1. Patrick Keiller's introduction to The Dilapidated Dwelling
2. Martin Pawley, 'Why there's no place like home when it comes to making money, Architects' Journal, 9 May 2002, page 34
3. The Move Channel, 'Are House Prices really set to collapse?', 25 May 2002
4. Edward George quoted by Helen Dunne, 'House prices heading for sudden fall, warns Bank', The Telegraph, 14 June 2002, available at www.telegraph.co.uk
5. Martin Pawley, 'Radical housing speech elicits wave of politeness from planners', Architects' Journal, 27 September 2001, page 24.
6. James Heartfield, Town and country in perspective, Chapter 12 in Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age edited by Ian Abley and James Heartfield, Wiley-Academy, London, 2001, pages 142 to 151.
7. Gary Styles quoted by Becky Barrow, 'House prices soar 9% in only five months', The Telegraph, 4 June 2002, available at www.telegraph.co.uk
8. John Stewart, Building a Crisis - Long-term housing under-supply in England , draft of an unpublished report researched for the House Builders Federation, kindly provided to Ian Abley in support of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age
9. Martin Pawley, 'Crisis in housing means it's time to break the green belt taboo', Architects' Journal, 4 April 2002, page 22.
10. 'UK rental market 'wobbling' ', BBC News Online, 7 May 2002, available at www.news.bbc.co.uk
11. Martin Pawley, 'So, Lord Rogers, why shouldn't we build on surplus rural land?', Architects' Journal, 24 February 2000, page 20.
12. Martin Pawley, 'Unversed in hysterical politics, Crow flies straight into trouble', Architects' Journal, 18 November 1999, page 32.
13. Pierre Williams quoted by Ben Summerskill, 'New homes crisis hits UK families - Record shortage adds fuel to house price boom', The Observer, 28 April 2002, available at www.guardian.co.uk
14. Martin Pawley, 'Meaningless ideas are still useful in politics', Architects' Journal, 1 April 1999, page 24.
15. Ian Abley, Development rights for the hydrogen-fuelled future, Chapter 18 in Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age edited by Ian Abley and James Heartfield, Wiley-Academy, London, 2001, pages 210 to 227.
16. Jeevan Vasagar, 'Flat pack homes may solve crisis - Public service workers who have been priced off the property ladder welcome initiative to build cheap, portable houses in the capital', The Guardian , 7 March 2002, available at www.guardian.co.uk
17. Leader, 'Homes fit for heroes - Affordable housing is a policy priority', The Guardian, 7 March 2002, available at www.guardian.co.uk
18. Richard Buckminster Fuller, Nine Chains to the Moon, first published 1938, first reprint London, Feffer and Simons Inc, 1963, fifth reprint June 1970, page 327.
The Dilapidated Dwelling
The Dilapidated Dwelling is a feature-length film documentary by Patrick Keiller, screened on Monday 24 June 2002 for a discussion organised at Framestore-cfc by audacity.org. Produced in 2000 for television by Illuminations, the film examines the twenty-first century predicament of the house in the UK amidst information technology. Martin Pawley, a key film contributor, joined Patrick in the discussion chaired by James Heartfield.
A fictional researcher (with the voice of Tilda Swinton) returns from a 20-year absence in the Arctic to find that, though the UK is one of the most electronic of the advanced economies, its houses are the most dilapidated in Western Europe. The film includes archive footage of Buckminster Fuller, Constant Nieuwenhuys, Archigram and Walter Segal, and interviews with Martin Pawley, Saskia Sassen, Doreen Massey, Cedric Price and others. Patrick Keiller says:
'A few years ago, it occurred to me to explore the predicament of the house in advanced economies. At the time, this seemed an unfashionable subject. The definitive experiences of modernity, or postmodernity, seemed to involve movement. To stay at home seemed to be to marginalise oneself, despite the home's being increasingly a place of work, and increasingly open to electronic communications. The physical fabric of the house was even more problematic. In the UK, most consumer items - food, domestic appliances, cars and so on - had become cheaper, either as a result of new technology, or of shifting production to lower-wage economies, or both, but the cost of housing went on increasing. The housing stock was ageing and not generally in very good condition. New houses were comparatively few, and were mostly reduced versions of the houses of fifty or a hundred years ago. Was some consumerist innovation about to challenge this, or is there a kind of opposition between the house and present-day developed economies?' (1)
Through the film Keiller asks why the aged housing stock is not more of an issue for wider society, facing spiralling house prices. In comparison to Britain's housing stock, cars depreciate in value as they are consumed, but as Pawley has observed '... every householder has been turned into an untaxed, self-employed developer'. For Pawley the twentieth century was the age of owner occupation, and the twenty-first century has started as an age of owner speculation, so that '... we are a nation of speculators adjoining a continent of tenants.' (2) There is money to be made from property faster than it can be earned by working for a wage, at least on paper, without having to renovate the dilapidated dwelling.
