A Housing Design Audit
for England

Overview

With the drive to deliver more homes across the country has come a loud call for those developments to be of a high standard of design in order to deliver high quality, liveable and sustainable environments for residents. Research has consistently shown that high quality design makes new residential developments more acceptable to local communities and delivers huge value to all.

Housing design audits represent systematic approaches to assess the design quality of the external residential environment. This new audit evaluates the design of 142 large-scale housing-led development projects across England against seventeen design considerations. It provides enough data for comparisons to be made regionally and against the results of previous housing design audits conducted over a decade ago. It establishes a new baseline from which to measure progress on housing design quality in the future.

Whilst some limited progress has been made in some regions, overwhelmingly the message is that the design of new housing environments in England are ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’. Collectively, we need to significantly raise our game if we are to create the sorts of places that future generations will feel proud to call home. 

Main findings

Based on a design audit of 142 housing developments across England, and correlations with data on market, contextual and design governance factors, a number of conclusions were drawn. These concern the type of housing that is being delivered, what is going right and wrong, and why there is such a variation in practice across the country.

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Based on the audits, the following findings were drawn

1. WHAT ARE WE DELIVERING?

A small improvement

There has been a small overall improvement in housing design quality nationally since the last audits that were conducted between 2004 and 2007.

But new housing design is overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ 

Because the improvement is from a low base, today the design of new housing developments are still overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ (three quarters of the audited projects).

    Many schemes should have been refused

    One in five of the audited schemes should have been refused planning permission outright. The design of many others should have been improved before relevant permissions were granted.

    The potential exists for good design everywhere

    The wide distribution of ‘good’ and ‘poor’ scores across the country shows that it is clearly possible to deliver high quality housing environments (and substandard ones) right across the country. 

    Very patchy practice

    Regionally the picture is patchy. The most improved region was the West Midlands, with the South East and Greater London (the best performing region) also showing very significant improvements. If these three best performing regions are stripped out, then the small national gain largely disappears. The East Midlands and South West scored least well, and significantly lower than the English average.

    Resident satisfaction contrasts with community dissatisfaction

    Whilst new residents are generally happy with the environments around their new homes, this contrasts strongly with the views of local communities (as represented by their local councillors) who regret what they see as too much overdevelopment and a loss of local character. Both residents and communities see a negative impact from unduly car and roads dominated environments.

    2. WHAT ARE WE GETTING RIGHT?

    Designing for safety and security

    Of the seventeen design considerations, designing for safety and security faired best, suggesting that the Secured by design parameters of recent decades have been successfully mainstreamed across much of the country.

    A variety of housing types

    Schemes were also typically successful at integrating a variety of housing types, demonstrating that local needs are often being successfully balanced with market imperatives.

    3. WHAT ARE WE GETTING WRONG?

    Highways, bins and parking

    The least successful design elements nationally relate to overly engineered highways infrastructure and the poor integration of storage, bins and car parking. These problems led to unattractive and unfriendly environments dominated by large areas of hard surfaces (tarmac or brick paviours), parked cars and bins.

    Character and sense of place

    Low-scoring schemes performed especially poorly in the categories of the architectural response to the context and establishing a positive new character for development. Developments often had little distinguishing personality or ‘sense of place’, with public, open and play spaces being both poorly designed and located for social interaction. Housing units are frequently of an obviously standard type with little attempt to create something distinctive.

    Streets, connections and amenities 

    Some design considerations were marked by a broad variation in practice nationally. These include how well streets are defined by houses and the designed landscape, and whether streets connect up together and with their surroundings. Also whether developments are pedestrian, cycle and public transport friendly and conveniently served by local facilities and amenities.

    Walkability and car-dependence

    The combination of the preceding factors influence how ‘walkable’ or car-dependent developments are likely to be. Many developments are failing in this regard with likely negative health, social and environmental implications.

    Environmental impacts

    Whilst the majority of schemes are achieving the basic minimum energy efficiency requirements set out in legislation, significant numbers are still falling below. This, combined with the known and persistent performance gap between ‘designed’ and ‘as built’ energy performance in new homes and the failure to deliver a green and bio-diverse landscape in many projects, amounts to a sub-standard response to the environmental challenges we face. 

    4. WHY SUCH A VARIATION IN PRACTICE?

    Less-affluent communities get worse design

    In every region better designed schemes achieve higher sales values amounting to a 75% uplift nationally (and poorly designed schemes lower values). But there is a continued trend (by a factor of ten) towards delivering sub-standard design outcomes for less affluent communities.

