Do standards achieve higher quality homes?

The jury is out in Britain about whether or not we should have standards for housing. This is because the current government is all about cutting red tape. The term ‘standard’ can be ambiguous. Depending on the context, ‘standards’ could mean principles of quality or requirements (as in ‘she has high standards when it comes to men’). Or ‘standards’ could be interpreted as quasi-regulations (as in ‘we could have avoided the horse meat scandal if we had tougher standards for the food supply chain’). According to Scott Steedman, Director of Standards at the British Standards Institute, BSI standards are about knowledge. They shouldn’t be interpreted as regulations, benchmarks or specifications. So if standards aren’t benchmarks and specifications do we need them to achieve decent quality homes? And if the answer is no, what do we need?

At a BSI event today on Smart Standards for Smart Cities,Steedman said that consumers and governments are confused about standards. And this confusion is stopping us (as a society) from realising the full potential and value of the knowledge they provide.  Steedman built on systems thinking principles (that I’m just learning about through Peter Scholtes’s The Leader’s Handbook), referencing W. Edwards Deming’s focus on process and knowledge. He explained that organisations need knowledge to increase their probability of success and to innovate. And this knowledge can partly come from standards. This is a very interesting perspective because it depends on how people use standards just as much as the content of the standards.

In the housing industry there are a plethora of things called ‘standards’ that the government has identified and decided to review and consolidate. Many of these documents identified as ‘standards’ were created as guidance – not benchmarks to set through regulation. It is an interesting predicament. In the pursuit of quality housing, planners have used some of these documents in planning policy to try and set requirements to achieve good design. But that wasn’t the original purpose of many of these documents. These resources were supposed to inform planners, designers and developers about what good practice would be across a range of measures. The idea of bringing them all together in one simplified standard is appealing because the resulting document would be easier to use. But would that result in the achievement of quality housing?

Would an all-encompassing housing design standard be used as a tool by developers, designers and planners on a voluntary basis? If Steedman is right, and standards shouldn’t be mistaken as specification and quasi-regulation, then they should be entirely voluntary and only used where they add value. In the case of housing quality, who would benefit from the added value? Obviously homeowners/renters would benefit and as a result society as a whole would benefit. But for the value to pass up the supply chain, house builders need to benefit as well. Does this happen? Most house builders would say ‘no’.

If we had high quality housing, we would have cheaper energy bills, enough space to raise a family, warmer homes, adequate natural light to keep us mentally healthy, etc. All of these traits have a financial benefit for the occupant and wider society, but we have not done a good job of putting a monetary value on them (and definitely not in a comprehensive way). As a result, these traits are seen as desirable ‘sustainability’ add-ons – nice to have but not essential. If you are wealthy and can afford to demand high-quality housing you might get it. Tough luck if you are of average or low wealth or in social housing*. Under our current planning and building regulation requirements new homes will not be guaranteed to be warm, spacious, light, etc. Other European countries regulate the minimum sizes of dwellings and put tighter requirements on noise pollution and energy efficiency. Assuming that won’t happen here anytime soon, would a voluntary standard be a strong driver to improve housing? Or do we need something more binding to ensure we all get high quality homes? The jury is still out.

*The Homes and Communities Agency uses a number of housing quality standards for social housing. But this could change after the housing standards review.

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