The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report – compressed!

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report is Beveridge-like in its ambition.  But it is very long (190 pages) and arguably not helped by the relentless talk about beauty which occupies large chunks of its first 52 pages. I have therefore compressed its key points into 3 ½ pages as an aide-memoire.

At the report’s heart is a pincer-like approach to the different elements of our construction, architectural training and planning systems and a wealth of suggestions for fixing the (diverse and complex) structural impediments which now make it difficult to build well in Britain. The core thrust, somewhat concealed, is to graft a continental-style plan-based system onto the UK’s entirely different system of so-called ‘development control’ which is based on permissioning individual buildings.  

The report divides itself into 8 proposals or themes, as follows (titles rephrased for clarity, with original headers underneath reference):

  1. We should move to a more plan-based system
  2. …with a stronger democratic input
  3. Long-term stewardship by developers should be incentivised
  4. Regeneration of older buildings should be encouraged by tax changes; regeneration in general should be oriented to building a ‘sense of place’ through a Minister of Place and other measures
  5. Urban neighbourhood densification should be encouraged by relaxing some standards
  6. Greenery should be encouraged
  7. The education of planners, architects, transport planners etc should be reformed to promote a wider understanding of placemaking
  8. The planning system should be better resourced

Proposals are numbered for ease of reference to the original document

(The original phrasing was:)

1] We should move to a more plan based system, with 2] a stronger democratic input:

Councils should be required by the NPPF to masterplan (PP5) and be encouraged to do so on an area basis, not just site-by-site, within the context of a redefinition of the aim of the planning system to include ‘achieving beautiful places’ (PP1).  

Local authorities should be encouraged to produce detailed design codes (PP6) which define publicly, visually and quantitatively the form, density and standards of development allowed in specific areas.  Several alternative forms of codes are suggested, but one option (following Prof Matthew Cardoma) is that codes should include four elements – community and land use; landscape setting; movement; and built form/massing issues.  Authorities could be helped by the publication of a National Model Design Code (PP7) from which they could lift designs and ideas.  

Local plans should be informed by engagement with residents on local preferences and desires using a nationally recognised process for co-design, and should embody these discoveries in their design codes (PP4, PP11). Local authorities should discover empirically what beauty means to members of their community and what the local ‘spirit of place’ is considered to be.

“This agreed process would make planmaking much more accessible to non-professionals and facilitate the transfer of best practice across the country (PP11).”

Developers should also be required to demonstrate how proposals have evolved as a result of local feedback.

This will all be easier if plans are made digital (PP12).

This shift towards a plan-based system will speed approval of planning applications (PP9):

“If a robust design policy, which is based on community engagement and which has been properly examined, has been established, the detailed planning application stage should be relatively straightforward. The focus should be on compliance with the site-specific design policy, whether contained in the local plan or in a supplementary planning document.”

This in turn (PP10) requires beefed-up enforcement powers to ensure developers follow the plan, and could be supplemented by involving enforcement officers in early discussions about any scheme.  

Suburban intensification should similarly be facilitated by the development of street consent mechanisms for codes allowing, eg, extra floors, if there is a majority approval in the street (PP14).

Permitted development rights, which are now causing unacceptably low-quality outcomes, should have standards (PP8).  

These local thrusts should be backed by National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) explicitly stressing ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places’ (PP1), and development should be required not only to produce ‘no net harm’ but to produce a net gain (PP2), presumably so that local authority decision-makers feel empowered to take beauty into consideration when accepting or rejecting proposals.  Refusal of ugly schemes should be publicised; the Planning Inspectorate should have a consistent message about placemaking (PP3).  

The National Design Guide (2019) should be more visual, and (one has to say it) more conventional, stressing a hierarchy of squares, streets, and green spaces.  

3] Long-term stewardship should be encouraged

Higher quality developments would be encouraged if developers retained control of large sites long-term, rather than merely building and selling (PP15).

This requires a change in tax policy (PP17), since a “long-term hold” strategy tends to produce income taxed at 40% and to incur inheritance tax risks, whereas a “build-and-sell” policy is taxed as capital gains at (at most) 20%, and may get entrepreneurs relief and other tax advantages.  

Other ideas are the creation of a ‘Stewardship Kitemark’ (PP15) for good-quality long-term developers, and a patient capital fund financed by the public sector to invest in developers who earn the ‘Stewardship Kitemark’ (PP16).

4] Regeneration of older buildings should be encouraged; regeneration in general should be oriented to building a ‘sense of place’

The tax policy on building new places and re-conditioning old places should be equalised (PP23).  New buildings are not now charged VAT, while VAT is charged at 20% on repair, maintenance and adaptation of existing buildings.  Obviously, this discourages reconditioning existing buildings.

