2nd Oct 2017 — View from Home: Challenges of Building Today

View from Home: Challenges of Building Today

Joanna Doherty


We often think of the private home as a reflection of the owner’s individual interests and way of life. Yet private houses – and the process of making them – are intrinsically tied to wider social and political developments. Reflecting on some recent SWA commissions for individual homes reveals much about the construction industry and our society today.

Planning system problems

Gaining planning permission is a huge milestone in every project. Large scale developers have the resources to invest in negotiating the system, often paying for extended pre-application services and specialist planning consultants. To cash-strapped councils, the non-regulated pre-application fees are clearly a welcome source of extra income.

Buying attention from a planning case officer is increasingly becoming a necessary step in the process. With a consistently heavy workload, case officers can often only turn their attention to each application as the deadline approaches. By which point it may be too late to address within the remaining timeframe any issues that are more sensitive or unclear and the only options left are to withdraw the application or risk refusal.

The promotion of the pre-application process and the limited communication with planning officers reveal a system under pressure. For the private individual, there is often a lot – both personal and financial – resting on the planning decision. In its current state, the system seems weighted in favour of larger developers.

Creative solutions to cost

Particularly in London, land and house prices are forcing many potential private clients to think creatively about how they can make their dream home a reality. Backland plots that would once have been overlooked or seen as too difficult for development are increasingly becoming the site of innovative solutions to living in the city today. For those lucky enough to already own a home in London, extensions are often the most viable way to expand or accommodate changing needs rather than simply moving house.

Consideration of house prices and financial return are never far from the decision-making. Private clients are increasingly looking to adopt an element of self-build to reduce the cost of the construction process. Developments in off site prefabrication methods offer the attractive possibility of reducing the construction time on site and its associated costs, with prefabrication companies offering a more accessible breakdown of the process and costs than traditional contractors. The structure and thermal envelope are increasingly offered as a packaged product.

New ways of living

Living concepts that were not so long ago seen as alternative models are increasingly becoming the norm. With a demand for increased flexibility in our working lives and more people working from home, many homes now combine spaces for living and working in a variety of configurations. An ageing population and the growing costs associated with care for the elderly and childcare have contributed to a perception of multigenerational living as both a viable and attractive option. Future-proofing homes to build in flexibility for older living is increasingly a key element of a client’s brief.

The challenge for architects is to incorporate these demands into a home that not only reflects its society and our current way of life but also inspires a way of living for the inhabitants, to create a unique sense of home.