Why are British housing-developer houses so boring?
Posted by markharrison on January 8, 2011
Another answer I gave to a question from Quora. This question was about why developers neither follow local styles, nor embrace modern design, but instead build bland boxes.
My short answer is “because experience has taught them that that is what sells, and is cheapest to build, and they can get approval for.”
In terms of what sells, UK property prices are at a high relative earnings (even after the declines of 2007-2010). At the cheaper end of the market, buyers typically want a set number of bedrooms, with little requirement ever articulated to developers for “design feature X.” At the upper end of the market, the term “architect-designed” is more frequently used, with houses incorporating more interesting and vernacular features.
So the question becomes one of why large numbers of entry-level houses are required. The answer is partly demographic, and partly planning-led.
The big social change that drives housing requirements over the last 40 years has been the decrease in the number of people who live in the average property. Not only have numbers of children per couple decreased, but divorce is far more common, as is an expectation that children will live away from their parents prior to marriage. The housing mix in the UK still has a disproportionately high number of large houses by historical levels, compared to the number of occupants per house.
Planning Permission is top-down, and led by Local Development Frameworks, which are renewed every 10 years (or Local Development Plans if the local authority has not hit one of its 10 year cycles since LDFs were introduced – the differences between the two not really making a huge difference to this answer.)
If a developer has a plot in area A, then the local council will generally have a strong guidance on the mix of sizes of houses / flats that should be built, in order to meet their own social objectives.
In many parts of the country, particularly the South East, councils are attempting to maximise the number of new properties, while minimising the amount of non-housing land turned over to construction. As such, guidance is in many cases for a large number of small (1-3 bedroom) properties.
Once a developer is in a situation that they need to build, say, 15, houses, then there are clear economic benefits of standardisation. The lure of paying one set of architects / structural engineers’ fees rather than 15 improves their profit, typically by about 1%-1.5% of turnover.
Add to that the possibility for re-using the same design on multiple sites across the developer’s landbank, and the “cookie cutter” approach becomes irresistible, with national designs trumping regional variations.
At the higher end of the market, designs are, indeed, far more varied, and tend to incorporate more interesting features, as do self-build houses.