I’ve just upgraded from an 84-year to a 999-year lease on my apartment. To put that in historical context imagine my London mansion block had been built by the Saxons during the reign of Ethelred the Unready – we’d now be at the end of 999 years. Of course, it would have been built from timber and thatch and my floor, the third, wouldn’t exist as Anglo Saxons only ever had two floors at best. Not a single Anglo-Saxon dwelling has survived. On the other hand my Edwardian red-brick block has survived more than a century in pretty good condition. The question is: will the super-luxury apartments currently being sold for silly money last as well? And will the new houses being built in the US exurbs and on the edges of British commuter towns still be there in a century? Should we expect them to be?
In Japan houses are built to last 25 years. The Ise Grand Shrine, one of Shinto’s most sacred structures, is built of timber and thatch and is more than 1,500 years old. Except that it isn’t. It’s rebuilt every 20 years. Its sacrality lies in it being simultaneously pristine and ancient, in an idea or an archetype rather than in the fabric itself. Compare that with the gothic cathedrals of Europe: newer, yet older. We revere their stones, yet those stones have almost all been replaced.
Our attitude to ageing is ambiguous. New houses in Europe and the US command a premium because they are easy to maintain and built to modern standards. Yet London’s most prestigious housing stock resides in often jerry-built Georgian terraces, New York’s in its clunky brownstones, Paris’s in the imperially-scaled, often impractically enfilade apartments (all rooms opening into one another, making privacy impossible). Why is it that these dwellings have survived and become more desirable and more expensive with every passing day? (Central London prices rose by 14.1 per cent last year and an FT report found that property of £5m and over was rising at an eye-watering £2,200 per day.) And then there is the Anglo-Saxon fantasy of finding a secluded country cottage, a centuries-old gem covered in ivy, a fairytale in which the value resides in the picturesque image rather than the reality of the space contained.
So will our new homes gain value the way their London and New York predecessors have? Will they age as charmingly as a 300-year-old Cotswold cottage or New England clapboard farmhouse? Or will they begin to look shabby and unfashionable within a decade, with their plastic windows cracked and their plans outmoded and unusable?
I ask Paul Finch, former head of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and now deputy chairman of the Design Council, whether he is concerned that we are not building houses to last. “No,” he says, bluntly. “If you’re building to current regulations, it’s actually very hard to build to fail. If we were building badly we’d see it – where are the examples of buildings that have failed? What’s interesting, though, is that stuff that was built badly, like Nash’s [Regency] London, has lasted well.”
Finch is right. Modern building regulations in the UK are rigorous (even if aesthetic standards are dismal). “We have a 10-year warranty period for houses,” says Richard Tamayo, commercial director of the National House Building Council. “It’s the longest warranty period in the world.” Is 10 years enough? After all, a mortgage might be for 35 years or more. “No one can offer more than a 10-year guarantee because beyond that period you get issues of maintenance,” he says. “There’s no reason new houses shouldn’t last as long as Victorian houses.”
David Birkbeck, chief executive of lobby group Design for Homes, says “houses are being built to last” but, of course, Tamayo and Birkbeck would say that, wouldn’t they? Yet Birkbeck does admit to a few downsides to contemporary construction. Before the industrialisation of construction, he says, “houses were built of local materials, with local clay for the bricks and slates for the roofs – and those materials weathered. Bricks spalled, timbers bent. There was a softness and a blending in. Now look around a modern housing estate and try to find a damaged brick and you won’t be able to; the houses are built of the best, toughest materials. But there’s a flipside: that softness is being lost to the desire to engineer houses to last, to make them bomb-proof.”
Interestingly though, Birkbeck says that if he was going to buy a house for longevity, “I’d buy it in Scandinavia. Probably in Denmark.” He cites windows as a particular difference – in Britain they tend to be small and a bit mean – cheap to make and install, whereas in Denmark they tend to design large picture windows which give longevity, light and expansive views. These are expensive, but make a huge difference. “They are,” he says, “very forward thinking.”
Europe builds in a different way to the US. For centuries the standard American technique has been “stick build” – a cheap timber frame which is then cladded. Architect Shawn Watts, partner in New York’s Leroy Street Studio, has built houses in both the UK and the US. “We watched the British masons putting up internal partitions in block and brick. We thought they were crazy; in the US they’d always use stud [timber] walls – they [British contractors] are building to last.”
The problem, Watts suggests, has been the industrialisation of US construction. “In Europe there are still contractors who have local knowledge of materials and traditional techniques, of how materials breathe and move,” he says. “In the US … the process is designed for the industry.” On a more cheerful note, Watts does see “a growing culture of innovation in sustainability. The question is how do we build a house so that it can be taken apart and re-used.” He refers here to William McDonough’s hugely influential book (Cradle to Cradle) on the future of sustainable industry, which expresses the dream that what we make and build might be capable of being entirely recycled or reused. He also raises another important factor: “In order for a building to survive, you need to build a viable community that will take care of it.”
The physical fabric of the houses we build today might last but the vast majority – in low density, out-of-town developments, far from facilities and poorly served by public transport – are predicated on the contemporary condition of cheap fuel. Just as cheap credit fuelled a boom and subsequent collapse in US suburban housing, a steep rise in fuel prices would make the endless suburbs, and particularly the “exurbs” beyond them, unliveable.
Government plans to make it easier to build on green-belt land – which is what builders want as it is much easier and cheaper – will only engrain the problems. But demand is huge. “The UK,” says Birkbeck, “has roughly 26m homes. We built 110,000 in 2011. To renew the stock through replacement would take more than 236 years at the current rate. So houses would have to last at least 236 years. The US is 236 years old this year.”
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent
Houses that were never meant to last … but have
There is housing that is built to last and there is housing that is not, but which has lasted anyway. Japan’s timber and paper houses still inspire designers with their ethereal aesthetic and rigorous, exquisite geometry and the light way in which they sit on the ground, both physically and environmentally. But there are also myriad semi-temporary homes which might make us wonder whether the longed-for permanence is always the only way forward – or is it the banks’ insistence on mortgage terms which has pushed us into a particular idea of stability?
Soldiers returning home from the first and second world wars were housed in prefabs – system-built cabins, many of which have survived almost a century and remain insistently popular. Six of the 1940s plywood prefab bungalows on the Excalibur Estate in south-east London were recently listed Grade II. Trailer homes in the US may have an unfortunate association with the horrible term “Trailer Trash” but they provide decent homes for hundreds of thousands who would otherwise struggle to afford houses.
In fact a blend of cradle to cradle sustainable design and the innovations in emergency shelter for disaster victims is provoking some of the most interesting contemporary housing. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has been making houses (and even churches) from cardboard for two decades. And why not? Some are as simple and elegant as traditional Japanese architecture. Perhaps the answer to the housing crisis is more temporary rather than more permanent building.