Is owning an appreciating but ageing and dilapidated housing stock a serious predicament? Does it matter that an urban renaissance seems elusive when property prices are increasing at an inflation rate of 18.5% per annum? The Halifax, the largest mortgage lender, reported that house prices rose by 4.2 per cent in May 2002, the biggest monthly rise ever. With wage rises at low levels, due largely to the almost complete absence of effective demand from employees, many people find they could not afford their own houses if they had to start new mortgages.
The historical average has been a ratio of average house prices to average gross earnings of 3.3. The ratio in London is currently 4.8, with the rest of the South East with house prices four times higher than annual incomes. Some areas like Yorkshire and Humberside have housing below the average price to income ratio, with local variation. (3)
All the talk of 'affordable housing' to ensure the availability of 'key workers' in expensive locations ignores the derisory levels of pay people are putting up with. After all, there would be no 'affordability crisis' if incomes were to increase to keep pace with the spiralling cost of housing. Better pay would also allow more people to thoroughly refurbish their homes. Only the lowest mortgage rates in 40 years have enabled people to keep buying dilapidated housing from an inadequate supply.
The Bank of England Governor, Sir Edward George has said that house prices are '... unsustainably strong', but is silent on whether employment conditions are the best they have ever been for employers. He said the Bank might be forced to raise interest rates if surging house prices fed through to consumer demand. George stressed that The Bank of England is '... not in the business of seeking to control house prices any more than we are seeking to control other asset prices. We are interested in the total picture.' (4) Yet the total picture is not being examined.
No-one wants to even consider that the planning imperative to direct development to brownfield sites, combined with long term inertia in the labour intensive and site based construction industry, has led to a gross undersupply of housing. Pawley has noted the '... wave of politeness from planners' every time he suggests the double density brownfield development strategy is debilitating and anachronistic. (5) For Heartfield it is precisely the current planning policies aimed at delivering supposedly sustainable development that have restricted housing supply, and have led to an unsustainable property market. (6) Blaming consumers is an evasion of responsibility by policymakers, environmental lobbyists and financiers. Gary Styles, the head of economics at the Halifax, whined:
'We would hope that the situation will moderate. We would prefer to see a picture of somewhat steadier growth... We would be the first to admit that the market has been much stronger than we had expected.' (7)
Being caught by surprise is ridiculous, particularly when economists like John Stewart have been warning of the impending crisis due to undersupply. (8) Hoping for lower economic growth will only exacerbate the inertia in the construction industry. For his part as a critic Pawley has consistently reminded the architectural profession that '... there will be a deficit of more than one million homes within 20 years unless the wildlife wardens move over a bit and give developers a chance.' (9) The attempt to curb demand by increasing interest rates will do nothing to boost the supply of new, spacious and quality housing, no matter how popular that attempt is with environmentalists. The average price of a home has jumped over £100,000 in early 2002, or to over £70,000 for first-time buyers in the climate of high prices and poor supply.
The contribution of the rental sector to house price inflation should not be exaggerated. Undoubtedly the fact that people buy properties in the UK specifically to make money from renting them out - known as buy-to-let investors - is exacerbating the shortage of homes for owner occupiers. However, income from rental properties had fallen for the fifth quarter in a row in the spring of 2002, according to the the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Ray Barrowdale of RICS told BBC News Online that while landlords were making a profit, average returns from property investments were falling. 'What's appearing now, in some parts, is a waiting list of landlords. Normally there is a waiting list of tenants', he said. (10)
While the rental yields might not be so good, people are still benefiting from the increasing value of the properties they have bought. According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, there are currently about 200,000 people with buy-to-let mortgages - and the buy-to-let sector, as a whole, is estimated to be about 7% of the total private rental market. Over the last year, there may have been a 77% rise in the number of buy-to-let mortgages, but this is still a small part of the rental sector, itself dwarfed by the UK preference for owner occupation. (10) With too few sufficiently prosperous tenants for would be landlords, the private rental sector will be restrained, assuming most landlords are not content to allow their empty property simply to appreciate in value.
If some landlords are small time speculators with money to invest at the best return they can get, empty properties are likely, but the scale of such activity is not clear. We have not read any serious suggestion that empty housing could otherwise absorb demand for new homes in popular locations. There are, of course, plenty of worthless dilapidated properties in cities where demand is low, due to social mobility.
