Good urban design could help the housing crisis


John Slaughter, Director of External Affairs at the Home Builders Federation (HBF) details how ‘Building for Life’ represents good urban design, and could help with the national housing crisis…

The design of housing developments is rightly of interest to all those involved in or affected by the delivery of new housing – communities, local authorities, and of course house builders themselves. This interest is naturally growing as we seek to increase the supply of new homes significantly to tackle our national housing crisis.

At the same time, however, everyone will have their own view of what constitutes good design in a particular location and this means there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity involved in reaching decisions. How are we therefore to encourage and support good urban design in a way that is responsive to local context while being practical for house builders to implement?

For HBF and its partners – Design for Homes and Design Council Cabe – a large part of the answer lies in the use of Building for Life 12 (BFL12) Building for Life 12 is a distillation of many years’ experience of working to encourage good design. The original Building for Life was established in 2000 with the aim of capturing the generally accepted principles of urban design for residential development in one place and in a way that could apply to a wide range of different housing projects.

It comprised 20 principles broadly covering issues from environment and community to design and construction. The government recognised Building for Life as the national standard for good design and a system of “awards” was initiated for projects that were judged to have achieved the majority of the 20 principles – silver for 14 and gold for 16 or more. This was effective in raising awareness of good design principles and providing recognition for well-designed developments. There were, however, concerns over time that some of the 20 BfL criteria were more a product of current policy objectives than the enduring principles of urban design and that BfL was not as accessible as it should be to local communities, councils and the full range of the industry.

This led the BfL partners to rethink their approach, with a particular stimulus to doing so being the current government’s promotion of localism in planning, including neighbourhood plans, at the same time as reinforcing the importance of good design in the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). In this context we worked with local authorities, design experts and community representatives as well as industry practitioners to make sure that Building for Life was fit for purpose for the new planning regime. We concluded we could rationalise the key elements of good design into 12 principles and express these in a way that was far easier to grasp for non-professionals without detracting from the robustness of Building for Life.

The 12 principles are made up of 4 questions in each of 3 chapters:

  • Integrating into the neighbourhood;
  • Creating a place;
  • Street and home.

We launched the resultant BfL 12 in the autumn of 2012 and it has already gained widespread recognition as an effective means of promoting good quality development and facilitating a sensible dialogue between councils, communities and developers on design.

It has succeeded in the latter by providing a common and accessible language exploring the 12 BfL principles and providing a set of questions or prompts that allow the application of the principles to particular developments to be probed by non-experts as well as professionals.

In addition, because the BfL 12 principles are set out in a non-prescriptive way they can be successfully applied to all sizes of development and a wide range of development contexts. It is this practicality that underpins BfL’s usefulness and attractiveness to all parties.

Most recently, we have sought to reinforce the incentives for developers to follow BfL12’s principles by creating an independent accreditation for new projects – which we are calling “Built for Life”.
Based on a simple ‘traffic light’ system (red, amber and green) BfL12 recommends that proposed new developments aim to:

  • Secure as many ‘greens’ as possible,
  • Minimise the number of ‘ambers’ and;
  • Avoid ‘reds’.

The more ‘greens’ that are achieved, the better a development will be. A proposed development might not be able to achieve 12 ‘greens’ for a variety of reasons not necessarily resolvable due to the nature of a site and its context. The BfL partnership is therefore making developments that achieve 9 ‘greens’ eligible for ‘Built for Life’ accreditation. ‘Built for Life’ accreditation is an independently assessed quality mark available immediately after planning approval, offering developers the opportunity to promote the quality of their developments during sales and marketing activity. It will also help those seeking a home to find a place to live which has been designed to have the best possible chance of becoming a popular and desirable neighbourhood.

Developments that achieve 12 greens will be eligible for Built for Life “Outstanding”. We believe BfL12 offers an excellent basis for promoting constructive dialogue on good design and supporting house builders in investing in this and would wish to engage with all parties in ensuring its many benefits can be maximised.

John Slaughter
Director of External Affairs
Home Builders Federation (HBF)


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