Every Londoner should have access to a quality and affordable home. As part of the Delivering Quality Homes Initiative, the Mayor’s Housing team and Design Advocates and the Good Growth by Design team have created a guide that offers a roadmap for the delivery of good quality homes and places. In this guest post, Claire Bennie, Director at Municipal and member of the Mayor’s Design Advocate Team, tells us more and shares practical examples of those getting housing delivery right.
Why do new homes delivered by the public sector sometimes fall short of our aspirations for quality? And who has the most agency to fix that? The answers may surprise you.
Having spent the last three years working closely with a number of councils, I am now convinced that it is their own development teams which hold the key to better quality homes. The Mayor’s recently launched Delivering Quality Homes Handbook summarises 50 ways in which developing councils and housing associations can improve their own teams and processes to get the quality they want. The handbook covers four themes: culture and people, briefs and standards, procurement and stewardship.
Culture and People
A quality culture is one where ‘quality’ is defined by the organisation, where high quality outcomes are expected and rewarded, and where quality is discussed and debated regularly by colleagues. This culture needs to be led at a senior level by Members, Executives or Directors, and be supported by appropriate people resource and training programmes, whether in-house or externally appointed. LB Hackney has developed the way it scrutinises design over several years:
- Development Management staff are a mix of ‘design qualified’ and not. The design qualified staff will assist others with design review as needed.
- Pre-application meetings are held with the in-house planning team as usual; Design Review Panels are also convened for most schemes via the planning team.
- A Design Manager will critique schemes regularly as they evolve, and also undertake ‘gateway reviews’ to achieve sign-off as part of formal project governance.
- An external panel of architects, the Regeneration Design Advisory Group (RDAG), also critiques larger schemes at key moments. This group is separate from the Design Review Panel used by the planners. The RDAG panel also runs workshop sessions to deal with particular design themes like landscape.
Briefs and Standards
This section shows how delivery organisations can describe the quality which they want to achieve at various levels of detail. A good brief allows design teams and contractors to respond with creativity, innovation and efficiency and should go beyond planning and building regulations. It should describe with clarity to the design team what the delivery organisation and their residents will expect. Norwich City Council’s Goldsmith Street project (winner of the Stirling Prize 2019) targeted Passivhaus. The Council made sure this standard was delivered by taking the following steps:
- Council members (across parties) prioritised solving fuel poverty for their residents.
- Council members and officers visited completed Passivhaus schemes to speak to residents about their experience.
- A clear and simple brief was written, referred to as ‘exemplar’ by the architects.
- Every component was sourced by the design team to suit both budget and carbon targets.
- Passivhaus was cited in the build contract negotiations as a clear ‘red line’ and payments were linked to building performance evidence.
This section deals with the procurement of the two key external supply chain resources needed to deliver new homes – design teams and contractors (or combined as developer). When any third party is brought in to help deliver a project, there is both an influx of expertise and a loss of project control. The client’s skill is to allow the design and construction supply chain to bring all their creativity and efficiency to the project, whilst eliminating design complexity and preventing unconsidered cost-cutting. Selecting and then working with design teams, contractors or developers should be an intensive and rewarding process for all. These parties will have a huge influence on whether a good quality outcome is achieved. London Community Land Trust develops homes for community groups. It chooses and evaluates both architects and contractors in a collaborative way:
- Social impact objectives are set in the initial brief and design teams need to respond to those.
- Architects are chosen by local communities after literally ‘setting out their stall’ at a public meeting before any design work starts.
- Design and Build contractors are asked to appoint the planning stage architect through to completion.
- Several meetings are held during the pre-contract period. These meetings highlight different design aspects and seek the contractor’s response while also allowing them to show value.
This section deals with how quality is governed, showing what procedures are needed to monitor and retain a golden thread of design quality through the project process. It cannot be overstated how vital this thread is, including in ensuring compliance with regulation and policy. However, it is easily lost through missed or poorly managed processes between concept and completion. Peabody has developed clear processes to scrutinise design development both before and after contractor involvement:
- A design and technical team has staff from architectural, engineering, sustainability and contracting backgrounds
- A member of the design and technical team chairs the Operational Design Panel (ODP) which meets weekly to review emerging schemes
- The ODP also discusses and agrees any changes to the baseline design standards and ERs documents, taking a balanced view of landlord and other feedback
- In-house construction inspectors are used to achieve maximum commitment to long-term quality as well as external monitoring and evaluation inspectors.
Delivering quality homes
The handbook features eight case study clients who explain throughout the text how they have achieved high quality new homes. As Rachel Bagenal at Hackney put it to me, “it’s a labour of love – all the way through”. There are also good practice examples and links to external resources all the way through the handbook. It is currently being piloted by Poplar HARCA, Habinteg, Hyde and LB Hounslow, who are creating improvement plans to suit their particular organisations. The handbook and action planning process will be amended in response to their feedback, and may then become a contractual obligation for all GLA partners.
Finally, improving quality is not all in the hands of clients: design teams and contractors need to up their game as well. Many clients tell me that architects could improve their understanding of both initial and long-term cost, as well as buildability. Clients also report that many design teams and contractors are not yet properly versed in the detail required to achieve genuinely sustainable construction. I’ve long considered that both designers and contractors need a step-change in their skills if we’re going to hit zero carbon – and it would be great if they worked on that in collaboration rather than from their silos.