New buildings should be required to submit to an adaptability test (PP24) to ensure that longevity is built in.

A Minister for Place should be appointed (PP20); as well as Chief Place Makers in all authorities (PP21); Regeneration should be re-oriented to being place-led (PP22); Measures should be taken to revitalise high streets (PP25) and to re-orient ‘boxland’ to housing (PP26)

5] Neighbourhood densification should be encouraged

To revive the tradition of building tall dense houses in city centres, some relaxation of standards may be required (PP27):

  • encourage councils to require lifts only in a proportion of cases
  • discourage minimum back-to-back or front-to-front requirements
  • reduce daylight and sunlight requirements
  • discourage councils from imposing minimum parking space requirements

National policy framework for healthy streets (PP28) – upgrade the Manual for Streets and make it policy, not guidance (PP29); Various measures to support car-free towns, tougher emission standards, etc

6] Greenery should be encouraged

There should be more emphasis in the NPPF on greenery (PP30); two million new street trees to be planted (PP31); urban orchards encouraged (PP32); and re-greening of streets (PP33).

7] Education should promote a wider understanding of placemaking (PP34).

Councillors on planning committees should be given short courses on urban design, well-being, sustainability and public preferences. Planning officers and highway engineers should be trained in place design, and in public preferences and engagement, funded by government.  A central component of all courses in architecture, planning and other built environment qualifications should be empirical research on the relationship between urban design and well-being, health and sustainability, as well as public visual preferences and preferences on urban form, (PP35).  Design reviews should be encouraged, with a proliferation of competing bodies encouraged (PP36).  

8] Planning needs to be better resourced (PP37)

….particularly during the shift to strategic planning which BBBB envisages.  It needs to be digitized.  Planning centres of excellence need to be created (PP39).  The length of planning applications needs limiting (PP38).  

Homes England needs to stop judging developments primarily on price, and emphasize design quality and sustainability in weighting scoring (PP41, 42); its targets need to be made more long-term; it needs to be encouraged to take a more master-developer role using form-based codes (PP43). Public sector buildings similarly need to be encouraged to demonstrate civic pride (PP44).

Conclusion:  Despite problems of length and style and some curiously unrealistic suggestions, like the suggestion that Chief Place Makers be appointed in all authorities, or the detail required in the National Model Design Code, or the suggestion that every new home should have access to a fruit tree, the report seems to hit many nails on the head.  

The problem is that such fundamental reforms require a lot of political support.  Beveridge caught the tide of history, and as World War 11 ended his report gained firm political support.  There is no comparable support today.  While Secretary of State Robert Jenrick has indicated broad interest, other figures within the Conservative Party are pushing for the nirvana of deregulation, the short-term case for which has been strengthened by the need to rapidly revive the economy after Covid-19.  

Expert views on high-rise Bristol

“Should Bristol become a high rise city?” The conclusion of the three expert speakers at the Bristol Civic Society’s March 5 event at the Arnolfini theatre was an unambiguous no. Tall buildings are bad for the environment, and bad for happiness. Matthew Montagu-Pollock reports.

With lots of graphs and charts, this was a research-heavy evening. Much of the information was surprisingly new – one wondered why no-one asked these questions before. First up was Professor Philip Steadman of UCL, an expert in buildings’ energy usage (PDF version of talk). Steadman has compiled an extraordinarily large data set of 612 UK office buildings, new and old, large and small, airconditioned and naturally ventilated, to compare their energy usage, using actual energy consumption figures. This had not previously been done before anywhere in the world.

The results were a big surprise. Tall buildings use dramatically more energy than other buildings on an ongoing basis, in fact 100% more energy per square metre. Their carbon emissions per square metre are more than twice as large. Tall buildings in fact never use less energy, except in the case of one Foster building where the architect has effectively encased one tall building inside another, obviously a highly expensive undertaking. Steadman was surprised by this result, because existing theoretical models of energy usage forecast that tall buildings should be mildly more energy-intensive, using around 15% extra energy. Conclusion: the computer models that architects use to forecast ongoing energy use are highly misleading, when tested against real-world observations.

What is the reason for the extra energy use? Lifts only use 3% of a tall building’s energy, so they don’t explain it. Maybe the air-conditioning? No – the effect survives even if you separate out non-airconditioned buildings. So what is the reason? Though this is speculative, the most likely reason appears to be that tall buildings are exposed to cold air and wind in winter, and heat in summer, because they stick up. So they need more heating and more cooling.