So the increases or reductions of the rental sector relative to that for owner speculation, as Pawley puts it, does nothing to change the mismatch of total number of households to total number of fit homes to rent or buy in particular locations. Taking all housing sectors together, there is simply an absolute shortage of homes for the number of households. Nor is there anything wrong wanting to enjoy second homes. After all the car industry has managed to provide families with a choice of vehicles in abundant supply. There is simply a deficit in the numbers of quality houses being produced, and a pressing requirement for new land for housing. As Pawley knows, that means greenfield development:
'Nowhere is there any acknowledgement that the predicted need for more building land is more than matched by a tremendous superfluity of agricultural produce, which has left a huge surplus of unused agricultural land. So striking and so irreversible is this situation that - were they allowed to - impoverished farmers, land-strapped greenfield house builders and would-be home owners could solve one another's problems at a stroke Land without beneficial use is not scarce today. If it cannot be used to build on, what can it be used for?' (11)
As Pawley has noted, '... it is time to accept that land use is what human beings do, and stop pretending that it is the work of the devil'. (12) Pierre Williams of the House Builders Federation has said, '... a 30-year campaign by the anti-housebuilding lobby, coupled with a collapse in public investment in housing, has resulted in a society unable to house itself. Far from concreting over the countryside, urban expansion takes up just 1 per cent of England's land area every 50 years.' (13)
A fraction of the British population lives in new housing, currently being built in fewer numbers than in 1924, so why only focus on the design of new housing, and not also on the inadequate level of supply?
Also, why just focus on high density urban housing design? It has been forgotten that '... the city itself is only an attractive place to live because of declining density.' (14) Why is the architectural profession not able to argue against the stupidity of planning policy promoting urban compaction. At audacity.org we are among the first to insist that architecture is important, but surely we need to build volumes of better and spacious housing. (15) House production needs to be invested in on an industrial scale so that prefabrication is more than just a novel way to appease politicians in their efforts to deliver a token number of small but 'affordable homes' conditional on 'key worker' status and employment.
Under the guidance of Ken Livingstone prefabrication is in danger of being used as an emergency measure, providing diminutive dwellings to those designated 'key' to the economy, and forfeited with any loss of employment. The 'mini suite' is a 26sq m studio flat, while the 'home suite' is a 33sq m studio with a double bed that folds up during the day to reveal a separate sofa. The flats can be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, so they can be installed in places where permanent housing would not, such as land to be cleared for roads or underused car parks. Public sector landowners would be asked to donate such land so that their workers could be housed. The project has received a £4.5m grant from the London Development Agency under the 'Keep London Working' initiative, hoping to retain key workers in London. (16) The Guardian, which has set up a useful website on the issue, can hardly contain it's excitement over the 'key worker' housing policy:
'Belatedly, ministers have set up a new agency, the Affordable Housing Unit, to report by the end of this year on measures to end the obstacles to reform. Ken Livingstone's insistence that 50% of all new developments in the capital should be reserved for either social housing (35%) or intermediate housing for key workers (15%) is gaining popularity. Two London boroughs have already adopted these criteria. The housing scene is beginning to fizz with new partnerships and new joint ventures. What is needed now is serious government commitment.' (17)
It seems to us that in the 'key worker' scheme Livingstone is building a stock of twenty-first century tied cottages, which is another way of ignoring the related issues of restricted land supply and construction inertia. We wanted to discuss The Dilapidated Dwelling, because Keiller identifies the predicament facing the construction industry - family houses are yet to become manufactured products, mass produced to depreciate with use, packed with functionality that we take for granted in consumer goods, and backed up with an after sales service. All without further government interference in the housing market, where new leverage can be exercised over 'key' employees through the allocation of accommodation.
Improving the architectural product is one thing, but for that to happen developable land is needed through changes in planning policy that no-one in authority seems willing to countenance. Certainly that means low density development, but it may also mean levels of compulsory purchase in urban areas, so far avoided as being directly authoritarian. Also at any density, for housing to become a twenty-first century consumer product and service, a level of capital investment in manufacturing will be required that has eluded the backward British construction industry throughout the twentieth century.
In 1938 Richard Buckminster Fuller wrote Nine Chains to the Moon, which only gained a wider audience many years later from the 1963 reprint. For Fuller there were ' four overlapping applications and conflicting interpretations of the phrase MASS PRODUCTION HOUSE'.
These are paraphrased as:
The latter, most daring and elusive was '... a competitive shelter service industry, similar to the hotel industry, and of the mechanical standard, scope, and integration of the automobile industry, engaged in furnishing on a RENTAL basis complete scientifically-evolved individual-family dwelling machines, whose design, economy, standard of adequacy, equipment, production, erection, land rent, service, maintenance, moving and removal, improvement and replacement rate are THE ENTIRE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE INDUSTRY'S CENTRAL COMPETITIVE CORPORATIONS, and are all included in one monthly rental charge.' (18)
The financial arrangements would be much more sophisticated today, and yet the historic problem remains. Who is to lead, fund, produce and live in this architectural advance? It has to be remembered too that Fuller had flinched at the historic moment in the 1940s when faced with the chance to mass-produce a complete house by a post-war 'reconversion programme' of the Beech Aircraft Corporation of Wichita, Kansas.
Can the risk-averse market deliver housing to replace the over-priced dilapidated dwelling? That's the question Keiller asks, but he was not optimistic in his answer. If you get another chance to see his film, take it. It is a thoughtful examination of the popular speculative resignation to the absence of housing as an information age, industrial product.
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