    Better design can be afforded, but we don’t do it

    Standard housebuilding development models undoubtedly make it easier to invest in better design when development values are higher. But just because values are low, does not mean that good design cannot be afforded. The cost factors separating ‘good’ from ‘poor’ design are likely to be a relatively small proportion of total development value and low value locations may anyway show a higher return on investment and be more profitable to develop given the lower cost of land. Indeed, a minority of schemes with low market value buck the trend and achieve ‘good’ and ‘very good’ design outcomes whilst high value schemes sometimes deliver only ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ design results.

    Large developers are inconsistent

    Design audit scores for most large developers vary right across the audit scale. The practices, priorities and inconsistencies within and between housebuilders are very significant with regard to the quality of housing developments that are being realised.

    We are not good at building at lower densities and on greenfields

    Audited design outcomes scored progressively more poorly as projects moved away from the urban core and reduced in density, and if they were built on greenfield, as opposed to brownfield, sites. The additional constraints imposed by a stronger pre-existing urban context – often with existing infrastructure, heritage and natural assets, and a street network to plug into – encourage a more sensitive design response.

    Inconsistent use of proactive site-specific design governance

    To achieve ‘good’ or ‘very good’ outcomes requires more than a passive check against a generic checklist of design principles; it requires a proactive and site-specific process of guidance and accompanying peer review. The most effective design governance tools are design codes and design review but they are used far less than other more generic approaches.

     

    Poor design is getting through on appeal

    If housing numbers have not been met locally then the audit revealed some evidence that poor design is being approved on appeal. This fatally undermines the Government’s own policy on design in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It sends a message that design quality does not matter.

     

    Based on the findings, the following recommendations are made

    FOR HOUSEBUILDERS

    A big leap needs to be made

    Whilst a small overall improvement in the design of external residential environments was detected, this comes from a low base and is very patchy: geographically, between different housebuilders, and even across the regional operations of individual housebuilders. The vital
    importance of good design to the industry as a whole with regard to the building of a positive reputation, encouraging acceptance of new housing locally, and easing the path towards regulatory permissions, has still not been accepted. From small scale easy wins, like dealing adequately with bin storage, to more complex challenges, such as injecting character into streets and making them walkable, a big leap needs to be made to higher quality design by the industry as a whole.

    A new ethical approach to design

    The largest housebuilders should set the ethical standards for the industry at large. They are building developments which will have profound impacts for many decades, on the places and communities they help to shape, on the social wellbeing and health outcomes of their customers and future occupants, and on the environment at large. The negative impacts of poor design are well known and understood. A responsible and ethical approach for housebuilders is to seek net gains on all these fronts.

    Invest in an internal design infrastructure

    Housebuilders should invest in their own internal design governance teams and processes in order to set higher ambitions for design in whichever sub-market they are building for. Large housebuilders should consider mechanisms for internal learning and coordination on design,
    notably for bringing all their regional operations and subsidiaries up to the standards of the best.

    Resident satisfaction should not be taken as a sign that all is OK

    The emotional investment in a new home masks the downsides of poor design for residents. In particular lower density suburban and rural schemes are failing to exploit the space and landscape advantages of their contexts. These reflect potential qualities that new residents strongly value and reveal the need for a greater focus on designing well in low density locations.

    Examine the economics of housing design

    The factors impacting on design and their economic implications for viability are poorly understood and opaque. The industry, in partnership with others, should commission and publish research into the economics of housing design in order that design decision-making can be better understood.

    FOR LOCAL AUTHORITIES (PLANNING AND HIGHWAY)

    Set very clear aspirations for sites (in advance)

    All design governance tools help to deliver better design outcomes and it is far better to use them than not. However, the use of proactive tools that encompass design aspirations for specific sites are the most effective means to positively influence design quality. Such tools give greater certainty for housebuilders and communities, but their use and the sorts of design ambitions that they will espouse should be made clear in policy, well in advance of sites coming forward for development.

    Design review for all major housing schemes

    Local authorities should themselves establish or externally commission a design review panel as a chargeable service and all major housing projects should be subject to a programme of design review. Advice on how to do this can be found in Reviewing Design Review.

    Deal once and for all with the highways / planning disconnect

    Highways authorities should take responsibility for their part in creating positive streets and places, not simply roads and infrastructure. Highways design and adoption functions should work in a wholly integrated manner with planning, perhaps through the establishment of multi-disciplinary urban design teams (across authorities in two tier areas), and by involving highways authorities in the commissioning of design review.