Tall buildings also use more “embodied energy”, I.e. energy consumed during construction, before the building is brought into use. A group in Australia looked at embodied energy and height in office buildings, studying two low-rise offices on 3 and 7 storeys, and two high-rises on 42 and 52 storeys. On average, the embodied energy per square metre of floor area was 60% greater in the tall office buildings. So their construction has an extremely high environmental impact in terms of energy and carbon use.

We are often told that to densify urban space we need tall buildings. But this too is an illusion, argues Steadman. Tall buildings’ shadows tend to block neighbouring buildings’ light, so they need to occupy extra space. So in real life the typical mid-rise building has the same Floor Space Index (FSI) as a tall building (FSI = floor area, divided by land area used), I.e. tall buildings do not in practice provide extra density.

This can be intuitively demonstrated by re-arranging Foster and Partners’ 41 and 36 storey 250 City Road scheme into an 8 storey courtyard building. Both schemes would occupy the same land space, and yield the same usable areas, and have the same FSI, even though one is massively taller than the other.

Steadman’s research suggests that:

  • Energy usage intensity in UK office buildings increases with height, and is doubled going from 5 storeys to 20 storeys and more.
  • Embodied energy usage in Australian office buildings is 60% greater in high-rise than in low-rise.
  • Energy intensity also increase with height in UK blocks of flats.
  • Computer models of energy use do not appear to predict these effects.
  • The densities achieved by tower buildings can generally be achieved in slabs or courtyard buildings of less than half the height.
  • Conclusion: Much energy could thus be saved by building lower, without sacrificing density.

Next speaker up was David Milner of Create Streets, an urbanism think-tank founded in 2013 by Nicholas Boys Smith, who was recently co-head of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (PDF version of talk).

Create Streets are quiet revolutionaries, pioneering the collection and creation of quantitative research, which is increasingly available and, in their view, highly necessary given that architecture and planning largely lack a tradition based on empirical evidence, at least as psychologists or the sciences would understand such evidence.

Create Streets has gathered evidence which looks at how building forms can increase human interaction and happiness. What proportion of health might be derived from the environment? About 40%, according to US research. And what built forms add pleasure, encouraging sociability and happiness, and improving mental health?

  • Trees and green – but preferably green in smallish spaces, with private green areas, or areas shared among rather few people (e.g. a small park)
  • Streets with no or only slow-moving motorised traffic
  • Streets with active facades rather than dead spaces
  • Symmetrical buildings, with detailing and decoration
  • Views of water
  • ‘Traditional’ rather than ‘modern’ building designs
  • Buildings with colour
  • Small squares rather than large squares
  • Green suburbs (though the stress of commuting can completely undo the associated increase in happiness)
  • Mid-rise buildings rather than high-rise

Each of these effects is highly supported. Collectively they greatly outweigh income effects. Interestingly, Create Streets’ findings demonstrate the considerable distance between the predispositions of many architects and the tastes of ordinary people (many architects prefer tall and modern building designs, while research shows that than most ordinary people prefer mid-rise buildings, and traditional designs).

The evidence is also clear that tall buildings cause greater loneliness and more depression, are not optimal for children, are associated with social relations that are more impersonal and where helping behaviour is less than in other housing forms. “Crime and fear of crime are greater [in tall buildings], and…they may independently account for some suicides,” notes an important survey by Robert Gifford (2007) quoted by Create Streets which concludes: “the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people.”

Third speaker up was Rab Bennetts, who led us from Le Corbusier’s futuristic vistas to the “international style” of today’s globalised highrise cities, including the social housing of the 60s, and the towers of Dubai, Hong Kong, Panama, and the City of London (PDF version of the talk 3MB).

With long experience as the founder of the UK’s leading sustainability practice, Bennetts shared with us the embodied costs of building high. The following image is more or less what a building’s lifecycle looks like, with red emissions when using new materials either to build or maintain a building and brown lines where it’s using energy over time. More of the emissions happen during the construction stage than during the entire working life of the building.

The typical cost of not only the materials but of transporting them to the building site is so large that it could take 50 years at least before even a very ecologically friendly new building actually becomes sustainable.

Bennetts confessed that he himself had not been guiltless. Tasked with masterplanning an Islington canal-side site he had sought to reduce heights and density on the canal by completing the area with a 25 storey building. But as the site was sold on and the design passed from developer to developer the building got taller and taller, setting a precedent for 2 more neighbouring high rises which have since totally overpowered the local environment.

What should be our ambition? To re-use old buildings. To use natural materials which absorb carbon, so as to achieve a zero carbon footprint almost from the word go. Seemingly an almost impossible ambition – but one we should aim for.

Videos of presentations:

Professor Philip Steadman

(PDF version of Prof Philip Steadman’s talk)

David Milner

(PDF version of David Milner’s talk)

Rab Bennetts

(PDF version of Rab Bennetts’ talk)