This article by Barry Gray featured in the September 2022 issue of Public Sector Build.

With the amount of available social housing declining, average house prices increasing, the growing rates of energy bills, and the rise of inflation, social housing standards continue to fall but not due to a lack of effort.

One example to support this claim is the current Social Housing Regulation Bill that is making its way through the UK parliament. This bill, prepared by the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities, was formed to drive up social housing standards and give the Regulator of Social Housing more power to act.

Anothe example comes from the Local Government Association (LGA) which recently called on the Government to provide councils with the powers and tools to reverse the chronic shortage of social housing, including giving councils powers to build 100,000 high-quality, climate-friendly social homes a year.

The LGA recently welcomed the Building Safety Act 2022 which was passed on 28 June 2022 and seeks to strengthen the building safety systems in the UK especially in relation to new buildings.

As a result of the Building Safety Act 2022, architects will face greater regulation as the Building Safety Act introduces a power for the Architect’s Registration Board (ARB) to monitor the competence of architects. Architects will need to register with the ARB and the ARB will have the power to remove them from the register for misconduct or serious professional incompetence.

Keeping all of the above in mind, it’s clear housing associations and local government are making efforts to improve social housing standards, and now that architects are being held to higher regulations we can look at how they can make a difference to social housing.

One way Architects can do this is by designing adequate open play areas for children. An article posted by The Guardian would support this. It states that families in a London social housing development were told children playing in the hall of the building ‘breached tenancy agreements’.

The families argued there’s nowhere else for the children to play and Southwark council – which owns the land – said it was investigating whether the developer, Berkeley Homes, failed to provide play space promised in the original planning permission.

The Irish Government introduced legislation that would solve the lack of play areas for children in social housing within the UK. Published within its Ready, Steady, Play – A National Play Policy regarding social housing it stipulates that play spaces for small children should be provided within one minutes’ walk of each front door and should be overlooked from the dwellings.

Sustainability within social housing is a hot topic in architecture and construction and has become an essential inclusion in the design process. One method to achieving a more energy efficient building could be by adopting Passivhaus standards.

Passivhaus is a tried and tested solution that provides a range of proven approaches to deliver net-zero-ready buildings optimised for a decarbonised grid and augmented for occupant health and wellbeing. Passivhaus buildings provide a high level of occupant comfort using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Proof that these standards work came in 2019 when it was used on the Goldsmith Street social housing project in Norwich. Made up of 105 units for social rent, the architects entered the project with the aim of creating a sustainable community and they did just that, as Goldsmith Street became the first social housing project to win the Stirling Prize, the UK’s top prize for architecture.

While the public sector may have the right intentions, this is not always reflected in practice through the procurement process for social housing developments.

In the drive to minimise cost, many public sector procurers have been giving responsibility of development projects to contractors and the rise in use of design and build contracts in procurement personifies this. In many cases, the design and build route leads to the design architect being replaced by the contractor once a building has received planning permission, removing the essential design oversite that ensures the quality detailed in the design process is retained through to the finished development.

This issue could be resolved by ensuring that design quality is protected through the procurement process by requiring commitments to be made by applicants on the retention of project teams throughout the construction process. This is also supported by the recommendations outlined in The London Plan. It’s specific in recognising the important value of design continuity and offers a number of ways this can be achieved, such as through a condition of planning permission, as a design reviewer, or through an architect retention clause in a legal agreement.

Ultimately, the character of an area comes from the way that buildings, streets, spaces, landscape, and infrastructure combine together and how people experience them. It’s not just about the buildings or its aesthetics, but how it engages with everything surrounding it. If social housing developments are well-designed and sustainable it will give its tenants a sense of pride, helping to create and sustain communities and neighbourhoods.