but do the connected questions of infrastructure and land value currently dictate the direction of travel?

Ailsa Macfarlane, Policy & Advocacy Officer