Can we overcome the housing shortage with not only more, but better homes? Design Council Cabe believe we can and share the ways in which design is driving up the quality of new homes, creating places in which people can and want to live.

Improving supply, meeting demand 

As frequent new policy announcements and accompanying media headlines illustrate, housing is top of the political agenda. The widening gap between housing need and supply across all tenures, including home ownership, shared ownership, market and sub-market rent, is a consequence of population growth and other social factors such as increased longevity, migration and new home formation.

The housing shortage is particularly acute in some regions, towns and cities where access to homes that are affordable to local people is constrained as houses price inflation exceeds wage inflation. The problem crosses generations and income groups, from the young seeking a foothold on the property ladder to the older generation seeking appropriate accommodation for downsizing. 

In order to increase housing supply there is a need to entice new players to build more, including local authorities, smaller developers and the self and custom builders.

As numerous commentators explain, there are many compounding, complex reasons for the lack of supply. The availability of land and the challenge of taking large scale developments through the planning process are often cited by commentators as the primary reasons. House builders and housing associations are the mainstay of housing supply and much is being done to incentivise increased delivery, especially for home ownership.

In order to increase housing supply however, there is also a need to entice new players to build more, including local authorities, smaller developers and the self and custom builders. The industry itself is constrained by its capacity and the skills available to deliver more and better homes.

 All these factors combine to affect the quality of housing developments, though Design Council Cabe believes that this doesn't have to be the case. In 2015 we commissioned Pye Tait to research the design strengths within the UK’s housing construction sector.  This resulted in eight case studies (see links below) that demonstrated why, even in the rush to build the quantity of new homes that we desperately need, we must still continue to improve and innovate, and prove that quality does not need to be sacrificed for quantity.   

Defining quality

Another of the many reasons for restricted supply is a lack of confidence among local people and the wider community that developments will be favourable to their lives, with anxiety that increasing quantity may be at the expense of quality. Poor quality housing can be perceived as damaging to the character of an area, with concerns among local people it will have a detrimental impact on their neighbourhood, its infrastructure and local amenities.

It is important to define what we mean by quality. For many there is a narrow definition of the appearance of new homes and how they fit in with the character of an area. Whilst this is important, there are wider issues most importantly, the health, safety and well-being of the occupants.

Well-designed environments go further than the minimum, they enhance a sense of well-being, enable healthy lifestyles and create delight.

Quality is underpinned by standards and regulations and much has been done to consolidate the requirements that lead to good quality in planning guidance and building regulations across all tenures. Quality also concerns the technical performance of the homes, whether they perform to the standards that are required, and the construction and final build quality that impacts on the residents.

However, it is more than just satisfying the regulatory regime, building it well and creating value: well-designed environments go further than the minimum. They enhance a sense of well-being, enable healthy lifestyles and create delight.

Quality outcomes create value and benefit for all involved in the process including the occupants, the wider community, their representatives and the development team, from concept to completion of a project.

Our programme, Active by Design, explores this link between health and planning.  

Working with the community


Bicester Eco Town is setting a benchmark for the future development of sustainable communities.

The public is more likely to be supportive of more new housing in the knowledge that better quality will be delivered. Involving local residents and communities in decisions about their neighbourhoods, done well and in a timely manner, will lead to a streamlined planning process.

There are a range of techniques and processes to engage with local people, councillors, planning committees and other stakeholders, including:

  • planning events, design charrettes and simple design workshops where the benefits of development can be discussed and quality secured
  • New consultation techniques, including digital and social media tools
  • Design reviews, as delivered by Design Council Cabe, provide a valuable mechanism to give guidance to planning authorities, developers and their consultants on quality during the design process. See also Cabe’s work on Community Led Development.

Creating value through quality 

Creating places where people want to live, with appropriate infrastructure, community services and green spaces is embedded in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF) and National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG), with design quality a central aspect to achieving this. 

Design innovation is lacking in much new housing supply, with the use of pattern books and appearance that do not reflect the character of the places in which they are located

Yet design innovation is lacking in much new housing supply, with the use of pattern books and appearance that do not reflect the character of the places in which they are located. The experience of Cabe through delivering design reviews suggests that currently innovation is in the main largely restricted to small scale and non-mainstream projects. This can be a problem where financial viability arguments outweigh quality of design, prevalent in low value areas where characterless and poorly detailed speculative housing can dominate.

More safeguards in national planning guidance will be needed to maintain quality in the context of the emerging new policy for subsidised home ownership models, such as Starter Homes, the potential loosening of planning policy on brownfield sites and ever increasing densities. 

A high quality design led approach can generate increased value for developers and investors through the value uplift that results from a ‘placemaking’ approach and can be a differentiator for their profile in the market. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) report Placemaking and Land Value, illustrates through clear evidence that there is a premium for new developments through high standards of design. It need not incur greater cost, indeed the challenge for our designers is how to achieve ‘affordable quality’, where the costs of the project are targeted where maximum value is achieved. 


Abode, Great Kneighton is a great example of contemporary design drawing on historic vernacular.

