Amber Rudd Green?

If the Tories want to achieve any progress on climate emission reductions, and its not clear that they do want to, despite the Rt Hon Amber Rudd’s speech last week, then they have to set out clear market signals that they mean to do so and that they will do so in a way that supports a market which lasts beyond this Parliament. This is too serious an issue to be left to individual Governments to deal with and to be subject to political whims. If ever there was an issue that needed cross-party agreement, this is it.

Clouds over the Capital

Clouds over the Capital

Amber Rudd’s speech on climate change at Aviva sets out some important pointers for how the Government plans to deal with a low carbon economy over the next decade. Having wiped the slate clean of environmental legislation over the last month, their plans appear to be based on a fairly simple idea, that the markets can solve the problem. Given that the environmental problems that we face have arisen because of what Lord Stern called ‘the largest market failure the world has ever seen’, it seems optimistic to me to believe that this approach will work.  That the markets can actually do the work that is required without some significant action by the Government through legislation and policy seems to me to be both unproven and naïve. It is unfortunate that the regulations that the Government has recently abandoned were all sending the right signals to the market; that this Government supports concerted action on climate change mitigation and would use a series of long-term initiatives to achieve that.  In contrast to this, large numbers of the companies who should be lining up to enter this new ‘market’ have objected in the strongest terms to the recent dropping of ambitious environmental targets. It is hard to believe that Amber Rudd has the backing of the Cabinet when she said. ‘We are committed to taking action on climate change and we are clear that our long-term economic plan goes hand in hand with a long-term plan for climate action.’

However hard it may be, I feel that there is little to be gained by complaining that this Government is heading in the wrong direction, because we simply cannot see into the future. There is no getting away from the fact that progress in achieving emission reductions through policy and regulation has been achingly slow. The Committee for Climate Change reflects that much of our current emissions reductions have come about because of the recession and less than one percent of the emissions reductions have come about through environmental improvements. In order to achieve our Carbon Budgets we will need to de-carbonise at a rate of 3% per annum. In order for this Governments plan to work, the market has to be three times more effective in delivering emission reductions than regulation has already achieved.

All of this effort could have been achieved more easily if we had kept some of the previous Governments policies going and not abandoned the ones that were working. I agree that the Green Deal was flawed, but it could have been rescued with a proper finance package, instead of abandoning it entirely. Similarly the zero-carbon housing regulations were heading in the right direction and had massive support from industry, ( with the usual exception of the housebuilders who don’t support any regulation that impacts on their bottom line) and also could have been made to work with some effort. Again this has been unceremoniously binned, sending housing regulations back to 2013, there to stay for the foreseeable future.

What the Tories don’t appear to understand, or are just ignoring, is that in order to create a functioning market you need investment. In order to attract investment, you need certainty, and in order to create certainty you need good governance that doesn’t change the rules without consultation. The stated objective of this Government, to achieve emission reductions through the market, has already been made very difficult by their wilful and short-termist treatment of the companies already active in the market. There is no way that we can achieve the emission reductions we need under the Climate Change Act, without the help of companies providing solar energy, wind farms, low-carbon energy, and insulation. But in dropping planned regulations including zero-carbon housing and the Green Deal, this Government will have alienated most of the companies in all of these sectors.

When the Green Deal closure was announced Amber Rudd MP said,: “ It’s now time for the building industry and consumer groups to work with us to make new policy and build a system that works.”

Having spent a good deal of time working on the development of the Green Deal and on the zero-carbon legislation I imagine I would be one of the people that the minister means when she says ‘building industry’. But why should I spend my time working with Government? The time I spent with the last three Governments has been wasted, as they have shilly-shallied with policy and regulation for a decade, only to bin all that effort when the colour of the party changes. I am certain that many large companies who have invested in Green Deal training and certification will think long and hard before coming back to the table for more.

Angus MacNeil, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said, commenting on the Green Deal announcement: “The government has once again slipped out another announcement about cuts to green policies after parliament has risen for the recess. The Green Deal wasn’t working as well as ministers had hoped, but removing government support without bringing forward an alternative strategy is likely to cause further concern among businesses investing in and delivering energy-efficiency measures.”

It is possible that the long-term plan to reduce emissions will be met by extracting large amounts of shale gas to replace existing coal-fired generation, and by constructing new nuclear power rather than insulating homes and building new energy efficient ones. But both of these strategies are very risky propositions, and will continue to meet opposition among voters, and neither are likely to deliver much in the way of emission reduction during the life of the current Parliament. For every Tory who supports a ban on onshore wind, there will be two Tories who would be anti-fracking. Nuclear will continue to be eye-wateringly expensive and it will be difficult to convince an electorate that you are looking after their energy bills when you spend billions on a few projects that will always cost more than budgeted, and leave an expensive radioactive mess to deal with for the next 10,000 years or so.

A long-term decarbonisation plan for the UK needs to be just that, long-term. Energy efficiency measures in the building stock will need a programme of improvements and finance that lasts from now until 2050. Regulations for new housing that meets EU targets for 2020 needs to be considered now, and once set, needs to be left alone for the industry to develop solutions to meet it. Industrial research needs time and money, time that lasts longer than the life of a parliament, and longer than the political life of most politicians.

“We are committed to climate action; committed to economic security; committed to decarbonising at the least cost.” A. Rudd Aviva speech.

The future of our planet is at stake, nothing less. If the market is to be the vehicle that we use to cut emissions, so be it, but it needs to be a market with solid foundations that is left to function for decades, and not moments. The Tories have started their term in office badly, and have lost the trust of many in industry within a few months. If they are going to deliver on their promises, they need to start acting on them and delivering real change that both those in industry and ordinary people can understand and support. In the year of COP21 Paris when the world expects the UK Government to lead on climate action and to sign up to a global deal, they could have hardly gotten off to a worse start.

