Do these look like low-cost homes?

Social housing, low-cost developments, projects, council estates – all have the ring of deprivation, even decay, about them, conjuring images of chain-link fences, cramped rooms and concrete blocks.

But there is a small band of architects and forward-thinking government bodies determined to make sure that these types of properties shake off those negative associations. Think open-plan rooms, double-height ceilings, high-quality fixtures and real wood detailing – in short, good design.

This is great news not only for those with their names on a housing list but also for middle- and even upper-income homeowners as the lessons learnt working in tight spaces on tighter budgets pass into the wider marketplace. Desirable materials don’t have to be sacrificed, just stretched. Tricks to enhance the light in a room or the flow of a neighbourhood can be universally effective.

Belgian architect Edith Wouters describes her work as “giving an extra quality” when there’s very little to work with. She and her partner, Paul Vandenbussche, are the founders of Teema, an architecture practice known for its bold, individualist approach to social housing. Commissioned to design 11 units in the Antwerp suburb of Merksplas, they focused on making elements multi-functional, literally from the ground up. Soil studies revealed they would need to dig down a metre to plant the house foundations but, since the brief also required carports, they decided to excavate more and create a subterranean parking level. The concrete poured for the foundation plate was polished so it could serve as flooring in all the homes, eliminating the need for an extra layer. Partitions were made to double as storage units. In each case, the work-arounds created features – private parking, a sleek floor and extra closet space – that wealthier clients might also enjoy.

The Merksplas houses all share an angular modernist shape but they are saved from a bland uniformity by the use of two types of zinc cladding as well as a traditional brick skin painted a bold orange. Double-height living rooms positioned at the rear of the houses provide nice views over the landscape and solar panels help with heating. Perhaps most importantly, the architects opted to create stand-alone units rather than houses with shared party walls. This took a big chunk out of their €1m budget but “people like to feel like they have their own house”, Wouters says.

In spite of all the “perks” presented in Teema’s initial proposal, the local authority, which Wouters wearily describes as “old-fashioned”, was doubtful, fearing that the unusual cladding and forms might put off renters. But “we knew this was not going to be a problem”, Wouters says. Her confidence was justified. Once the homes were approved, built and listed at prices from €100,000 to €170,000, they filled quickly. Although none of Teema’s private clients has yet ordered a copy of a Merksplas house, the architects say the project has helped them win several commissions.

A few hundred miles north, in the formerly derelict East Docklands area of Amsterdam, is another example of trend-setting affordable housing. Adriaan Geuze, from Dutch urban planning company West8, says his first step in tackling the mixed public and private project in Borneo Sporenburg was to banish old ideas. Instead of short streets cutting horizontally across the narrow peninsula, his team inserted diagonal roads, creating longer sightlines through the housing. Instead of the high-rise tower blocks suggested in the original brief, they opted for a high-density, low-rise scheme, still shoehorning 100 units into every hectare but also giving each house its own street entrance. The tiny outdoor gardens and porches that had been recommended were sacrificed in favour of buildings situated around courtyards and larger apartments with atrium-like interior spaces. Finally, West8 managed to draw some of the country’s most creative architects to the scheme.

Again, the resulting homes were ones that people of any income might want, small in scale but big on aesthetics, with different shapes and types of cladding, 3.5m-high ceilings (a metre more than the Dutch standard) and windows of different shapes and heights to harness light and provide privacy and character.

Another innovation that Geuze can see being applied to more affluent areas is the way in which architects met the requirement for one parking space per house at Borneo Sporenburg. “We couldn’t do this on the street because then you end up with poor quality streets where you don’t see individual houses, only parking garages,” he explains. They used a combination of three solutions: patio spaces that could also be used for parking, collective parking areas with spaces for up to ten cars and underground parking, the most expensive option. As a result, “we have people living on the street-side, with their own potted plants, benches, a pedestrian area”.

Once regarded as a no-go area, the Eastern Docklands are now so full of families that three schools have been built. Prices for market-rate homes have also more than doubled since the project was completed in 2000. “As an urban designer, when you get families living somewhere, you feel lucky,” Geuze says.

