On 25 March, Architects for Social Housing was approached to respond to some questions from WIRED magazine about ‘how substandard home design will make this period of self-isolation worse for many people in the UK’. The resulting article, by Sophie Charara, was published as Our terrible housing stock is making lockdown life even worse; but here are ASH’s responses in full.
WIRED. Are substandard homes — both social and private — likely to be making this coronavirus lockdown period worse?
ASH. It’s our opinion, based on the statements of epidemiologists and virologists not working for their governments, that the government-imposed lockdown is making the virus worse, not better. Certainly the obligation not to leave the house will have a considerable negative effect on people’s physical and mental health, and so one’s housing situation is inevitably going to play a big part in one’s well-being over this time. Whether or not you have a garden or access to some kind of outdoor space, in particular, could make a huge difference. The issues are mainly — but not exclusively — economic, as access to space is economically determined.
WIRED. If so, how? I have been discussing size, number of rooms, access to light/green space, ventilation, liminal spaces such as porches and garages etc, but am interested in all aspects.
ASH. Having a garden in which to get access to air and sun will make a huge difference to one’s health and well-being — both mental and physical. Adequate natural light, a view or views, access to ‘nature’, adequate ventilation, decent acoustics, a comfortable internal climate, and the ability to move around, are all necessary attributes of a healthy environment. The same issues we would normally talk about in relation to housing are all exaggerated and exacerbated by this lockdown; a lack of storage, for instance, will be more of a problem if the house is full of people when that might not usually be the case. Things that are bad will be experienced as worse and will have a greater effect.
Overcrowding, to take an obvious example, is exacerbated by constant proximity to other members of a household. Moreover, once you are sharing a flat with someone who has caught the virus, it’s going to be practically impossible for other members of that household not to contract it due to the way it spreads; and those that are sharing the house with several generations, and therefore with elderly people and those more vulnerable to the more severe symptoms of COVID-19, will be most at risk. Not everyone has access to a room of their own where they can ‘self isolate’.
The number of rooms one might have in one’s home is an economic and political issue. The so-called Bedroom Tax, for example, means that residents on Housing Benefit are fined if they have an extra room, so their ability to ‘work from home’, as the government advised, or ‘self isolate’ if one or more family members falls sick, will be considerably diminished or non-existent. The Bedroom Tax means that a household on benefits has no ability to adjust to different living conditions in a time like this, as they are already living in the maximum space they are allowed.
Students who have now moved back home, but don’t have a room of their own, are struggling with being able to focus on their studies. Having a room or place to escape to, physically and mentally, is also important. The provision of spaces that aren’t functionally predetermined, or which can be altered, transformed or subdivided, is very useful. Could a living room, for example, become an office, a school, a play-space or a cinema? When spaces are small, their design becomes more important. Access to diverse kinds of space, providing the body with a range of different stimuli, is also important. There is a reason prisons are designed to remove people’s ability to move at will and restrain them in a small confined space: it’s a punishment, and those people with access to less space are currently being punished by the government’s regulations, although it’s unclear for what crime. Although open-plan spaces have become preferable in contemporary housing schemes, the ability to shut and separate spaces off acoustically is also important in order to enable householders to have some privacy when the home is the only place where that is allowed to happen by our newly-empowered police forces enacting the government’s nonsensical decision to lock us out of our parks, beaches, benches, outdoor gyms and playgrounds.
Much of contemporary social and council housing was built as a response to the need to improve sanitation and living conditions caused by worsening housing conditions as a result of the Industrial Revolution; so ideas about light and air directly informed the designs of public housing estates. Living in a modernist tower block with large windows looking out over the neighbourhood has huge benefits, such as lots of light and a view. In addition to these benefits, if you can’t participate physically in the world you can at least engage with the world visually. Far from isolating residents, as estate demolishers like to assert, an expansive view creates a sense of being part of the world around. The strong, often tight-knit communities in council estates and tower blocks also mean that there is likely to be support for elderly and vulnerable residents.
Communal living raises interesting questions, as co-housing and co-operative living potentially provides people with access to a much wider range of facilities than the individual in their flat, when going outside into the public realm is prohibited by the government and police forces. While the likelihood of spreading the virus between members of co-housing is higher — putting vulnerable members of that community more at risk — it is also more likely that everyone has access to more facilities, such as a larger garden space or places that are other than the private spaces they would have access to as an individual. The fact that you may be sharing living facilities with 10, 20 or 100 people really challenges the notion of what constitutes a ‘household’ in legal terms. Care homes, which are experiencing the highest rate of mortality from COVID-19, are the clearest examples of how shared housing needs to be carefully designed and managed to ensure that vulnerable residents are given the right protections. While co-housing for young and middle-aged residents presents an ideal environment for developing herd immunity in an easily-quarantined space.
Families living in so-called ‘temporary accommodation’ in which they are often trapped for years on end are some of the worst hit, often sharing facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms with many other families, and effectively confined to a single room. If some members of the family are more vulnerable, either because of their age or because of their underlying health conditions or both, self-isolating is impossible. This is a clear example of how the coronavirus lockdown is a hideous realisation of our capitalist society and economy, unequal in its effects. The poorest and the most vulnerable will — as always — be most affected.
Crucially, from our point of view, a person’s participation within a community will make the difference between a vulnerable or elderly person coming through this well or not. People who are bedded in their local community, who have neighbours that are looking out for them, compared to someone who is socially isolated in private rental or hostel accommodation, will make all the difference. In relation to our work — which campaigns for the retrofitting and improvement of existing council estates as opposed to their mass demolition by councils following GLA policy and Government legislation — the role of the community in this situation is crucial. Individuals from communities that have been recently shattered by the demolition of their homes, and who have lost the support networks that takes decades to establish, are going to be far more vulnerable in times like this, than a long-standing community that looks after its more vulnerable members.