Zero Carbon – Zero Chance

The axing of the zero-carbon housing legislation yesterday put an end to a decade of efforts to define a standard for new homes that would support the UK’s drive to reduce emissions from new housing. It was contained in a document from the Treasury, apparently now setting more UK housing policy than DCLG, entitled ‘Fixing the foundations – Creating a more Prosperous Nation’

There is much to welcome in the document, and a lot that seems eminently sensible, I say this to deflect any criticism that I am singling out a single issue to the exclusion of the rest, all 88 pages of it. But it seems to me to be entirely wrong-headed to drop this proposal now, after planning for it for such a long time, and after so much work has been done to prepare for it. I have seen no justification for the decision yet, and I await that justification with interest. The document is about planning to improve the UK’s productivity, so the assumption must be that dropping these proposals will improve productivity in the UK housing industry.

Whether this is really the case or not depends how you measure productivity.

Will removing this requirement mean that more houses get built than would otherwise be the case?

Probably not, as housing starts have more to do with sales values than build costs. The introduction of previous regulatory changes have not had any visible effect on housebuilding numbers as DCLG usually has a fairly relaxed transition period allowing housebuilders to prepare for the new standards over a long period. Housebuilders are also very skilled at passing on the costs of improved performance to their supply chain.

Will more plots receive permission with the legislation removed?

Probably not, as planning authorities will want to see evidence that new homes are sustainably developed and this would have been one way of demonstrating this.

What we will see is that the costs of occupying new homes will stay higher than it would otherwise be, as will the CO2 emissions from them. This could affect up to a million new homes if housing numbers improve towards the 200k per annum mark and this situation lasts for five years 2016-2021. (see graphic)

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The additional running costs will be in the region of £200 per annum per household, meaning a spend of £200M on energy by consumers that could be avoided and the additional CO2 will  be around 2 tonnes per dwelling, reaching a total of 2 Million tonnes of additional CO2 emissions that could otherwise be avoided.

To meet our CO2 budgets this extra 2Mt of CO2 will need to be abated elsewhere, which will come with a cost, and our energy system will need to be developed to include the additional energy supply needed.

It makes little sense to me that a nation that prides itself on its universities and innovation, and associates both of these with improving productivity,  would make this decision. Housing manufacturing in particular is a very innovative and productive industry, and can meet these higher standards already, but needs a willing market to thrive. The companies that will benefit from this are the ones looking backwards, the brick manufacturers, the housebuilders, the landowners. The ones that will suffer are the ones looking forward, the innovative manufacturers, the developers of high quality homes, the purchasers and occupiers of the homes themselves. This change in direction simply retains the status quo and extends the period within which housing can continue to be built using traditional and low productivity methods, and removes any regulatory driver for the industry to improve and innovate.

By 2020 the UK is expected to have introduced legislation to deliver Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB’s) together with all other EU partners. The proposed 2016 regulations would have been a strong stepping stone to this higher standard and made for an easy transition. The Chancellor appears to be betting on that standard either going away, or being optional for the UK to adopt come 2020.

 

Jane Jacobs on Street Life

In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs paints a rosy picture of urban street life. Particularly urban street life and the urban children she observes in it. She writes about the children playing in Hudson Street where she lives in Greenwich Village and draws firm conclusions from her experience.

She observes that shopkeepers are part of the lifeblood of the street, they partially supervise the children playing, tell them off for being troublesome, help them out when they need it, give directions to strangers and hold keys for residents who are away for the weekend. She notes that they don’t become close friends with many people, but have a relationship based on nods and smiles and the occasional sentence in passing. A relationship based on mutual self-interest. The shopkeeper is saying, ‘I’ll keep an eye on things and you can trust me because I need to retain your trust” 

She observes that the children benefit from the mixture of parenting from their real parents and the guidance and commentary they get from neighbours, shopkeepers and passers by. This tells the children that the world in general cares about them and takes a small but important interest in their well-being. They in turn learn that its important that they too take an interest in the world and the well-being of their playmates and the world around them. Soon, they too begin to offer help to strangers, giving directions or advice.

At no point does she mention the impact of traffic on active play, there probably wasn’t so much of it that it had a major impact on Hudson street, although photographs taken at the time show plenty of cars parked on the streets of New York in the 1950’s. She does state that to be effictive ‘play’ streets, the ‘sidewalks’ should be ‘thirty to thirty-five feet wide’ to accommodate any kind of play that could be required, but acknowledges that the requirements of traffic mean that there are few streets of that width even then.

 

Greenwich Village,New York, 1950’s Getty Images

 
She strongly criticizes the idea that ‘managed’ or supervised play space in parks is any substitute for ‘unmanaged’ street play. Her main problem with ‘managed play’ is that children beyond a very young age don’t want to be actively supervised by their parents and lose interest in such play very quickly. Play spaces in parks are also unsafe because they are usually too far from street life to be supervised by the passers by. She also critizes the lack of male intervention in such places, where children are usually supervised by their mothers only, in contrast to the street where they are supervised and protected by, and able to interact with, a host of different people, men and women, young and old, locals and passers by.

The image she paints is idyllic in some senses, a loose community of neighbours who look out for each other, particularly for each others children, while still going about their business in a normal way. Its the perfect mixture of privacy where no-one is prying into your personal affairs (associated with village life) and still enough human interest to know that if you didn’t show up to buy a pint of milk your neighbours would check up on you to see if you were OK.
The street itself had the interesting feature of steps up to the front doors of houses or apartment buildings. These steps gave places for residents to survey the street for a long distance from an elevated position in relative security. They gave children a small place to sit and play out of the way of passers by, but most importantly gave residents a place to watch, interact with or supervise the world as it went by.

Fast forward to London 2015.