    Refuse sub-standard schemes on design grounds

    The NPPF is very clear in its advice that “good design is a key aspect of sustainable development”. Consequently ‘poor’ and even ‘mediocre’ design is not sustainable and falls foul of the NPPF’s ‘Presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Local planning authorities need to have the courage of their convictions and set clear local aspirations by refusing schemes that do not meet their published design standards.

    Consider the parts and the whole when delivering quality

    Some well designed large schemes are being undermined by a failure to give reserved matters applications adequate scrutiny or through poor phasing strategies resulting in the delivery of disconnected parcels of residential only development. Delivery of design quality requires both the whole and the parts to be properly scrutinised by local planning authorities at all stages during the design and delivery process.

    FOR THE GOVERNMENT

    Be more prescriptive on density

    The clear benefits of designing at higher (not high) densities is apparent. The best schemes averaged 56dph, approaching double the current national average of 31dph. Instead the current national average for density is almost exactly the average density of schemes scoring ‘poor’ in the audit (32dph). Government should be more prescriptive in seeking more urban densities (compatible with other contextual factors) in the NPPF, densities of at least 50dph that are able to support public transport, and a mix of uses and local facilities.

    Seek to spread learning from the best practice and publicise it

    Work with the industry to seek out, and proactively showcase good design by volume housebuilders, for example through online case studies and dedicated national housing design guidance (covering matters from detail design e.g. the design of bins and storage to strategic urban design concerns relating to the location and connectivity of housing).

    Understand design in less affluent contexts

    Commission research into delivering design quality in less affluent areas, including on how standard housing units can be used in more creative ways to deliver distinctive places, and how local authorities can become more engaged in delivery through public / private partnerships or other means.

    Issue guidance on the design of parking

    How parking is handled can make or break the design of residential environments. National research on the successful integration of parking across different densities should be commissioned as the basis for guidance to be adopted on the subject nationally and locally.

    Publicise the rejection at appeal of poor quality schemes

    More forcefully advise the Planning Inspectorate to reject schemes that do not live up the design aspirations as set out in the NPPF – regardless of whether local housing targets have been met or not – and publicise these decisions.

    Require a place-first approach to highways design

    Highways authorities should be required to take a ‘place first’ approach when dealing with the design and adoption of highways. This could begin by requiring highways authorities to adopt the Manual for Streets or an equivalent place-focussed guidance on highways design and by issuing national guidance on what it is reasonable to charge for adopting trees and other landscape elements.

    Continue to audit progress

    A Housing Design Audit for England provides a new baseline from which to measure progress on the design of housing, but the Place Alliance will struggle to repeat the exercise given the resource implications and the reliance on voluntary input. The Government has a duty to monitor the design quality of the residential sector and should fund its own repeat audit no later than 2024.

    Audit small housebuilders and social housebuilders

    A Housing Design Audit for England has focussed on the products of the large volume housebuilders. The work of other key sectors has been omitted but could valuably provide the basis for other follow up audits.

    About the Research:

    Why did you conduct the research?

    England has a proud history of housing design and development from the Garden Cities onwards, but also a recent history about which Ministers have argued we need to do better: better with regards to the significant increases in housing numbers we need, and better in terms of in how new housing developments are designed.

    The period prior to the financial crisis in 2008 and its aftermath witnessed a concerted national effort to engage with the design of volume housebuilding in England, including a focus spearheaded by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to encourage the nation’s housebuilders to improve their ‘product’, notably with regard to the design of the external residential environment. The effort included encouraging highways and planning authorities to up their game and to move away from the standards dominated and land-hungry layouts of much suburban housing development.

    The period following the financial crisis saw the nation’s attention switch to immediate and pressing economic concerns. Through much of this period, successive Governments were less focussed on issues of design quality, and in 2017 research conducted by the Place Alliance revealed that austerity in local government had led to an exodus of urban design staff.

    Recently, however, the emphasis of Government has changed, and as well as sponsoring the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, they have published a National Design Guide and built a capacity within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to take the agenda forward.

    Increasingly there have been conflicting, largely anecdotal accounts over the standard of new housing development. Whilst some argue that the lessons of good placemaking were never lost and the design of new external residential environments continue to improve from the CABE days, others see a rowing back on gains made during the previous decade. A Place Alliance survey of local councillors’ attitudes to housing design reflected both perspectives. Whilst a small majority of local politicians felt there had been a continuous improvement in the design of new housing areas – albeit from a low base – a sizable minority were disparaging in the extreme. Concerns of councillors focus around the failure of new developments to respond to local character, and the negative impact, as they saw it, of a perceived drive to increase housing densities across the country.