WIRED. When the lockdown was announced, what did you first think of in the architecture and design sphere?
ASH. Our first concern was for the elderly and vulnerable being more isolated, and being at risk of the secondary effects of the isolation as well as the primary effects of the virus itself. We were, and are, concerned about the social consequences of the lockdown, and the importance of existing communities and its networks and bonds, as well as overcrowding, and the effects the lockdown will have on people’s mental and physical health. This manifested in particular with questions over people’s unequal access to a decent outdoor space. One suspects that the politicians who made these regulations without Parliamentary scrutiny or approval all have access to large, private gardens, whether in their second homes in London or their constituency homes (which are often also in London).
To be ‘isolated’ when you have access to a large garden is very different to being quarantined in a flat with no access to outdoor space. The city’s parks are fundamental to our ability to live healthily, physically and mentally. The home is not an isolated unit, but one that is in direct relationship with its surroundings. London’s Victorian parks were an urban-design response to the increased density of urban living, and were seen as the lungs of the city, providing respite to crowded and poorly ventilated living conditions where respiratory illnesses thrived. Post-war planning understood this when they located tower blocks adjacent to large open green spaces — such as the Alton Estate, for example, by Richmond Park, now condemned to partial demolition and privatisation by the Liberal Democrat council. Locking public parks and preventing people who live in flats from having access to outdoor space is not an acceptable way of dealing with a health crisis, as it may in fact have very dangerous knock-on effects.
Everyone needs to have access to adequate outdoor space whether they live in a flat or a house. This should be a statutory ‘Right’. We have ‘Rights of Way’ ‘Rights of Light’, and I think we need to have the ‘Rights of Access to Outdoor Space’. Of course we do, but the government has suspended this and many other human rights and civil liberties under what is effectively a State of Emergency. Private gardens now seem an extraordinary luxury. The increased privatisation of public and open space is limiting this right, and the ways in which space is distributed more generally needs to be seriously redressed. The need to protect all our public inner-city gardens from encroaching privatisation is all the more urgent. Projects such as the demolition of the Old Tidemill Garden in Deptford by the Labour-run Lewisham council should be immediately reversed.
WIRED. Will there be an opportunity in housing after the pandemic to rethink standards, regulations, our attitudes towards older buildings that could be changed and improved?
ASH. There is always an opportunity for thinking, but the question is: ‘Is there the political will?’ Crises such as this often demand that governments ’respond’, and there is greater political will to respond to demands at such a time. Issues such as a Universal Basic income, for example, have now moved from the outer edges of public discourse to the mainstream. The Public Health Act 1875 provided a huge stimulus to the provision of better housing at the end of the Nineteenth Century, but it’s important to be clear about what is really the issue. One of the key urban issues at that time was poor sanitation and overcrowding. The term ’slum’ is often taken to refer to a building, but many Georgian buildings, for example, which would have been deemed to be ‘slums’ at that time but escaped demolition, either then or during the Twentieth Century, and are now refurbished, with bathrooms and kitchens installed, are now worth millions of pounds. The architecture was not necessarily the cause of the problem. Demolition, and the social cleansing of the community, was more often than not the result, as residents of the ‘Old Nichol slum’ discovered when only 5 per cent of them were wealthy enough to be able to move into the new Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green. ‘Slum’ — and its opposite, a healthy living environment — is rarely solely a material or ‘design’ issue, but always an economic one.
Homes are overcrowded because space, under capitalism, costs money. We should be careful to scrutinise all the supposed ‘solutions’, and ensure that our assessment of the ‘problems’ is accurate and will support those that need a solution most, not those that are able to capitalise on crises and who will profit to the detriment of the existing communities.
Refurbishment should always be the default mechanism for making improvements to people’s environment, which enables the existing community to remain. There are very few situations ASH has come across where the design is so poor that improvements to and interventions in the existing fabric of the built environment — rather than the wholesale demolition being enacted by councils and housing associations — cannot address them.
WIRED. Can you can point me in the direction of any reliable data sets on housing standards across the UK?
ASH. There are no minimum standards for private housing in the UK, only planning requirements and building regulations; but there are space standards for social and council housing, such as the GLA housing guide. As we have seen with Permitted Development rights for the conversion of office space into residential units, the standards of housing provision that the market allows — and encourages in order to maximise profit — are appalling, and do not provide healthy homes. Quite the opposite. If we want to guarantee high-quality healthy housing for all, the only solution is to socialise all housing provision, removing it from the market altogether. We can then ensure an equitable distribution of, and access to, healthy housing for all.
The number of second homes or empty homes that are built for and purchased as financial investments is completely unacceptable when families are desperately overcrowded or living in temporary accommodation, shelters or homeless, as this latest crisis has exposed. What coronavirus has hopefully brought home to people is that healthy living conditions are not an option in planning our housing. As a society, we all need to be healthy, and access to healthy housing must not be determined by individual wealth. The key workers, the nurses, the cleaners, the bin-men, the delivery people, the shop-workers, the carers, those working on public transport, the most essential workers who have been allowing our society to continue in this ‘lockdown’, are the ones on the lowest incomes, and the ones most likely not to have an extra room at home, a garden, or who are most at risk of overcrowding. This is not acceptable for the fifth richest country in the world that claims to be civilised.
Architects for Social Housing