Shopkeepers are rarely, if ever, at the front of their shops. Their windows are full of goods and it is often impossible to see the street from inside shops, particularly greengrocers and supermarkets. Even if the street were visible, the shopkeepers rarely own their shops as so many of them are chain stores and the staff are rotated on a regular basis. As automated tills come in the number of staff is dwindling, and the ability of shopkeepers to participate in street life diminishes. As retail moves more to the Internet, fewer and fewer shops are needed to sell goods on the high street, as they are being undercut by online businesses. 

The bright spark in this is food retailing, which appears to be getting stronger, and the increase of street life that comes with it is enormous, even if a lot of it includes the use of tables on already too-narrow pavements. Waiting staff come out to the street to bring food and deliver orders, deliveries come and go and the ballet of the street expands instead of contracting. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade. 

No-one plays on the streets for any length of time, and hasn’t done so for a generation. Children’s play takes place either in their back gardens, or in schools, or, for a short while, in the street while they go to, or come from, school. This is also supervised play insofar as there is almost always a parent or two there to ensure that they get to school on time. This concerns the minority of children who actually walk to school, most of them are driven by parents fearful of their children being hit by a car while walking to school. 

Public parks are often empty, they are very busy on sunny weekends, but often deserted in weektimes, particularly the play areas, children are often brought there to play on their way home, and then ferried home for dinner, by car.

Children are not usually let out to play before or after tea/dinner. They sit at home playing video games instead, possibly playing with their friends in nearby homes, but only connected via cyberspace. If they do meet their friends to play it is usually organised by parents and the children are delivered and collected, by car.

Cars parked in the street take up about 50% of the land left for the street. Pavements are wide enough to allow two buggies to pass each other and no more. Parents don’t let their children play in front of their houses because they are afraid that they might be abducted, or damage a neighbours car, and in any case there isn’t room for them to play in. 

The only extensive street play I have observed is streets being taken over by parents in high-vis jackets to close it off to through traffic, with the support of the local council. Children are encouraged to play in the street, but supervised by their anxious parents. I can image how Jacobs would laugh at this. I am sure these street closures are helping people to get to know each other and to enable their children to be more active, but it is hardly a solution to the problem, more of a symptom. The presence of hundreds of cars means that the kinds of games children would like to play cannot be played, there simply isn’t the space. 

Disability legislation means that it is now almost impossible to design houses with ‘stoops’ or steps in front that provide places to view or supervise the street. Residents of new neighbourhoods will be on the same level as those passing by, and rooms on the street frontage are that much darker and noisier as a result. Ideally the ground floors of urban buildings would always be gven over to commercial uses, but it is unlikely that there will ever be enough commercial uses to go around.

Summary

We don’t appear to have learned very much from the mistakes or from the successes of the past as described by Jacobs, modern places are still mainly designed with traffic in mind, not with people in mind. Traffic engineering rules, bin lorry sizes and utilities have a  much stronger voice when it comes to the design of places than any consideration of what type of society a place is likely to foster. Children are given play areas which are intended for them to play in, but what child wants to play in an organised way? Some of these places, usually corraled by railings, are even intended for ‘doorstep’ play. Play, by definition, is not organised. 

Finally, Jacobs firm belief was that public street life allows people to interact with each other equally, because everyone has the right to be there. The street is the ultimate social leveller.

‘If there is no public street life, and there are only opportunities for formal interaction, this tends to suit a self-selecting confident middle-class.’

The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.


Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.

END

If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

More Homes Through Manufacture

There are many good reasons why modern homes should be made in a factory. There are no good reasons why they shouldn’t. Practically everything else we use in our lives comes from a factory and we are very happy with them, so why not our homes too? We expect our cars, TV’s computers and phones to be mass-produced, and would be very surprised to find that they weren’t, in fact we wouldn’t buy them if we found that they were hand-made by a group of people brought together in a muddy field and given instructions in how to build them, in a language not their own, and chosen because they provided the lowest price or just happened to be available that day.

Manufactured homes are more likely to meet the stringent quality standards demanded by regulations for new homes because it’s much easier to check quality when the product is being made in a warm building, out of the wind and rain. Workers of all ages and backgrounds can be employed in a factory because they are not expected to carry heavy loads up ladders, or withstand the cold. So the workforce can be from a wider demographic and different backgrounds.

In the current economic conditions this factor is lowering the cost of building homes in a factory as wages for fully employed people are stable. The self-employed sub-contractors who do much of the work on traditional building sites are raising their wages as much as possible because they can. In the rush to build homes, there is a shortage of labour such as bricklayers and carpenters, so the ones that are available can charge a lot for their skills.

Factories are less exposed to this wage inflation because their workers are permanently employed and therefore can’t demand increases in their wages at short notice. Factory owners tell me that last year, their homes were more expensive to build than traditional buildings, but could be built more quickly. This year they can be built for the same price, but more quickly, and next year they will be cheaper to build, and more quickly.

Hotel and Apartment building, Olympic Way, Wembley

Modular Hotel and Apartment Building, Olympic Way, Wembley. ©HTA Design LLP

There is a further promise of factory production which is the expectation that someday we will be able to order our home online and change the design to suit ourselves. If this sounds far-fetched, they have been doing this in Japan for decades. Companies with familiar names like Toyota have constructed tens of thousands of such homes for their customers, most of which have been customised to some degree. Factories with a high degree of automation can cope with a change in design easily, provided that the robot can be given the correct template to use, it doesn’t care if it does the same job ten times a day, or ten different jobs.

The key element is that the robot is given a template to work from. Customisation does not mean that the customer can have what they want in every case, it means that they can choose from a wide range of features that ensures that no two houses are ever the same. It only takes nine variants in a house design to produce over 300,000 different homes, so customers can be satisfied that they have a unique product and the factory can continue to produce a unique design from relatively standardised components.

