Housing is social: it must be a project in which we all share and defend as a human right, not simply another commodity. Yet failing models persist. The State is partly culpable, due to its unfulfilled reliance on the market, but architects must also reflect on our own roles in the process, and collectively challenge the status quo.
It was only in the years after the second world war, when national government was driving the process, that we have ever come close to building the quantity of social housing needed, and recent years have seen both a decline in volume, and the idea of social housing tarnished by mistakes made in that period (including poor construction and lack of resident involvement). But today there is no excuse for repeating those errors, and local authorities remain in a unique position to build homes. They can be innovative, developing robust procurement processes and ambitious architecture. Some London Boroughs are now building higher-quality homes than the market.
That some enlightened and wealthy local authorities are again starting to control and invest in the delivery of housing is a positive sign, but for councils to significantly expand their housebuilding activity across the country, their ability to borrow must be addressed along with questions such as the impact of electoral cycles on planning.
In the meantime, architects have a role in developing exemplary housing, and in enabling incremental change to existing homes and neighbourhoods, addressing the failings of built fabric and realising the latent potential of housing estates so that they better serve their communities. Real collaboration with client groups and occupants can deliver projects of architectural generosity while minimising disruption and upheaval. Good processes are crucial to successful housing outcomes.
Architects can also play a role in fostering alternative forms of tenure and housing procurement that operate to varying degrees outside the market. In the UK, cooperatives, community land trusts and co-housing are often seen as ‘niche’ interests, but they offer opportunities for the creation of homes through active participation by residents. Elsewhere in Europe architects are closely involved in these movements.
When we design housing we are creating the settings for our collective and personal experiences, places that will support our right to the city. The way forward for social housing lies in good design and robust processes enabled by people with a broad understanding of the issues – both social, economic and political. Architects can reclaim their historic role if they are prepared to challenge status quos, collaborate and adopt a diversity of roles. The future for housing needs us, along with community enablers and planners, to work together and to think differently.