Creating a positive ripple in the mainstream housing market is also one of James Thomas’s goals. His company, Make, produced one of the nine £60,000-House/Design for Manufacture competition entries selected to be constructed for low-income families around the UK. Its project, with developers William Verry and Saxon Homes, is now in construction in Aylesbury, north of London. “In Britain, there are so many housing estates with houses that were OK but the plan, the organisation let them down,” Thomas says. Make was confronted with a “tricky, narrow site” between a light industrial area and a residential neighbourhood so the architects designed a curved development that poses a public face to the factories with the rear gardens opening towards the housing. A narrower façade on one side carries the private front entrances, while the other has more generous openings to bring in extra light. Because of the curve, all the exterior spaces are directly overlooked, so there are no dark corners, no dead-ends, no narrow tunnels that make other estates so threatening.

The 102 units come in four variations with up to four bedrooms in a low-rise scheme of no more than three storeys. All are completely modular and all consist of prefabricated components from Germany’s Weberhaus. The company has been around for 45 years but the UK’s decision to approve the importation of prefab houses made of timber from sustainable groves for use in public housing is a first.

As at Borneo Sporenburg, roughly one-third of the Aylesbury units are for subsidised rental, while some of the remaining are designated for shared partnership and other schemes. Some will be sold at market rates, however, and “if you show that people are interested in houses that are sustainably built with materials and a rate of performance that are healthy to live in and full of delight, then this will influence developers,” Thomas says. He hopes that Make’s £60,000 house will eventually encourage the use of prefab and timber construction in wealthier communities.

Other architects worry that the homebuilding industry lacks not the ability but the will to produce less expensive, better quality houses. “Developers are smart” in the way they save costs on methods and materials, says US architect Brett Zamore, but “the houses they build are ugly”.

Still, he and others are pushing for change. Zamore is featured in The Perfect $100,000 House, a book meant to serve as a rallying cry for more high-quality, low-cost housing. Author Karrie Jacobs, a former architecture critic and editor-in-chief at Dwell magazine, set out to find a modest home of about 1,000 sq ft that exhibits “a design philosophy that values comfort but doesn’t confuse it with excess”, “the ongoing investigation of methods and materials” and “a strategy that views the most important elements of design as space, daylight, and the surfaces with which we routinely come into contact”. Trekking from New York to Los Angeles and back again, she discovered a number of examples and because her budget was, by current standards, very low, these were mostly creative approaches to social housing.

One standout project was in Lawrence, Kansas – wonderfully modernist-inspired structures using steel, new plastics and wood designed by Studio 804, a group that employs architecture students to build houses for poor families. (This practice, popularised by Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio in the early 1990s, is becoming increasingly common.) In Austin, Texas, Jacobs found another low-income community of functional beauty – houses built of concrete block and HardiPlank (a material made from fibre-reinforced cement) with polished concrete floors, mild, sloping metal roofs, clerestory windows and recessed lighting. Inside are open kitchens with ample cabinets and light filtering in from all sides. Jacobs is effusive in her praise for architects KRDB, noting that the houses, which initially sold for just $125,000, have an “elemental quality [that] conceals a tremendous amount of craft”.

It is not hard to conclude that the best affordable houses around the world are some of the best houses on the market. Most architects who work on such projects say they enjoy the challenge and opportunity of building on a small site with limited resources, since it spares them from the housing industry’s imperative to build in a traditional, uninspired way.

Most of the public projects I’ve mentioned fully embrace ordinarily available materials but use them to form spaces that look and feel extraordinary or, as Thomas says, “full of delight”. If the obstacles to such designs lie with developers and planning authorities who do not feel comfortable with new practices, perhaps this is where the £60,000 house experiment in the UK might triumph. By forcing architects and developers to work together, we may just see the kind of design we need produced for a wider market.

Phyllis Richardson is the author of ‘XS Green: Big Ideas, Small Buildings’ (Thames & Hudson, £14.95)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.