There is a reason why the difference in quality between a factory-made home and a traditionally built home is not obvious to the average housebuyer or renter. No-one tells them, and the quality difference is not reflected in the sales price. We have the ridiculous situation where the location and number of bedrooms in a property sets the value, and the quality of the finished home counts for very little, apart from its use as a bargaining chip to reduce the price where there are defects, but rarely to increase it beyond what is normally paid in that area.

If a housebuilder does a very good job of building a traditional home, or a bad job, it makes no difference to the price. If the home is hard to heat or very efficient, it may be interesting to the purchaser, but it makes no difference to the price. If the three bedrooms of one property are bigger than the three bedrooms of the other, it makes no difference to the price. In a market like this it is very difficult for a housebuilder to concentrate on a quality product, since it makes no difference to his profits.

In new development this is exacerbated by the lack of previous sales figures in the area. Mortgage providers look at sales values for fifty year old properties in the same location to use as a benchmark for the values of new homes under construction, ignoring the enormous quality gap between the two in terms of performance.

We are trying to change this by introducing a way that purchasers and renters can see the difference in the quality of their new home. By creating a Home Performance Label with the help of BLP Insurance and The Housing Forum, we are enabling people to rank their potential purchases in order of size, if that’s what they care about, or in order of energy efficiency, price per square meter, daylight, or maintenance costs, or many other metrics. This way of making a purchasing choice is familiar to anyone who has bought a car, insurance, a phone, electricity or a fridge in recent years. We think it’s time that such a tool was available to the housing market.

By helping people to make their choices based on quantitive information as well as qualitative information we expect to drive up the quality of new homes in the same way that comparison shopping has driven the market in electronic goods. The product of tomorrow should be better than the product of today and offered at the same price. This is how markets should work. There should be room for low quality products and high quality products, at different price points, but the housing market currently values both the high quality and the low quality products in the same way, leaving no room for a quality premium. Because price is also set by location the current pricing system keeps the housing quality low in poorer areas and reduces the likelihood of regeneration where it is needed most.

Finally, in order to deliver anything like the number of homes we need, the housing industry in the UK must double in size. Output is currently about half of what we need to sustain the market without prices continually rising. This growth won’t be achieved b adding more workers from abroad, working in muddy fields at low productivity levels. It will be achieved if we create a functioning offsite manufacturing sector, distributed across the UK, using a well-organised workforce, operating in a market where higher quality products get the sales prices that they deserve.

A version of this article first appeared in The Housing Forum report, ‘More Homes Through Manufacture‘ supported by the Hyde Group.

Happiness and Well-Being in Housing Design

This is an unusually long post. So make a cup of tea or pour a glass of whisky before starting.

In 2008 the UK Govt Foresight commissioned the New Economic Foundation to investigate well-being. The context was a concern among policy makers that Gross Domestic Product may no longer be the sole measure of success of Government policy. Many surveys have shown that even while GDP rises, happiness and well-being do not rise with it. Money does not buy happiness it seems.

The result of this work was a report called The Five Ways to Well-Being which contained some recommendations for you to follow. You might call them the Five Pillars of Happiness? These are described below. The italic descriptions below are NEF’s attempt to create short versions of the Five Ways that are easily communicated and understood.

This work prompts a question for designers. What does this mean for the design of places for people to live in, and how ought we design them differently if we have well-being in mind. Is Well-Being equated to Happiness and are either of them capable of being designed into a development? Is well-being or happiness so strongly related to an individuals personal circumstances that it is not subject to outside influences and it is unwise for a designer to ever suggest that one can design in happiness or well-being? The NEF research suggests that it is possible for people to influence their own happiness, and that there are objective as well as subjective elements to it, hence the Five Ways. Walt Disney gives it a good try in the various Disneyworlds around the globe, but those are hardly places that can, or should, be duplicated, and in any case, there aren’t enough Mickey Mouse suits to go around.

What is also interesting about this research is that it suggests positive action towards a positive goal, rather than positive actions to prevent negative results. Most regulations are aimed at preventing negative results or outcomes such as fire, accidents, structural failure, lack of space and so on, but what could design become if it aimed at positive outcomes instead? Of course many designs are aimed at positive outcomes, hospitals, schools, and many other building types, but the positive outcomes are usually measured by asking whether the temperature in the building is maintained at a steady level, whether the building uses more or less energy than planned, and whether the maintenance bills are low. While all of these are important, we rarely look at the well-being of people who use or live in them to assess the success of our buildings. Granted this can be difficult to measure, but part of the Office of National Statistics work on Well-Being suggests that it is possible to do, and is already being done in small unconnected ways in different disciplines.

It seems to me that housing and its relationship to well-being has a particular role here, insofar as people spend more than half their time at home, and probably change homes less frequently that they change their jobs. Creating a professional expectation that designers should try to enable well-being in their designs, and crucially, check whether they are succeeding, is likely to lead to better outcomes. I think that this expectation applies particularly to the designers of house types used by the major house-builders, as these will be built many times over, thus repeating the same mistakes over and over again, or improving the lives of occupants over and over again. If we are going to build something many times, lets build the right thing, and not the wrong one.

Reading through the five ‘Ways’, which are intended by NEF to explain to laypeople how to interpret the research, it is possible to link all of them to interventions in the built environment in some way or other. Either through direct interventions, or through the creation of space for something to happen. Some issues can be considered and responded to in parts of buildings or in the public realm between buildings, other issues can be responded to by creating spaces that in turn encourage actions by others who will follow on after the designers work is done. The designers job is to create a stage for the actors to use, an environment where things are more likely to happen than not.

The Five Ways to Well-Being:

Connect

Connect with the people around you. With family,
friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work,
school or in your local community. Think of these as
the cornerstones of your life and invest time in
developing them. Building these connections will
support and enrich you every day.

