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Friday, February 09, 2007
CABE's starry ideas
CABE has published the third of its regional housing design audits this week, and the usual critique of design quality that comes whenever the watchdog mentions housing. It claims that nearly a third of all housing should never have been given planning permission, and a staggering 82% of all housing is failing to reach a 'good' standard. “The task is not one of doubling the number of exemplar schemes, but eradicating the unacceptable.”

We have heard this so often from CABE that, unfortunately, the message is now irritating those at the head of the big housebuilders. While Barratt performed third worst out of the big players, its recently-retired chief executive David Pretty came out citing the many awards they have won. For the record, the worst was Bellway and second-worst Wimpey, while the best was Berkeley Homes. Strangely, none of Crest Nicholson's schemes were examined, providing no evidence to assess its continual claims to 'design excellence'.

Recognising that the continual carping isn't helping, CABE also announced a new idea to star-grade homes according to design quality. They are hoping that this will provide a carrot to developers, while also enabling the great unwashed to see if they are buying a well-designed home or not.

A strange idea, isn't it. We buy goods that are star-graded for energy efficiency, or that received ratings from retailers for overall value and performance. We go to restaurants that receive star ratings, and Building Design is already comparing the CABE system to Michelin stars. But we don't buy clothes that are star-rated according to design, for instance. Generally the public is trusted to be able to look at something and decide whether they like it. In the case of a restaurant, because you can't taste the food before you buy it, stars make sense.

But for buildings, it is more complex. Buyers are not good at reading design quality from glossy brochures and site layouts, when buying off-plan. But a substantial number of new homes are not bought like this, and buyers visit the site, see a real physical show home, and should be able to make their minds up. So an argument for star-rating starts to appear patronising. But the issues skew again. Unlike in clothing, for instance, consumers buying new homes don't have an enormous amount of choice in what they buy. Research shows that location is the key factor alongside price. If a buyer doesn't really like the design, they generally aren't able to just go elsewhere for a better product. So on this grounds, star-rating is perhaps not patronising, but simply useless. The pessimists will say that it won't make the slightest difference as the market is stacked in favour of the housebuilders, who have the consumer locked to them.

But after all, the real aim behind this idea is a version of naming and shaming; more stick than carrot again. And maybe it will produce some effects; a lower design-rated home losing a little value, as consumers may not be willing to pay so much for an inferior product. A strange way of making housing more affordable, perhaps? The poor will buy the crap stuff, while the wealthy will luxuriate in another status symbol, the five-star-design house which commands a premium price, a bit like 'Taste the Difference' ham in Sainsburys.

Suddenly it sounds like this idea isn't that well thought through after all. It is either patronising to the public, or anti-egalitarian; two points that play right into the hands of the housebuilding PR machine. Homes for the people, that the people like buying, no matter what the design police say. The sad truth is that the public is caught in a trap; unable to make a genuine choice on the basis of their taste. Short of a mandatory approval on design from CABE before planning permission is granted, I've got only one idea that could solve this. Housebuilders submit their plot layouts or masterplans to CABE for rubber-stamping, but don't actually design the houses. Then, with a cue from the new fad for pre-fab, buyers, get to choose which of a variety of modular designs they get to plonk on their chosen plot. You will end up with a fabulously un-coordinated new housing 'estate', with the mock-Tudor lining up next to the modernist next to the neo-vernacular number by a sensitive architect, in a wonderful demonstration of popular choice. And at the end of the year, the totals will be totted up and we can see what kind of design the public really likes best, a bit like the Times bestseller list.

Shame that, really, people like to live in relatively homogenous environments, where everything 'goes' together. Because ultimately, judging the design quality of a whole estate and awarding it a star will be a futile exercise. It will only work on the level of the jostling for one-upmanship and gongs handed out at Hilton dinners that the male pride of chief execs enjoys. Oh, wait, who's in charge of all these housebuilders? Perhaps it will be a success, after all.

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