Architecture beyond Europe: what does the future hold?

Leaving the European Union will force the UK to address its house building industry’s skills gap, says Jane Duncan, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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When even bookmakers are losing money due to unexpected events, it is perhaps time to concede that trying to second guess the future is a mug’s game. So instead of writing an article full of predictions on future housing demand, the skills crisis and the opportunities that off-site construction offers, I thought I’d try something different.

We know that “Brexit means Brexit” but as somebody once said there are still a lot of unknown unknowns. We do know that a sizeable chunk of the UK population is unhappy with the status quo. I hope that politicians from all parties have heard this because at the heart of it all, Brexit seems to be about people feeling that there must be better ways forward out there which being in the EU is stopping them from seizing. Time will tell if they are right, but for better or worse, the UK finds itself in new and untested waters.

One irony of all of this is that the people who find themselves at the sharp end of the housing crisis were generally solid supporters of remaining in the EU. Young people and city dwellers who see house prices continue to reach stratospheric heights voted in their droves to stay. These are also the people who will potentially lose the most if Brexit doesn’t mean an outward-looking Britain that is open to new ideas and new opportunities.

As an architect, I’m an optimist at heart. I’m also trained to make the most of whatever brief I’m presented with – however unpromising it may at first appear. I hope that Brexit can be a catalyst that forces us to tackle the issues that we’ve previously filed away as too difficult. Business as usual clearly isn’t an option. So here is what I think we need to do.

Firstly, we need more people to design and build new homes. The UK has a shortage of skilled tradespeople and a workforce in a sector that is getting older. We don’t do a good enough job at attracting women or people from minority backgrounds into the sector. Part of the answer could be expanding opportunities to earn and learn. The RIBA is currently working with a group of our members to create an apprenticeship route into architecture. I think this is the best job in the world and want as many people as possible to be able to join the profession.

At the same time, we also need to recognise that one of the things that has made the UK a global centre of architectural excellence and innovation is the ability to draw upon the best talent from around the world. The mutual recognition of qualifications means that professionals can work around the world without having to retrain. Retaining our agreement with the EU and signing new deals with places like the US, India and China are going to be hugely important to maintaining the UK’s access to talent.

Signing trade deals that open up new markets to our exports is important for those companies who are looking to expand abroad. But there are plenty of lessons we can all learn even if we have no plans to move anywhere. This could mean looking at how other countries have tackled issues like the development of affordable housing, sustainable design and building on flood plains. The Netherlands builds larger, more energy efficient and more affordable homes than we do despite the fact that it faces more challenging natural barriers to doing so. One thing they’ve done really well is embrace custom building – allowing people to design their own homes with input from architects, builders and planners.

We should probably also look at how we make land available for development. With land prices in some areas so astronomically and artificially high, it is going to be a struggle to build homes that people can afford in much of the country. The availability of affordable land is a huge block on housing development in many places. We could look at the parts of the US that rarely make the news over here (perhaps with a more directed focus than most at the moment). If you want affordable housing and a good job then New York, San Francisco or Washington DC aren’t for you; you need to look at cities like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. Over the last decade Houston alone has built close to 50,000 new homes a year. I’m not advocating that we consign ourselves to urban sprawl and mass deregulation, but the attitude to housing seems very different. Homes are first and foremost places to live in, but in the UK for many people they seem to be investments first, homes second. In those circumstances, we need to recognise that lots of people have a vested interest (even if it is unconscious and well-intentioned) in not seeing more homes built.

Finally, we need to make sure that the homes and communities that we are building are well-designed and good enough to live in. The government plans to spend substantial amounts on new road and rail projects. We believe that housing development needs to be an essential part of these schemes. The government also needs to ensure that we have the right design and construction quality standards in place. The new homes that are built need to be flexible, low maintenance and sustainable, fit for generations to come. The last government finally agreed to reintroduce minimum space standards for new homes – this is the moment for the industry to excel across the sector. Regrettably we’ve seen the removal of energy efficiency standards – this might save a little on building costs, but pays no attention to the potential for increased running cost and carbon usage. We must not simply pass onto the next generation to deal with the environment after it is too late. Climate change is an awful legacy for us to leave.

Exiting the EU is going to require the government to make important decisions. Huge sections of the construction industry are regulated to pan-European standards. These standards have driven investment, innovation and economies of scale. I’m worried that in the rush for the door perhaps Brexit will really mean a rejection of anything with European in its title. In the standards we build to and elsewhere, this would be a mistake that would do huge damage to the UK’s housing market and the fabric of our society.

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