For designers, I think this means creating opportunities for people to meet, to create streets where they can interact, and to bring the activities that stem from entrances and pathways together to create places where the greatest number of people have the best chances of interacting. Making the ground surface the place where it all happens, pedestrians, drivers, bus passengers and cyclists, all merging together and creating possibilities for activity, commercial and social.
This also means enabling people to see each other, to be visible to each other. Places where windows and doors are visible from the street and the street is visible from inside homes.

This means that creating shared spaces is important, where people can mix and meet each other, where children can play and parents can interact, allotments where they can work together and community spaces where they can gather to plan their joint future or knit, play bridge, practice yoga or get married.

This means that high density mixed-use is better than low density monoculture. The more people that are mixed in an area and the more uses, the more likely people there are to meet people like themselves, and make connections, or find appropriate work. This refutes the idea that anyone will find happiness by buying a large plot in suburbia and driving there and back without ever seeing their neighbours.

(See Charles Montgomerys excellent book on Happy Cities for many examples of broken families and difficult lives created by the long commute to and from suburbia.)
Be Active

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game.
Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most
importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and
one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

For the designer this means creating readily available opportunities for exercise. Streets that are designed to be walkable, and enjoyable to walk along. For this to be true, there needs to be variety in the character of the areas, and potential for change so that seasons can be marked in changing colours of leaves and birdsong, as well as the visible changes in family life that goes on in homes. Washing on the line, children’s toys in the garden, bicycles parked in front of houses all give interesting clues to the life being lived inside. Green spaces also need to be provided, and designed so that they can be used as stopping points, or provide opportunities for more active exercise through fixed equipment.

Inside the buildings and houses, the stairs should be designed to be more prominent than the lift and designed to be welcoming rather than forbidding. Landings could have a window seat so that older people can still use the stairs, but have an excuse to stop and rest and enjoy the view.

Inside homes, spaces should be created to enable and encourage exercise. Why create a dining room with fixed furniture that is used once a month, and no exercise space. Put in an exercise bar and a mirror instead and celebrate the idea of exercise without making it seem too obvious. Use the mirror to increase the light in a room to make it more attractive to be in. Put in a wooden floor with underfloor heating so that it is comfortable to use all year around.

The availability of fresh air for health is important, as is the ability to filter out pollutants. Residents should have both opportunities, together with daylight at different times of the day to ensure that they get sufficient light to read or work by, and enough light to set their daily circadian rhythms.

I learned recently that bungalows produce a condition called ‘Bungalow Knee’ by doctors, where older residents knees seize up through lack of activity. This is the first such condition caused by a building that I have heard of. But it raises an important question about regulation and comfort. Providing ease in the form of level thresholds, ramps and stair free environments may be good for the less able among us, but are we inadvertently designing out the exercise in our environment to solve the problems of a few, and denying the regular exercise that the rest of the population needs? Similar evidence is growing around the provision of overheated environments in care homes where any interruption in the heating system produces a lot of ill-health among residents whose systems have become accustomed to constant temperature and are no longer able to regulate their temperature.

Take Notice

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the
unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment,
whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to
friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are
feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you
appreciate what matters to you.

For designers this is directly related to the ‘Connect’ and ‘Be Active’ ‘Ways’. Perhaps there is a prompt here for design to be more creative and to design in features that catch the eye, or which change when looked at from different angles. Buildings that have some greater level of detail that is only visible when you get closer, or a roof-level feature that is only visible from far away. The designing of opportunities for public art into a proposal is a potential route to creating places that catch the eye and encourage curiosity. The natural world is also a very interesting and varying thing, so creating opportunities for diversity in planting, and places for birds to live and roost, and bats and animals to live can all contribute to the rich experience that this ‘Way’ calls for.

The aspect of the design of homes that is most relevant here is the design of windows. It would help this ‘Way’ to create windows that provide different kinds of views, to the immediate outside, and to the distant horizon. If there is a tree in the street, a window should frame it. A window with a seat to sit in and to enjoy the view. A picture window that is low enough so that the view can be enjoyed while sitting or lying down. A window positioned to bring sunlight into the bedroom. A rooflight to bring a view of the sky into the middle of the house.

Keep Learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for
that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix
a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your
favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving.
Learning new things will make you more confident as
well as being fun.
The response for the designer here is to create spaces where things can happen. Putting seats in the right place on the street so that people can watch the world go by, or take a break in a busy day. Create spaces in residential buildings that can be used for short periods of work so that they can run small businesses from home, and they can learn from our neighbours who can pop in to help them. Make sure that spaces in residential buildings are flexible enough so that if people want to have a hobby, they have space to do it in. Make sure that the building acoustics are good enough for someone to learn to play the drums or bagpipes without annoying the neighbours. Create communal spaces where people can run short courses for their neighbours, or have a party for the residents of the building.

Give

Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone.
Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look
out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked
to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and
creates connections with the people around you.

Designers can respond to this idea with a home that creates zero harm by being very energy efficient, sympathetic to nature in its design, manufacture, operation and reuse. It may not be able to ‘give’ directly, but we can design it to ‘take’ as little as possible. We cannot help people to volunteer though, this one is almost out of the hands of the designer. But it can be helped along by creating places in a masterplan where community groups can meet and decide how they want to work together. By creating Community Interest companies that can run a development after the developer has left, and which create opportunities for people to develop skills in managing their local environment in a responsible way.

End

All of the Five Ways resonate with me, as directions that designers should keep in their minds while designing. It is not sufficient to design to meet regulations, there are other responsiblities than the clients direct needs and the regulations imposed by society that a designer should recognise.

In a period where the intention is to design and construct a lot of housing, we would do well to make sure that it is all of the highest quality as it will be there for many years after we have left, affecting the well-being of its residents and through them the success or failure of wider society.