Good placemaking starts with a narrative about the design approach, with reference to the location, character, topography and history and other influences that have shaped the layout and external appearance. An integrated approach to design is required to achieve this with a range of inputs from architects, urban designers, landscape architects and sustainability advisers as well as engineering and cost consultancy. Our case study on Abode in Cambridge is an interesting example of this.

Designing for modern life

Good housing design starts inside the home with efficient, well thought through internal arrangements. Generous space standards and ceiling heights and the effective utilisation of space is important, for example, when using the nationally described space standard as a benchmark. 

Rooms should be sized appropriately for their function and be flexible and adaptable for their use over the lifetime of the home, such as open plan arrangements for multi-functional activity that takes account of modern lifestyles.

Sufficient and well planned internal and external storage is necessary, recognising that many households will stay put in their homes for longer than might have been the case in previous generations.

The internal environment should enhance the health and wellbeing of the occupants with particular attention to daylight and sunlight penetration, good air quality and ventilation to avoid overheating.

The internal environment should enhance the health and wellbeing of the occupants with particular attention to daylight and sunlight penetration, good air quality and ventilation to avoid overheating. 

Energy efficient construction minimises the running costs, improves affordability and minimises carbon emissions. Designing homes that are adaptable for future needs, based on inclusive design principles, makes them resilient for the future, particularly in the context of an ageing population.

Similarly, our homes should be adaptable to climate change as summers get hotter and winters get wetter, allowing for future mitigating measures such as flood protection and external shading of windows.

Advances in housing design and production

There are new housing models that bring innovations in design and delivery, such as purpose built private rented homes by developers who retain a long term interest, and self and custom build where the customer engages early in the construction phase and has a vested interest in the quality of their homes. This can be seen in partnerships such as AIM4C, where “customer experience” has been placed at the centre of the design process.

Off-site manufacturing is also changing the way houses are built. A controlled factory environment enables greater accuracy and precision in the production of components and enables intended performance levels to be more easily achieved with different skill sets to the traditional ‘sticks and bricks’ approach. It has the potential to offer much needed employment in areas where housing growth in dominant, though barriers to it being a mainstream approach include certainty of supply.

In the same way that we are seeing changes in our everyday lives as a consequence of the digital revolution, our homes are changing too.

In the same way that we are seeing changes in our everyday lives as a consequence of the digital revolution, our homes are changing too. Most are now designed using advanced digital technologies and developers are gradually adjusting to new methods of information production and management.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a powerful tool for the design, production and management of homes in the future. This would support new methods of production of our homes through off site manufacture, an emerging trend driven by the need for increased supply and a shortage of skills. Advancement of the ’intelligent’ home is gathering apace, as described in the NHBC report, The Connected Home

New digital smart technologies that manage our environments and provide improved connectivity, for example biometric access, remote monitoring and heating controls, are becoming the norm in high value homes. This conjures a radical change to the home of the future: the connected home with smart technologies that enable efficient home working environments and more flexible lifestyles.

Delivering more and better homes

In summary, a consumer focussed approach will drive quality into the homes of the future. More and better homes will best be delivered through improved engagement with the customer, whether the homes are for sale or rent, and through greater collaboration across the industry’s professional sectors and trade bodies.

In the rush to build the quantity of new homes that we desperately need we must continue to improve and innovate and not regress.

This requires improved feedback loops so that industry can improve performance through evidence based post occupancy evaluation, a task for clients and their professional teams. Regulation and standards must be sustained and updated where gaps are identified, such as overheating and air quality, a clear obligation on government.

The performance gap, that is the gap between standards and regulation and the actual performance of the home, must be adequately addressed and more needs to be done to address poor build quality that leads to a lack of consumer confidence that the sector can deliver quality outcomes. This requires improved skills and a better trained workforce, a challenge for our education and training programmes.

Better and consistent information on the performance of homes at the point of sale or rent that impact directly on the consumer such as running costs could also help to drive up quality through comparison websites, common in all other consumer services with the exception of housing, the single biggest investment and choice that we make in our lives.

We must not overlook the great strides forward that have been made in recent decades in the quality and performance of new homes, however in the rush to build the quantity of new homes that we desperately need we must continue to improve and innovate and not regress.

Promoting the role of design

Below are some recommendations for promoting the role of design within the housing construction sector.

For development professionals and industry:

  • Better engagement with the customer and communities about their home and the place they live after occupation.
  • Working collaboratively to test new technologies and techniques to improve housing performance and speed of construction.
  • Testing different ways of working that involve a wider range of stakeholders and skills earlier on

For government:

  • Continue to regulate and raise standards for construction to improve environmental performance and health
  • Give weight through the planning system to quality and long term sustainability alongside speed and expediency of housing delivery
  • Continue to encourage diversity of housing supply by supporting alternative developers including small builders, community and custom build and local authorities.

For planners and designers:

  • Think about the long term legacy for those who will live in new homes – their health, wellbeing, inclusivity and pride of place.

Read the case studies

Qualitative research by Pye Tait for Design Council Cabe explores the role of design within the housing sector, in terms of how design and innovation can drive growth, overcome challenges in the supply chain and offer the confidence that communities need to support growth.

High quality buildings and spaces are essential to achieving this, as is evidenced in the eight case studies below. Download the case studies to explore a series of success stories demonstrating how design has improved the overall quality of new housing:

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