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Time For The Professions To Focus On Mass Markets

The Royal Institute of British Architects is a fine institution, with many decades of history demonstrating we have the finest Architects in the world. Yet today, the newspapers have a dim view of it. Why so? The Institute has chosen their “House Of The Year” for 2017.

This is always going to receive a similar response as that we have become used to with regard to Art Art For Art's Sakeprizes, such as the Turner. Everyone remembers the pile of bricks, or the unmade bed. The judges are subjected to the highest level of rage the tabloid newspapers can produce. I have to say I don’t get that type of art either. I went to a Dali exhibition years ago and came away regarding him as a deeply troubled man.

Given there is an expectation that RIBA will be unable to please all of the people all of the time, one may be unsurprised at some rejecting the winner of this year’s competition. However, I think on this occasion they may well have a point.

First of all, let’s look at the nominees (people who want to see all of them in detail should go to the excellent Kevin McGuire’s series of television programmes about them). The eventual winner, Caring Wood in Kent, took its inspiration from the oasthouses for which that county is renowned. The design was to bring an extended family together, with a complex of individual living spaces. The others were equally ambitious – combining state of the art materials, fixtures and fittings. The common factor was an enormous price tag.

Here is the rub – should “house of the year” be something that is simply beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest? Should the Institute be driving the development of the construction sector by valuing the creation of the most affordable and most energy saving houses? Should they be – if not steering – nudging the profession in the direction house-building may benefit most from?

There is no “politics of envy” in this. There is no doubt young people in particular are being disadvantaged in their pursuit of independent living at least and home ownership at most by the dysfunctional prices born of the nation’s housing shortage.

RIBA describe the winning oasthouse, with three generations living within the same space as “able to inspire house-building” in the future, but I don’t buy that.  Multi-generational living exists already – and in three generations regularly.  But not in the 85 acres that surround Caring Wood.  And not in circumstances that each family has an individual living space that would be the envy of the majority of people.  In many cases, they manage within one house and with two generations only having one bedroom to call their own.

Perhaps the Royal Institute of British Architects can set different parameters for next year’s judging round and celebrate the smaller, more realistic properties that may provide quickly built, simply constructed dwellings that may be produced in high volumes at affordable prices.