Happy City – a Review 

Happy City, a book by Charles Montgomery, should be on the shelf (digital or physical) of everyone interested in the sustainable future of cities. Given that more than half the worlds population now live in them, and that the numbers continue to rise, that should represent a lot of people. For some people, myself among them, the ideas presented in the book are not new. What is new, is the evidence he provides, statistical, personal and independent, that gives new life to those ideas. 

The central theme of the book is that disconnected urban sprawl, the worst kind of supurbia, where people move further and further from major population centres, is bad for the planet, for the people whose lives are spent commuting, and for the rest of us whose taxes go to pay for all the infrastructure that such places need. None of this sounds surprising to me, and I imagine it won’t surprise you either, so why is it that across the world, including here in the UK, we continue to build most of our new homes in exactly these kinds of locations? Far from transport arteries, schools, amenities and services.

Montgomery points out that the appeal of the suburb is based on us lying to ourselves, that we owe it to our children to give them a good life, that crime is lower in the suburbs, and that schools are better. He demolishes these fictions by pointing out that in North America, the value of suburban housing is stagnating, making sprawl a poor investment. Children who grow up in sprawl are more likely to fail in school or end up with a criminal record because their parents are usually absent, working and commuting long hours to pay for the suburban dream, and because new suburbs are particularly bereft of services and activities for children and older people. Instead of the Good Life that buyers imagined, they end up in Breaking Bad. 

I particularly enjoyed the chapter describing how the car manufacturers bought up light rail systems in north America and then dismantled them, as they were a threat to their business. How they introduced the jay-walking laws to criminalise walking when there was a danger that deaths on the road would reduce car sales. When people talk about the dangers of listening only to the private sector, there is a good case study.  The car industry has been a good employer and earner of foreign exchange for a few countries for the last fifty years or so, but look at the legacy it leaves us. We bought the marketing, now we have to live with the consequences.

Happy City is not all about failure, it covers a lot of ground where improvements have been made in enabling cities to deliver a better life for their inhabitants through better public transport systems, cycling lanes, or just more local community life. From Bogota, to Paris, Mexico City to Atlanta, he has drawn on many sources and interviews for evidence of successes and failures. This is a thoroughly researched book, and an enjoyable read. I recommend it!

Cycle Lanes

Cycle lanes create a lot of disagreement among cyclists and advocates of cycling, and among people whose job it is to enable more sustainable modes of movement in cities.

I am pretty clear in my mind that we need to separate cyclists from cars, buses and lorries because without doing so we will continue to have relatively low levels of cycling. I can foresee a future scenario where we have say 60% of traffic cycling, in which case the majority of the road is taken up with cyclists and vehicles have to move slowly behind. But we are a long way from that and in order to get there we need many more cyclists than we currently have, even thought the numbers are growing in cities worldwide.

The moment that convinced me that this was the way forward was, one morning in Rotterdam, seeing a young mother taking her children to school. She had a toddler on a seat on the crossbar and with a free hand she was pulling an older, yawning child along beside her on his little bike. They were meandering to school in the cycle lane at about 3 mph, inches from busy traffic, but they were perfectly safe, protected by a kerb from faster traffic.
Like most of Dutch cyclists they didn’t wear special clothing, the children, or parents, weren’t clad in racing Lycra because at the speeds they travel at they don’t work up much of a sweat. They are not competing with traffic and they can cycle at a comfortable pace and arrive to work or school energized but not stressed or perspiring.

Mixing cyclists and other traffic means that cyclists have to constantly speed up and down with traffic to respond to traffic lights, accelerating and decelerating. This is the most tiring option for cyclists who prefer to travel like a train, slowly and continuously.

Having a large urban cycling network would reduce cyclist deaths and road accidents, provided that there is a substantial continuous network. This requires a commitment to take road space from cars, and not from pedestrians, as most cities depend on their pedestrians to make the city function.
Mixing cyclists with buses seems to me to be a terrible idea, who wants to cycle up a hill with a huge bus bearing down on you from behind? It only needs a slip of the foot off the pedal and you find yourself lying in the bus lane under an enormous vehicle. This approach is never going to work. Every day that I travel to work on Londons buses I see this danger, its not relaxing watching!

Similarly a partial cycling network is the worst of both worlds as the junctions where cycling lanes stop are often the most dangerous points for cyclists.

Those who cycle argue that separated cycle lanes are unhelpful say that they separate two road users who often move at the same speed, cyclists and cars, and they often make cyclists slow down. This is true for the ‘committed’ and usually male urban cyclist who fears nothing and apparently has nine lives. These cyclists  also complain that cycle lanes are often designed badly and then are more dangerous to use for cyclists than normal roads. All cycle routes are at their most dangerous when they end and the hapless and unsuspecting cyclist is propelled into normal traffic. Some of this is true. But my response is that able-bodied and fearless cyclists can join traffic if it appeals to them, and leave the slower and less confident cyclist to use the cycle lanes.
We all agree that pedestrians and cars should be separated, apart from those rare circumstances where shared surfaces make cars go so slowly that it is safe to mix them with pedestrians. If we all agree that separation is best in this case, is it such a philosophical step to say that cars, cycles and pedestrians should be separated from each other?

Looking at cities where cycling is much more common, we have plenty of examples of how to make cycle lanes work in favour of cyclists, and how to make junction design work to favour cycles over cars.

Cycling along the Embankment in Lycra

Cycling along the Embankment in Lycra

Lets stop making excuses, and creating half-hearted examples of cycle lanes like the London Superhighways and instead focus our attention on fully segregated lanes like those planned from Tower Hill to Acton and approved by TFL in February. Its a small beginning, but going in the right direction.

Here is an example from Copenhagen!

Cycle Lane in Copenhagen

MMC: Evolution or Revolution?

