Britain needs new houses. But what form should they take?
There has been a divorce between beauty, function and cost in British housing developments since the end of World War 2. But why? How can we return to building beautifully whilst tackling the needs of today’s environmental and social needs?
Our mission at Kabina is to build beautiful, ecological and affordable amphibious homes for our changing world. In this thought piece, we discuss the importance of building beautiful British houses, what beautiful actually means, and our method of achieving it whilst promoting stewardship for our land as it faces a growing population and climate crisis.
At a time where there is a growing need for new, and more, homes, there is an equally widespread agreement amongst Britons that new housing developments in Britain are mediocre or unsightly. When one thinks about new housing, new estates, or property development, the ‘cookie cutter’ product of un-beautiful, uniform, boxed houses often spring to mind for many.
It has not always been this way.
British cities, towns and villages grew based on trade, commerce, transport and security. Invariably this meant that they were located by coastal ports and river crossings. Of course, these expanded as populations grew and transportation was more accessible for the average person.
The Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians created stunning planned city districts. They used superb design and materials to create metropolitan and suburban terraced homes, public squares, mansion blocks and tree-lined streets (what has become very much the British vernacular). Today, we protect and preserve these buildings and re-purpose them - because we can do so: They were carefully designed, well built, and born with the ability to ‘stand above its purpose, and to lend that purpose the aura of its own more permanent identity’1. In other words, our predecessors built with durability, beauty and utility in mind. Plans were considered, materials were sustainably sourced – albeit for logistical reasons rather than environmental or aesthetic. It is often remarked that buildings built by our predecessors for one purpose – school, chapel, library, hospital – can be easily and agreeably adapted to another purpose – domestic or public.
Developments of today simply put are just not beautiful. Yet beauty is not simply about what a building may look like, about its style. It is more than that:
“Beauty is not just a matter of how buildings look (though it does include this) but involves the wider ‘spirit of the place’, our overall settlement patterns and their interaction with nature. It involves both the visual character of our streets and squares and the wider patterns of how we live and the demands we make on our natural environment and the planet. We should therefore be advancing the cause of beauty on three scales, promoting beautiful buildings in beautiful places, where they are also beautifully placed.”
What has changed? Why are we producing buildings of lower quality, life expectancy, utility and beauty? Why aren’t we building beautifully?
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Despite our greatly increased wealth in comparison with what was enjoyed by our predecessors in the early 20th century, we are building less beautifully than they, and are ‘littering the country with built debris of a kind that nobody will want to conserve’3. We are still doing this, being faced with the added pressure of the need for building sustainability, with low environmental impact, and longevity.
The car has a lot to answer for. They take up a lot of space. Traditional shopping crescents have been replaced with car parks, terraced tree-lined streets replaced with set-back houses fronted by driveways, and cities built with huge highways and out-of-town retail parks with their own car park to accommodate it. Thus, pushing community-centred and mixed-use neighbourhoods further and further apart from each other. Much of the narrow, cobbled and terraced Georgian and Victorian buildings we admire did not have the car to consider. Town squares and public spaces do not accommodate the car. Instead, we build bleak underpasses, pedestrian walkways and railed crossings in order to allow the movement of pedestrians between their houses and into their village or town. Not beautiful, not considered, not sustainable.
Modern materials are another factor - developers have been able to erect large-scale housing sites quickly and cheaply to satisfy social demands but demonstrate the triumph of development over the lives of the occupants. The twentieth century witnessed the rise of modernism and brutalism, which by and large, has been a failed social experiment. Indeed, post-war Britain demanded cheap and accessible accommodation, but the long-term cost of this has far outweighed the benefits given at the time.
We should not discredit our modern materials – these are perfectly capable of building beautifully. It is more a case of how developers consider these materials, in which area of the country they are used – do they blend with the countryside? Do they stick out from the general aesthetic of a town, are they sympathetic to their environment and geographical character in which they will be placed? – and how long will they survive?
It is not a case of reversing these trends - that would be impossible. The solution is to find new ways of incorporating our modern developments into a planning and developing system that promotes beautiful, sustainable, future-proof and civically considered new buildings.
WHAT DO WE NEED?
As has been discussed above, we need more homes. We need more beautiful homes – the definition of beauty that goes beyond style – and we need homes that accommodate our natural environment and consider its future. We are faced with a growing population, shortage of housing and an alarming climate crisis.
"Clearly, we should be envisaging ways of building that are sustainable and resilient, with low environmental impact, and which adapt to changes of use and lifestyle." 
Currently, UK housebuilders are sitting on a million new planning-approved plots, most of which (if they are built) will be the usual box housing estates on sites such as disused airfields and farmers’ fields requiring total car reliance and disregarding the utility and importance of that land. Britain has historically been built to accompany and cater to our water. In modern development, this is avoided for numerous reasons, principally the cost of development alongside considerations of increasing flood risk. We need to prioritise living with water as an enablement tool in order to fulfil our housing needs.
The Wintles, Shropshire - Living Village Trust
1. WE NEED BEAUTY
There is widespread research and argument that creating buildings that are beautiful – and therefore creating beautiful places - encourage better public health, happier people and more sociable communities.
“Beauty includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into the home. It is not merely a visual characteristic but is revealed in the deep harmony between a place and those who settle there. So understood, beauty should
be an essential condition for planning permission”
It's not just about beauty, either. It is about un-beauty. Ugliness. Ugliness means that buildings are “unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly, and which violate the context in which they are placed. Such buildings destroy the sense of place, undermining the spirit of community, and ensure that we are not at home in our world.”
