Are you building a house or a home?

Nostalgia v Architecture

Many people feel a sense of familiarity, warmth and welcomness from old buildings that they do not experience with modern architecture, these people would say that they; “feel at home in these places”, what these buildings offer however is a connection to our soul. Developers tap into this emotional nostalgia by building speculative modern houses that resemble or look a bit like houses from bygone eras. But, more often than not, these developer houses, or units as they are referred to by developers , with their Victorian or mock Tudor frontages and integral double garages are mere caricatures of the bygone homes they aim to replicate.  Speculative housing is designed and built for unknown occupants and the race to the cash ensures that bedrooms are too small, individuality is lost and space is compromised.

Unlike our European neighbours where around 50% of homes are built for the individual, only a few people in Britain get the opportunity to build their own home, the majority having to content themselves with the limited choice of pastiche speculative housing.  But whilst developers build their look-a-like houses, architects and designers working on the 10% of individual commissions are all too often concerned with creating houses that are compositions of space, structure and form as an expression of the designer’s artistic ability which leaves little room for a connection to the homeowner’s soul.  Bizarrely the most expressive of these artistic creations are honoured with prestigious architectural awards by other architects.

We therefore have a situation where developers build houses or units for their shareholders, not their desire to meet our emotional needs and architects are taught and praised by their peers for designing houses not homes.

So what is a Home?

The dictionary definition for house and home are subtly different; A house is a building for human habitation, whereas a home is a place where a person, family or household lives.

As opposed to a house which is about the architecture or the fabric that meets our physical needs, the essence of a home is something more which specifically relates to the individual or family psyche and emotional needs of the people that live in it. Homes are not simply a piece of architecture with a series of objects within the structure, but are a carefully considered group of sourced possessions.  These objects and furniture often collected and curated over a lifetime, carry the memories and personality of an individual’s desires, wants and needs, all within a building that makes them feel at home. A home is therefore a special house that has been tailored by the individual to their needs.

Planning and the home

The planning system, like speculative housing is a numbers game. Policies talk about units, houses and infrastructure, not homes and families. The system generally encourages large concentrations of houses, whilst doing little to encourage one off homes, individuality or something that goes against the current pattern.

Planners adopt the language of architects and focus on the form and exterior envelope of the building, putting the perceived needs of people in the locality, who have not expressed an opinion, ahead of the needs of the prospective home owner. Decisions are regularly taken by Planners or their Committees to decide the outcome of planning applications without actually meeting or having a dialogue with the family group that wishes to live in the proposed home.

Self build as a way of meeting the homeowners needs

Despite the vast majority who live in speculative housing, it transpires that half the UK population would at some point in their lives like to build their own home. Now I don’t believe that it is the burning desire to be carrying a Hod full of bricks which makes these Brits wish to build their own home, but perhaps a wish to have a greater involvement in the design and ownership, a different sort of ownership that can only come from being responsible for every step of the way.

To ensure these speculative self builders achieved a great “place that they feel at home in” they would need to articulate their brief clearly to the designer, thus ensuring that the home represented their individuality and not that of their designer.

So what of the future?

Around a year ago the Government launched an initiative to increase the number of available homes to help self builders. This policy is not so much driven by the wish to improve our housing stock by allowing individuals to build their own homes, but as a way to kick start the housing industry which has seen a collapse in speculative housing since the recession. Whatever the motives, a policy which encourages councils to develop planning policies to take account of self builders, asks lenders to offer better finance , while at the same times reducing and simplifying regulations, has to be applauded.

Locating and buying land, obtaining permission and building a house all take time and the uptake is what will be the judge of this policy.  However, unless the Government is going to free up large swathes of the countryside or requires developers to break up their land banks the availability of plots will always be the stumbling block.

If larger numbers of people start self building, we could see a resurgence of interest in individual homes and a greater diversification of our housing stock in the way that Germany and other EU countries have. In the meantime in a bid to resolve the shortcomings found in today’s homes, I will busy myself with designing home extensions and remodelling projects tailored to suit the needs of my clients and their families.

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