The importance of good design in new residential development has never been so high profile. The strong message from Government is that it wants to see far more homes delivered but beyond that it also needs to see more beautiful places created. But who is actually responsible for delivering such places on the ground?
Of course everyone is familiar with the importance of the design team. The keyword here is integration. Beautiful architecture needs to be integrated with legible permeable urban design, fantastic landscape architecture and multi modal transport planning. No matter the size of the site – any of these design elements can be the weak link which causes a scheme to fall short.
What about the developer? A belief in the commercial value of design and a willingness to commit time to it is crucial. The developers fundamental job though is to deliver the scheme. This task boils down to giving the landowner the land price he requires and then achieving a sale of units which covers all costs. Without the prospect of sales revenues exceeding costs (including land price) the development doesn’t happen.
Which brings us onto the role of the landowner. Given that costs and sales values are broadly predictable within known parameters the key area of potential financial flex on any scheme is the land value. If the sole objective of the landowner is to maximise land sale price then this clearly places more pressure on the competing bidding developers to be prudent on other costs (perhaps including design) in order to ensure that the (largely predictable) sales values clearly exceed the overall land and construction costs.
In contrast where the landowner has wider objectives (perhaps including the creation of a beautiful place) then costs which might otherwise need to go towards land price can be invested in design. If the landowner has this flexibility and makes clear the design expectations at the outset the process for creating a beautiful place is underway. Enlightened examples of this approach include New Hall in Harlow,(William and Jon Moen) Derwenthorpe in York (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) (see photo) Bedzed in Sutton (Public Sector/Peabody) and Poundbury in Dorset (Duchy of Cornwall).
Not all to everyone’s taste but the commitment to deliver a high quality design and a beautiful place is crystal clear. Clear design and planning guidance from the local authority can also help manage landowner value expectations and thereby assist in creating beautiful places.
So next time you think a housing estate looks “pig ugly” think beyond the architect and the housebuilder and ask what role the landowner may have have played in squeezing the pips out of the design budget. In contrast where you see beautiful places remember that the landowner will likely have been just as influential as the architect or developer.
Final plea goes to the public sector. A wave of public sector land is coming forward and surely the landowner should adopt a similar approach to the schemes described above. Simply maximising land price to achieve “best value” would be short termist and wrong headed. Public and private sector landowner commitment to (and investment in) design will pay the country dividends.