    Thus, the desire for better design in new housing development is now being pursued with greater urgency. Amongst other reasons for this change in emphasis seems to be a concern that communities around the country will continue to resist much needed housing development unless the quality of design radically improves.

     Recognising that the moment was right to systematically evaluate the state of housing design through a new housing audit, the Place Alliance in partnership with the CPRE has harnessed the support of a diverse range of organisations. These include: the Home Builders Federation, Civic Voice, Urban Design Group, Academy of Urbanism, Design Council, UK Green Building Council, and the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation. The work is underpinned by voluntary input from Arup, JTP, Spawforths and URBED and a network of specially trained professional volunteers across the country.

    What were the aims of the audit?

    Using broadly the same methodology as the earlier regional housing audits conducted by CABE, the aims of the new audit were as follows:

    1. To evaluate the external design quality of new housing developments across England 

    2. To establish the range in practice and how that varies from region to region 

    3. To understand some of the design governance, market and contextual factors that lead to variations in practice

    4. To establish a new baseline against which to measure progress on the design quality of new housing developments in the future.

    What was the methodology?

    Inclusions and omissions

    The audit covered the whole country (England) whilst evaluating 142 schemes in order that meaningful regional comparisons could be made. Regionally, the number of projects chosen broadly reflect the differential outputs of the housebuilding industry across the country, with a slight bias towards London, the South East and the East of England where output is highest.

    The audit does not cover every type of new housing development, instead, schemes were selected that reflect the ‘typical’ volume housebuilder’s product. This means that schemes dominated by the largest (by volume) housebuilders in each region were chosen with the top and bottom 10% of schemes (by value) omitted. According to the Government, between them, the largest developers build about 60% of new private homes in the UK. In the schemes selected, they often worked with a social housing partner.

    Larger schemes (of at least 50 units) and which had been built between April 2014 and April 2019 were audited. Although some of the largest projects had development histories that dated back before this period, the phases audited were permitted in the context of the 2012 NPPF. Small schemes (less than 50 units), schemes solely built for social housing, conversion projects (e.g. under permitted development rights), one-off tower blocks, and self-build, communal or one-off houses were not included in the audit.

    Within these parameters, schemes were chosen randomly from a long list of eligible projects after consulting housebuilder websites. Some clustering of projects was necessary to ensure efficient auditing by volunteers. Sieving also occurred to ensure that the selection encompassed a variety of housebuilders in each region, a balanced range of brownfield and greenfield projects, projects in inner-urban, suburban and more rural settings, and projects originating from a diverse range of different socio-economic contexts.  Schemes from town / city centre locations were excluded.

     

    A rigorous analysis

    Each development was audited on-site by a network of trained professional auditors against the seventeen design considerations (a full list of design considerations can be found on page 19 of the report). These considerations were grouped into four categories:

    1. Environment and community
    2. Place character
    3. Streets, parking and pedestrian experience
    3. Detailed design and management

    Each design consideration was expressed on a proforma. First, as a question. Second, as a series of more detailed sub-criteria in order to help the auditors make a reasoned and balanced judgement against each issue. Some design considerations required auditors to conduct research before attending the site, and this was done through accessing the Design and Access Statement for each project via the relevant local authority planning portals, and through consulting other relevant online sources including those relating to the provision and frequency of public transport.

    The design considerations were broadly the same as in the previous audits, although they have been edited and updated to reflect changes to practice and expectations since the original audits.  To ensure rigour in the conduct of each audit, auditors were trained (by UCL), and the topics and sub-criteria were tested to ensure – as far as possible – that they were objective and could be reliably and consistently evaluated on site. Each design consideration was scored on a five-point scale ranging from ‘very good’ to ‘very poor’. To obtain aggregate scores for projects, the thresholds used in previous audits were applied.

    To try and minimise inevitable variation in how individual auditors scored projects, first, auditors were asked to back up their individual judgments against the design considerations with photographic evidence to substantiate their choices. Appropriate safeguards were put in place to ensure that auditors did not evaluate schemes they had been involved in. Space was also provided on the proforma for auditors to separately score or comment on the sub-criteria if they chose to do so, although only the headline score for the design consideration as a whole was analysed. Second, an Advisory Group was established with the role of advising on the methodology and acting as an independent quality control mechanism charged with looking across the individual audit results to ensure they had been conducted consistently and reliably. 

    Further reading:

    Bartlett professor to lead audit of housing design quality

    Bartlett professor to lead audit of housing design quality

    The first systematic audit of housing design quality since CABE was scrapped has been announced. The project, which will examine at least 100 large-scale developments across England, will feed into the work of the government’s controversial Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. Read more →

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