Good housing design

Houses act as a hub for family life. They should provide comfortable, functional and flexible spaces for people. They should also respond positively to the other buildings around them and contribute to the character of a place.

Hanwell stationThe following aspects need to be considered when designing new housing:

  • Function and adaptability
  • Appearance of housing in the context of its surroundings
  • Maintenance of homes, including running costs
  • Environmental sustainability

Function and adaptability

Homes built today will be used by households over many generations. The most successful will provide a comfortable environment and space to accommodate the activities of today's households as well as future households that may occupy them. They need to be adaptable - both to residents over their lifetime, and to the changing needs of future residents.

Appearance of housing in the context of its surroundings

Good design can be both traditional and contemporary in appearance and can provoke strong reactions. To a large extent, whether a particular style is appropriate for a development will depend on where it is located and the opinions of people who will be living there. The practitionersGlossary: are people engaged in an occupation or profession that is involved in planning and delivering settlements working on the regeneration of New Islington in Manchester found that residents were keen to embrace modern design despite their initial scepticism.

Good design responds to and reflects the surroundings. Local areas are frequently characterised by the use of traditional building materials or local building types. New buildings do not need to fully replicate these, indeed 21st century lifestyles call for innovative housing design, but harmony and identity can be achieved by subtle referencing of local styles and materials in a modern context. When building new developments adjacent to existing homes, carrying over the design language from the older housing can help to blend the new development and provide a feeling of integration. In many projects design codes outline how these elements of design, styles, building materials or building types, can be incorporated into new buildings in the area.

The interface between houses and streets needs careful consideration. Many people prefer to have some defensible space between their house and the street, such as a front garden. Some recent housing schemes, such as Tanner Street in Barking have instead revived the tradition of front doors opening onto a street. This can work well in smaller, quieter streets. However in most cases such defensible spaces are valuable, and can create a positive interaction between homes and public spaces which allows good surveillance of the street.

New homes may have new and unusual design features in order to meet stricter environmental regulations - such as passive heating, solar panels or perhaps green roofs. These can be incorporated imaginatively so they contribute to making the buildings look attractive and sit harmoniously with the new and existing streetscape.

Maintenance of homes

The long term maintenance of homes - whether owner occupied or rented from a housing association or other landlord - is an important issue that needs to be considered from the point at which they are planned for and designed. Those building new communities need to balance the need for clear and attractive design with requirements for ease of maintenance and the practicality of implementing these plans, particularly in terms of cost. In some cases it may be appropriate to introduce covenantsGlossary: a formal agreement or contract / services charges / sinking fundsGlossary: refers to money that is put aside every year from an regular income to cover the cost of major expenses, such as periodical or long term structural repairs in order to provide a fund for undertaking maintenance work to the outside of dwellings. Where appropriate, housing associations and other landlords might consider setting up a stewardship organisationGlossary: an organisation, sometime charitable, that has a specific role to manage community assets into the long-term for the benefit of the local population as a whole , to support maintenance programmes in the long term. This could include support for owners, for example:

  • to actually carry out planned maintenance to the outside of dwellings in line with service contracts
  • to provide specially negotiated finance deals for owners to maintain their homes
  • to negotiate deals on bulk purchase of materials for home owners.


By 2016 all new homes will be required to meet a zero-carbonGlossary:  refers to a building with a net energy consumption of zero over a typical year standard - Code Level 6 of the Code for Sustainable HomesGlossary: used to evaluate the environmental sustainability of a home

that will require both radical improvements in the energy efficiency of housing and a renewable zero carbon energy supply. Homes built in the eco-townsGlossary: are proposed new towns of up to 20,000 homes which are intended to be best-practise examples of environmentally friendly development will have to achieve at least level 4 of the Code for Sustainable HomesGlossary: used to evaluate the environmental sustainability of a home

. Preparing for this level of environmental sustainability will rely on pioneers to experiment with new designs and technologies and to promote environmentally friendly lifestyles and behaviours. This will include, for example:

  • making use of renewable energy technologies, such as solar panels
  • ensuring that there is adequate space for residents to store and separate waste for recycling
  • ensuring that there is adequate drainage on the site to reduce flooding risks
  • minimising construction waste as it is built
  • allowing space for trees and plants near homes to support biodiversity

The introduction of new environmentally friendly building technologies will require provision for their maintenance over the lifetime of the building both in terms of how it will be carried out and who will fund it.

Further Reading

Building for life, CABE & Homebuilders Federation (2007)

Delivering successful higher density housing, East Thames Group (2006)

A Sense of Place: What residents think of their new homes, CABE (2007)