 I spoke last week at the Residential Construction Network hosted by the RICS in Westminster.
The three speakers were myself, Paul Inch from Innovare and Jean-Marc Bouvier from Nudura Insulated Concrete Formwork.
I introduced the topic by pointing out the continuing and rising gap between housing production in the UK and housing need. See image below. At current levels of construction and demand we will see two million people short of a home by 2030.
 The Housing Gap
My view is that offsite construction is needed to fill the gap because the gap is mainly made up of people who cannot afford to buy their own homes at current prices, and are unlikely to ever do so. Affordable housing including shared ownership models needs to be provided for them by Registered Housing Providers(RHP’s) and by the Private Rental Sector(PRS).
There is little or no motivation for the private sector to build more housing than their current capacity to deliver. The hostorical figures show that speculative housing rarely delivers over 150,000 homes per year. They are making good profits with current numbers, so why would they change a formula that is working?
The current housing industry based on speculative housing for sale tends to use traditional construction methods as the average rate of sales on sites is slow and building faster doesn’t actually make much difference to them. What does make a difference is changing labour rates, particularly in a boom which makes their land and construction pricing difficult to predict. The regular boom and bust cycle in UK housing means that they are unlikely to either dramatically change their levels of housing supply or change the way that they build.
A possible solution to the problem is to marry up the large balance sheets of local authorities and RHP’s and use additional borrowing to construct homes offsite. This would require decisions on the part of these large clients to support a new industrial sector, housing manufacturing. A medium sized factory could supply 2,000 homes per year, but investors will only commit to constructing such facilities with a confirmed pipeline of demand. There can be competitive tendering, but between similar factories, and not between factories and site operations. This is not to promote more expensive housing, but to give factories the support they need to get going. Clients need to decide that this is the route to deliver affordable housing and government needs to support them in any way it can.
Ten new factories every year for five years will deliver 50,000 new dwellings that we are currently not building, from finance we are not using. That will go a long way to closing the gap in the housing supply. Once the market in offsite manufacturing is more mature, it can expand to take up the remaining gap and supply products to the sale market. The factories can be distributed across the country to places where there is greatest housing need and staffed by locally trained people. These plants can be set up and be running within a year, particularly if they use timber frame manufacturing. The jobs will be stable long term ones, possibly as many as 100 per factory. Thats 5,000 jobs within five years without counting the site works and the finishing trades on site. Its not wise to construct entire dwellings in factories, some work needs to be done on site to prepare foundations, and to finish the facade and roof on site.
Paul Inch, Business Development Director, Innovare
Innovare are one such factory, constructing homes and schools from their factory in Coventry using Structural Insulated Panels. They have a strong history of building high performing homes and buildings that provide very well-insulated building fabric. This is achieved by constructing using large format panels containing the building structure and insulation. Speed of construction is much faster than traditional methods and the quality of the final building is higher, particularly delivering low levels of air leakage and reducing the heating demand from the finished building.
In Paul’s opinion, RHP’s should use the market to deliver their buildings and not try and go it alone. There is a lot of manufacturing skills in the market and it is best left to the market to provide it rather than try and bring it in-house as some RHP’s have done.
Jean Marc Bouvier Director of International Sales and Business Development
Jean Marc Bouvier from Nudura Corporation, a supplier of Insulated Concrete Formwork products described their system. It provides large insulation panels that fit together much like Lego and are then filled in with poured concrete to form the walls of the design. It is a very rapid form of construction and delivers very high performance buildings. By using large lightweight elements the construciton process is safer and quicker, and because of the pured concrete there are no air gaps in the construction. Another benefit is that it is very resilient to wind effects and is being used to construct storm shelters in the southern regions of the US. Like SiPs it enables a highly productive delivery, with far fewer man-hours required to deliver the finished building compared to traditional building methods.

Testing Daylight and Sunlight in Masterplanning

“The code is more like guidelines than actual rules’  Captain Barbossa

Thus Captain Barbossa enlightens the confused Elizabeth Swann on the difficulties of interpreting the Pirate Code. When is a guideline a rule, and when is it a guideline, and what does it mean when it is treated by some as a rule and treated as a guideline by others. BRE Daylight guidelines are treated by some people like the Pirate Code, to be taken as rules in some cases, and as guidelines by others? Taking one approach or the other can have a significant impact on the design of masterplan, sometime with negative consequences for the urban design.

Most of, if not all of, the recommendations offered in the BRE Publication ‘Site Layout Planning for Daylight and Sunlight: A guide to good practice’ are guidelines and should not be strictly applied. The introduction to the documents even states “The advice given here is not mandatory and the guide should not be seen as an instrument of planning policy: its aim is to help and not constrain the designer. Although it gives numerical guidelines, these should be interpreted flexibly since natural lighting is only one of many factors in site layout design. In special circumstances the developer of planning authority may wish to use different target values. For example, in a historic city centre, or in an area with modern high rise buildings, a higher degree of obstruction may be unavoidable if new developments are to match the height and proportions of existing buildings“.

Yet, in many cases, authorities and even the BRE itself, make these guidelines into rules or targets for planning policy and sustainability appraisals.

In more specific instances, the BRE guidelines also state that ‘In a mews in a historic city centre …a VSC(Vertical Sky Component) of 18% could be used as a target for development in that street if new development is to match the existing layout’. This statement highlights the contrast between homes designed to match the character of historic environments by meeting a threshold value of 18% of Vertical Sky Component, compared to the ‘normal’ recommended threshold of 27% of Vertical Sky Component. This highlights the idea that different daylighting thresholds are appropriate for different types of urban neighbourhood.

In the Code for Sustainable Homes the BRE sets a level of 2% of Average Daylight Factor for kitchens, and 1.5% for living rooms and home offices. The guidance recommends a minimum of 1% for bedrooms. Credit scores are awarded in the Code for homes that meet these guidelines. While there is an acceptance that different rooms could have different light levels, there is no allowance made for differences in design that could mean that some homes may not meet the target at all.

