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The History (and future) of Housing

Over next few months we’re going to produce a series of blog posts looking at housing, what housing is today, some emerging sectors within the typology and what the future of housing holds. We’ll be looking primarily at housing models, the design of housing and the way in which homes are used by people. Although hugely influential on design, the politics of housing is whole different topic and something we’ll only touch on briefly.

But first, in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been, so here is a quick whistle stop tour of the history of housing.

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Pre-industrial housing - the home at the centre of life

In pre-industrial Britain, the home was the hub for most of life’s activities - work on the farm or within the workshop, education at home, medical needs and some social engagements all took place within the home. People’s radius of life was primarily based on walking distance. The home provided the stage for most of life’s rites of passage such as being born, growing up, getting married, growing old and dying. People considered their family homes as cultural investments and they were passed from generation to generation, layer upon layer of family history and meaning embedded within.

Industrial housing - the home as a dormitory

Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation brought about radical changes in our housing stock. Life’s activities were moved away from the home and became centralised at specific points within the city inside purpose built buildings - education in the Schoolhouse, work at the factory, birth, illness and death within the hospital; the city became compartmentalised as a result.

With cultural rites of passage no longer taking place within the home, houses became smaller and denser in their arrangements. Couple that with low levels of home ownership (the large majority of the population rented privately) and houses are seen as dormitories to sleep in instead of cultural investments to pass on to the next generation.

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Post industrial housing - a national endeavour

To fulfil the huge demand from a returning generation of soldiers, the post WWI period was characterised by a shift in housebuilding from a private endeavour to national responsibility, epitomised by Lloyd George’s ‘homes fit for heroes’. These initially took shape as garden estates on the outskirts of cities with generous sized houses and gardens. Post WWII saw government built pre-fab housing progressing towards the 60’s and 70’s high density tower block accommodation on city fringe sites. This redistribution of people over a wider area saw the breakup of established communities and people’s reliance on transport increase. Life’s activities were distributed within the city and local towns, the city centre became a destination for work and play rather than a place to live. Over this period, homes also saw a reduction in the size of kitchens and the omission of dining rooms altogether, meaning the majority of the social space within the home was eroded.


Contemporary housing - a multipurpose space

Digital technologies, the internet and mobile communications have had a huge impact on how we use our homes. Some of life’s activities remain centralised at points within the city (e.g. hospital), whereas others occur both in the city as well as in the home - we send work emails from our sofa, set up businesses in our garage and help educate our children at home. By reclaiming the house as a place to undertake such activities, the home again becomes a multi-functional, multi-purpose space as it was in pre-industrial times.

Cities have grown and changed into such complex and unmanageable structures that it is hard to remember that they exist first and foremost to satisfy the human and social needs of communities
— Richard Rogers

With the development of digital communications and a simple shift in our attention, we can now be consciously present in some distant online community without having to leave our physical geographical location. The internet and social media connects us globally but disconnects us locally, the radius of our lives has become almost infinite. This newfound freedom has reduced our sense of interdependence with our neighbours and diminished our sense of common interest. Our homes have become increasingly private, with coincidental neighbourly meetings reduced to appointment only, stage managed events. In parallel to this, there has been a progressive shift in attitude that has changed our relationship to our homes more than anything else. We now view them as financial, instead of cultural, investments; which is entirely understandable given the proportion of our income we spend on them.


The future of housing

By looking back, we start to understand why the issues currently facing housing have developed and potential ways forward. There is no one-size fits all solution, but below are some of our thoughts:

  • People focussed - We should develop or refine housing models that place people as the central focus, in turn promoting design that encourages people to re-connect locally helping foster greater community.
  • Adaptable - Housing should include multi-purpose spaces that fulfils the changing nature of life and work. Space that is adaptable to current and future lifestyles, as well different stages of life.
  • Invest in more than a house - By doing the above, it should help us reframe our homes as cultural investments as well as financial ones; becoming vested in the long term prosperity of our houses, locations and communities.

New housing models are emerging that aim to address these issues, such as co-living, with communal facilities that help foster community and social engagement, and live/work units that respond to the changing nature of work. We will look at these in more depth in upcoming posts, but for now I’ll leave you with this quote from the ever-inspirational Richard Rogers:

“Cities have grown and changed into such complex and unmanageable structures that it is hard to remember that they exist first and foremost to satisfy the human and social needs of communities”

- Richard Rogers - Cities for a small planet (pg. 18)

Paul KelsallComment