While the UK faces multiple and diverse challenges, many relate to the places and spaces in which we live, work and spend our lives. If what Churchill said is true and ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us’, what qualitative and quantitative considerations inform frameworks – both in policy and regulation – for a better built environment?
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Buildings in focus
The built environment in Britain is currently under the microscope. Already never far from the thoughts of the average Briton, our buildings are now front and centre beneath the lens of national attention. Many of the diverse challenges the UK comes up against relate back to the places and spaces in which we live, work and spend our lives. There’s a shortage of new homes; our population is becoming older and living longer; we are less physically active, causing strain on the NHS and supporting families; and many schools and public buildings are in drastic need of repair. The planning system is endlessly being reformed, to improve ‘delivery’, to save the £3bn a year that its delays are alleged to cost the economy. And money is important. We have a sluggish economy at the tail-end of a lengthy period of austerity.
All this was brought into sharper focus by the events at Grenfell Tower last year. The deaths of 71 individuals reminded us all that the first priority for anyone involved in the built environment must be that people feel safe in their own homes.
The UK faces multiple and diverse challenges but many relate back to the places and spaces in which we live, work and spend our lives.
In the summer Building Research Establishment (BRE) together with Jericho Chambers brought together the first of a number of roundtable discussions under the title What Kind of Britain are we building? The aim was to begin a conversation about the new directions we should be taking, what questions we should be asking and who should be involved in the process when it comes to building a better Britain – which is BRE’s aim throughout its research and knowledge generation. The panel included, architects, planners, fuel poverty campaigners, experts in sustainability, developers and four members of BRE.
The discussion was attended by:
- Paul Morrell, Chartered Surveyor and former construction tsar (Provocateur)
- Niall Trafford, CEO, BRE (Host)
- Robert Phillips, Jericho Chambers (Chair)
- Dr Julie Bregulla, Director of Fire and Building Technology, BRE
- Dr Shamir Ghumra, Director of BREEAM, BRE
- Matthew Gwyther, Jericho Chambers
- Stephen Hill, Director, C20 Futureplanners
- Mike Hood, Group Director of Development, Capital & Counties Properties PLC
- Ruth London, Fuel Poverty Action
- Kersten Muller, Head of UK Real Estate and Construction, Grant Thornton
- Lucy Musgrave, Founder, Publica
- Maria Palmieri, Head of Government Relations, Tech Nation
- Ben Plowden, Director of Surface Planning and Strategy, TfL
- Ben Rogers, Director, Centre for London
- Dr Debbie Smith OBE, Managing Director, BRE Global
- Ed Watson, Consultant, Integrated City Planning, Arup
Frameworks for better building
At the heart of the challenge for those who plan, design, build and maintain buildings – not to mention the end-users who live and work in them – are two key issues: quantity and quality.
We know – and have known for years – that we simply are not building enough new homes in the UK. Either in the public or private sector. Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows how an explosion in house prices above income growth has increasingly denied the younger generation of the ability to buy their own home. For 25- to 34-year-olds earning between £22,200 and £30,600 per year, home ownership fell to just 27% in 2016 from 65% two decades previously.
Middle-income young adults born in the late 1980s are now no more likely than those lower down the pay scale to own their own home. Those born in the 1970s were almost as likely as their peers on higher wages to have bought their own home during young adulthood.
This is profoundly altering the outlook of the young. Many feel let down by older generations, who are driving a Britain that speaks to social exclusion – based on age, wealth and privilege – and not to one of inclusion, mobility and opportunity.
Home ownership fell to just 27% in 2016 from 65% two decades previously.
The issue of quality is also troubling. We must build well. Over the years we thought we had developed an enviable reputation for standards in the UK. The truth was rather more nuanced, as Grenfell showed. The recently produced report by Dame Judith Hackitt on Building Regulations and Fire Safety left nobody under the illusion that the current system does not require major attention and revision.
Better building – views from the industry
The discussion was opened by Niall Trafford, the CEO of BRE. “Our organisation dates back to 1921”,he said. “We were once part of government but that is no longer the case”. He continued:
We are now owned by a charitable trust and our commitment to the public good remains steadfast. Our motto is ‘building a better world together’ and that is our prime purpose to improve those places we live, work and are at leisure. But Grenfell threw us into a state of sharp relief. It has occupied a group of our experts intensely in the last twelve months and will continue to do so.
As an organisation of many specialties we’re conscious of a number of concerning factors: the presence of fewer technically capable people working on the built environment in local government, the whole procurement process and the questions of testing and certification.
We have opinions – and these are rooted in our world of science and data – but we are not opinionated. Traditionally, we haven’t put our heads above the parapet. But we need now to find our voice and find courage to be heard. We can and must contribute to the debate, but we cannot provide answers alone, which is why we have asked you here today. We’re here not just to contribute, but to listen.
One has to be optimistic for the future. We are on the cusp of great digital innovation that will improve things, for example, as we combat the effects of climate change – a fact of life that encompasses much of what we do in the built environment. But there is a long way to go.
Paul Morrell OBE was invited to contribute to the roundtable as a provocateur. Morrell is a chartered quantity surveyor by profession but is best known as the government’s first chief construction advisor or ‘czar’ from 2009 to 2012. He did two terms of service but declined a third.
Before the discussion, Paul provided a written ‘provocation’, producing these thoughts:
I think there is reasonable consensus as to the kind of Britain we should be building: one that creates places and spaces that allow people to be at their best, and assets that are affordable, durable and sustainable. Sometimes we manage, almost by chance, to do that, but more often we don’t, and buildings that are assessed after occupation are repeatedly shown to fall short of the expectations held out when they were designed and built.