It is clear, then, that we should invest our energies into building beautiful buildings again.
BEAUTY AT THREE SCALES
Image adapted from 'Living with Beauty' (see references)
2. WE NEED TO PRIORITISE OUR ENVIRONMENT
“Our built environment and our natural environment belong together. Both should be protected and enhanced for the long-term benefit of the communities that depend on them”
With ugly buildings comes an exploitation and spoiling of our country and its natural environment and resources. The climate emergency is impacting everyone, and the need to enhance and care for our country, our home, has more than arrived. It is our belief that developers should build to accommodate the land in which they sit, principally land interacting with water, and to add to the ‘health, sustainability and biodiversity of their context’.
This feeds back to beauty again. It is clear we care about the beauty of our country – the Green Belts, National Trusts and protected areas would not exist without that care. This is not to say we are caring enough, though.
So, we need to build the right homes, in the right places, responsibly.
3. WE NEED MULTI-PURPOSE HOMES
The role of our home is changing.
When Green Belts around London and Oxford emerged, they were based on a false promise: That that people would work, as well as live, outside those Green Belts. This didn’t happen. People simply spent more time travelling in and out of London.
Interestingly Covid has accelerated the changes in work patterns and lifestyle, allowing people to work from home if they so wish. This makes rural living economically viable again and perhaps finally makes Green Belts appropriate because people don’t need to endure long daily commutes.
What does this further reinforce? That our homes must suit our working needs, too. They must feel safe, bright and healthy to work in whilst acting as our shelter, our anchor to our wider social and public lives. They must be beautiful.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) helps to draw in these three needs expressed above eloquently:
Waterstudio's Flood-Resistant Architecture, The Netherlands
‘High-quality design [...] is not just about appearance. New housing should be future-proofed. To secure the truly “sustainable” development sought by the NPPF, local and national policies should seek the highest possible standards of flexibility and environmental performance for new homes.’
HOW CAN WE GET IT?
THE KABINA METHOD
As we mentioned earlier, British towns and villages historically developed around rivers, ports and coasts. These are desirable places to live but pose great challenges to today’s developers due to the risk of flooding.
There are three types of flood risk: surface (water cascading down a hill, for example); river; and coastal.
Take the Thames Valley.
The area has been booming partly because 70% of international companies setting up in the UK do so within one hour of Heathrow. There is considerable investment in infrastructure including Crossrail and M4 improvements. It’s an attractive area that includes Oxford and Reading. You can see the appeal.
However, most of the towns suffer from surface and river flood risk so local authorities have been allocating dormitory sites on the higher ground between towns and villages. For example, South Oxfordshire plans to build 13,500 homes on green and brown belt sites, including Chalgrove Airfield. This is not in the spirit of stewarding our countryside and building beautifully - it’s putting a band-aid on the problem and avoiding it entirely. Oxford, as with most towns in the Thames Valley, has an area within it representing around 30% of its overall size that is flood risk land.
So how can we achieve beautiful building in areas we should be building in but avoid because of flooding risks and extra considerations?
FLOOD SAFE HOMES
Britain has an abundance of suitable flood risk land which can be safely developed with appropriate, adaptive building methods.
Today, we reluctantly continue to build in flood risk areas using unsuitable traditional methods belying the increased risk of flooding events. By combining centuries-old marine principles, modern design sensibilities and 21st-century materials, an amphibious, flood-adaptive home is a desirable, ecological and, importantly, affordable solution. Not only can it offer a beautiful house, within a beautiful place, but it considers our available land sustainably and carefully, building to accommodate the space in which it sits. Stewardship and beauty must go hand in hand, and living with water through amphibious development is the direction in which we should all be heading.
The northwest quadrant of Oxford is ideal for this purpose. Living there would allow new residents to walk or cycle into the town centre or railway station. They could use existing amenities. It would leave the Green Belt intact. And most importantly, would give the residents a great lifestyle, even if there were extreme floods.
If the new developments were substantial (i.e., more than 500 homes) there would have to be new community facilities, such as surgery or primary school. But this would be minimised because the developments would be more proportionate to the existing towns that they complement.
Redundant flood land could be transformed into waterside living with wetlands for wildlife and water sports. The developments would incorporate significant investment in floodwater management for the specific site; this could benefit neighbouring areas where there are old houses at flood risk that do are not flood adaptive. This is because water management could take those vulnerable old houses out of flood risk.
At present, The National Planning Policy Framework does not recognise flood-adaptive technology when assessing the suitability of a site. The benefits of amphibious homes go beyond beauty, safety and affordability. They contribute to managing an increasingly alarming risk in the UK, which we seem to be ignoring. As we mentioned earlier, building beautifully must include adaptation and flow with the land in which it sits - it is a stark reality that much of our inhabitable land is increasingly flood-prone.
As we have discussed, there are many ways in which a home or building is ‘beautiful’. It transcends beyond aesthetics - although important, as have been proven in many studies measuring quality of life and mental health - and encompasses the role of the home, how it interacts with our land, and what it offers us socially.
Amphibious homes offer a solution to all these requirements and more. At Kabina, they enable the sustainable development of beautiful new homes to be built adjacent to existing infrastructure, utilising our abundance of water-accompanied land, in places where people want and need to live - transforming unconsidered cookie-cutter new builds into beautiful, culturally important and sustainable investments for our future.
1-8'Living with Beauty: Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth', The report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful
Commission, 2020, p. 28, 9, 10, 14, 1
9 'Policy Guidance Note – March 2013 Housing' Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2013, p. 5