Many local authorities use the BRE guidelines as de facto planning policy, and use them to argue against development that reduces the daylight or sunlight for other existing properties and residents. Unhelpfully, Rights to Light, a legal right to light, is a separate matter and dealt with in a parallel process, sometimes involving the courts. This is usually an issue when new development affects the daylight of an existing building by overshadowing it.

When designing large-scale developments, covering a new urban quarter, current practice guides the designer towards layouts that are partially reminiscent of historical urban quarters containing streets and squares.  It is entirely consistent with the design of modern urban masterplans that there will be areas of high density living and areas of low density living that have different characters, amenity, outlook, density, and property values. Daylight is part of the character of a building and the homes within it. It is part of the character of a street. In London, there is a world of difference between the character of the houses in a Victorian terrace, suburban Barnet, and mansion blocks in Kensington. Each have their own character and value.  Designing homes, streets and squares to all meet a particular daylight threshold may not help to produce an enjoyable and varied urban environment that reflects the variety available in most cities. I think that the BRE guidelines should be treated as guidelines and strict daylighting thresholds should rarely be applied across large scale masterplans.

Some countries apply this type of guidance very strictly, Russia and China particularly enshrine daylight into national regulation. The result is often poor quality urban design resulting in all new buildings facing South and ignoring traditional street layouts. It may deliver the appropriate hours of sunlight on a particular date in March but the impact can be very detrimental to the quality of life in cities.

I think that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to design a high density urban environment without having some units at street level with low daylight amenity, as well as many units at high level that have much higher levels of daylight than guidelines would suggest. Large glazed areas may give apartments a stunning view, but high levels of daylight almost always translate into high levels of solar gains and overheating.

It is important that streets are overlooked at all times by windows and have front doors coming from them at regular intervals. This means that homes on east-west streets will always have facades with a northern aspect and will have low levels of sunlight on that facade. Where streets are aiming for an urban character and are 4-6 stories high on both sides, it is inevitable that the units on the ground floors will have low daylight levels. This does not prevent those units from being attractive and useful. Central London has many basements which are fully occupied and enjoyed by residents and which undoubtedly have low levels of daylight. Their proximity to services and jobs is deemed to be of higher importance by their residents than daylight levels.

The Mayors Standard for Dual-Aspect Homes

London homes are designed to meet the Mayors Standard. This includes Standard 5.2.1 which states that “Developments should avoid single aspect dwellings that are north facing, exposed to noise levels above which significant adverse effects on health and quality of life occur, or contain three or more bedrooms”. The guidance adds “A home with opening windows on at least two sides has many inherent benefits, including better daylight, a greater chance of direct sunlight for longer periods, natural cross ventilation, mitigating pollution, offering a choice of views…..”.

Following this guidance means that even in situations where some elevations of buildings have poor access to daylight or sunlight, the likelihood is that homes within the plan can be designed to gain daylight and sunlight from another elevation, either from a side street or from a courtyard. The detailed design can prioritise the design of single aspect dwellings in areas where there is good daylight/sunlight availability to ensure that every unit has rooms that provide the best level of light available.

External Spaces & Courtyards

BRE guidance would suggest applying a single guideline for external amenity spaces, but the actual use of them may be very different, and may be in different character areas of any masterplan, external spaces should be designed to have different characters. For example, ground floor courtyards may become a first floor podium depending on the parking requirements, making it difficult to test the design at an early stage. Do you test the worst case or the best case, even though the worst case in daylight terms is the best case in urban design terms, as a courtyard on the ground will be a better used space than a courtyard on an upper level. If there are taller building should the roofs be designed as amenity spaces? High level roofs have very good levels of daylight/sunlight amenity, but they can never replace a ground level external space as the best possible common space.

Where courtyards are to be used for doorstep play, sunlight analysis can be used to show where there are places within each courtyard that have good light levels where play equipment can be located. It makes sense to put play spots in a sunny location, even if that location isn’t sunny for long periods.

Public Open Spaces

Daylight for Public spaces is even more difficult to deal with. Does it matter whether an urban square is well lit or not? When most of the activity in the space is transient and the space is largely serving the needs of people moving through the area from outside, it is arguable that the amount of light in the space is largely irrelevant. If the space is not to be used for people to sit, or play, then it is difficult to argue for a particular threshold of light or sunshine. This is not to say that sunlight or sunshine is not going to add enjoyment and character to the space, but that setting a particular threshold value of sunshine or daylight is not a valid approach. If the landscape designer wants to plant the space with trees, then the amount of light available is also a consideration for the types of planting that will thrive there.

Overheating

As the UK climate changes and average annual temperatures continue to rise, the danger of overheating due to solar gains will increase. High levels of daylight will also mean high levels of solar gains, which brings with it the risk of overheating. Currently there are no overheating tests that are required to be carried out by regulations that are sufficiently robust to deal with this problem. Overheating can be mitigated by a number of measures, including external shading, ventilation and occupant management. The people at most risk of heat stress are the older and younger parts of the resident group and particular care should be taken to protect older residents from overheating. There are some advantages to older people being in units at low levels of buildings with lower daylight and sunlight levels as these will be cooler in hot summers than units at high levels.

Summary.

Applying a single standard of daylight amenity to something as complex as an urban masterplan is not advisable. Different external spaces and streets have different requirements, and different buildings can and should have varying characters to make an interesting city. Daylight and sunlight are very important aspects of that character and should be appraised from the beginning of the design. The design team and planning officers should be aware of the impact of their decisions on the daylight available from the earliest part of the process but not rely solely on numbers to guide their decisions. Quality matters as much as quantity, but is much more difficult to appraise.