Some of this is the result of problems that are structural, and some is cultural, but in both respects the absence of a feedback loop, and the data it would produce, is fatal to the ability to learn and improve.
Data alone won’t fix everything, and we have to strive for improvements on all fronts, but without that data, the truth is that we don’t really know what kind of Britain we are building. The question then is not so much what would make things better, but rather what might make those things happen.
Asked to expand on these thoughts he continued: “Although there is no real equivalence in the consequences, I think the structural and cultural problems that led to both Grenfell and the demise of Carillion were well known beforehand, both to those working in the industry and to government.” He also expressed doubt that single individuals will be brought to account for either, and fears that the determination to attach guilt risks missing the opportunity to bring about positive change.
We need to iterate the purpose of buildings. Should a prison be constructed to contain people or to reduce recidivism?
His critique went further. He went on to say that if the building industry were like the automobile industry it would have been deemed not fit-for-purpose a long time ago. “The construction industry has a recall rate on buildings that would be a national scandal in other sectors, such as automotive. The fact is that virtually no building performs as it should”. He felt that it should not have come as a surprise (as it apparently did at Grenfell) that thirty to forty companies can be involved in making one product. It takes as many or more to make a car or aeroplane. The difference is that in construction nobody owns the whole process, and the industry’s response to customer (and social) need lacks integration. Given that, he wondered, is it any wonder that there is no sense of accountability, and that the concept of kaizen or continual improvement which, under the force of global competition (also lacking in construction) has transformed other industries, has gained so little traction in construction – even at the consumer end of the market, such as house-building.
Neither was he convinced that arguments about red tape are the hindrance that many free- market advocates state they are. “Standards that help us build better and that protect people from harm are there to improve outcomes, and it is a category error to characterise them as regulatory red tape, as many politicians do”, he said.
A more compelling issue for Morrell is that building is not done ‘to purpose.’ “We simply are not designing and building with a genuine understanding of the real purpose of the asset in mind”, he stated, continuing: “As just one challenging example, should a prison be constructed to contain people or to reduce recidivism? Only when we are clear about the answers to questions like that will be building the right kind of Britain, and one that delivers value over its whole life.”
Morrell concluded by reminding the panel of Churchill’s oft-cited phrase – ‘We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.’
The full interview with Paul Morrell – also available as a downloadable podcast – is below.
There were further contributions from all around the table. Dr Julie Bregulla is Director of Fire and Building Technology at BRE. Julie is a Chartered Civil Engineer and her research work has focussed on the development of regulations and regulatory guidance. She said: “We know there’s a performance gap in our buildings – they simply are not performing as designed from many points of view. BRE has the ability to gather vast amounts of data on many aspects of the built environment but what is critical is the correct analysis of that. Above all, meeting the safety expectations is paramount. It’s a must-have when the rules are written and must be abided by. It cannot be about procurement cost.”
The interview with Julie can be listened to in full on the link below.
Stephen Hill, the director of C20 Futureplanners, has worked for many years in public and private housing, planning and delivering mixed-use development. Back in the 1970s he worked on the client side in the architectural and planning department for a local authority in London. He feels much has been lost since those days not least a sense of caring for a place. The economic crisis of 1976 and an era of Thatcherism put paid, in his opinion, to a healthier earlier era.
Hill puts the big changes down to outsourcing of housing which was “a profound mistake… the total absence of feedback is a systemic failure”. He laments current lack of power of local government in housing: “there is more local autonomy in North Korea than in parts of local government in the UK”, he claims. Stephen’s thoughts on regulatory frameworks to foster better building practice can be heard in the podcast linked below.
Dr Shamir Ghumra is Director of BREEAM at BRE. Dr Ghumra runs the international sustainability standards organisation that BRE has developed. The standards that BRE applies are now being actively applied in over 70 countries all of which are, in different ways, affected by climate change. Listen to Dr Ghumra’s thoughts on the valuable contribution of his sort of expertise– and who should be the custodians of the built environment– in the Soundcloud link below.
Finally Ed Watson has broad experience working in planning and regeneration while working for local government in London. He is now at engineers Arup. Ed was interested in the fall in levels of trust held by the general public in experts – a phenomenon made worse by Grenfell. “There’s a perception that the development industry hasn’t served the wider public well. Also that there’s simply not enough resource and investment in regulation and standards”, he said. He spoke interestingly on the dilemma of politicians who often do not get sufficient time to master their complex briefs before being moved in government. And the politicians consistent erring towards short rather than long-termism. Click below to download/ listen to Ed’s interview.
Currently there is a widespread scepticism even disillusion about a lot that is done in our built environment sector. There is a lack of trust and a sense that there has been systemic failure. Each and every home must count. Each and every citizen must feel safe and included within a healthy, flourishing society.
There is reasonable consensus as to the kind of Britain we should be building: one that creates places and spaces that allow people to be at their best, and assets that are affordable, durable and sustainable.
There was no shortage of lament, protest and regret expressed around the table. But one has to start somewhere. Overall it was agreed that the issues which need to be addressed are many and varied. But they definitely include:
- A regulatory framework that is fit for purpose in the 21st century Britain
- Whether cost-cutting/procurement/’value engineering’ has taken the UK beyond safety limits
- The importance of localism and consultation. Homes are for people, after all.
- To what extent can energy efficiency help address fuel poverty
- Are we doing enough to combat climate change in the way we design and construct our buildings?
- Why is the construction sector so slow to adapt to the digital world?
- Can automation/AI help us rethink how we design and build?
Matthew Gwyther is an award-winning journalist (he edited Management Today for 17 years), partner at Jericho Chambers and presenter of Radio 4’s In Business programme.