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Design at the Heart of House-Building




This research focuses on investigating how private sector developers across Scotland conceive design and how they engage with design quality in the development process for new housing. The main aim of the research is thus to provide evidence on the current status of design in the house-building industry in Scotland, and suggests how to promote design as a key factor in driving house-building in the future. This derives from the wider UK and Scottish policy context for housing and urban design, which the research reviewed as the basis for implementation. Despite this clear policy and guidance context, there was, however, no prior definition of 'good design' by the Research Team, but the understanding of design quality and how this was achieved in practice comes from the house-builders themselves, which is seen as an important element of the approach to the subject.

The commissioned research objectives were thus to:

  • explore whether there is a clear vision and understanding of design and design policy amongst the key stakeholders;
  • understand issues surrounding skills and training in design in house-building organisations;
  • identify examples of good practice where house-builders have overcome barriers and successfully placed design at the heart of their house-building programme; and
  • disseminate such examples of good practice within the house-building industry to further promote the value of design more effectively so that house-building in Scotland becomes a design-led activity.

As such the research focuses primarily on development processes, but also reflects the impact of this on housing products through the case studies.

The research was commissioned through competitive tender by the Scottish Executive in September 2006 and was implemented between October 2006 and September 2007 by a consortium of Scottish Higher Education Institutions (School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University, in association with Architecture at Edinburgh University and the School of Architecture at Edinburgh College of Art). Homes for Scotland, the apex organisation for the majority of Scottish private sector housing developers / builders, played an important role in supporting the research, including participating with the Scottish Executive and Architecture + Design Scotland in an Advisory Group. A wider sectoral Reference Group also provided comment and guidance during the research period.

The project was commissioned in three phases, based on different research methods:

  • Phase I was a pre-coded questionnaire email survey to cover as many Scottish private sector house-builders as possible, in order to provide an overview of the sector's operation and the role of design within this;
  • Phase II was based on semi-structured interviews with senior management and design staff of a sample of the responding firms, to investigate initial findings in more depth and identify possible case studies; and
  • Phase III was a series of case studies of good practice vis-à-vis design in the development process, highlighting the impact of this on the final housing product.

Phase I had a 25% response rate from developers contacted, representing 37% of all private sector house completions across Scotland in 2005/6, and the detailed nature of this response has been considered representative of the sector's operations overall by the Advisory group, and hence a firm foundation for Phases II and III. The companies contacted in subsequent phases were very cooperative and as such it is hoped that this report assists in providing a sound basis for wider discussion on placing design at the heart of house-building in Scotland

Main Findings

  • There are a wide range of types of developers active in the sector across Scotland, varying in size and nature of output, nature of business (family-owned through to national public companies), nature of activity (developer and developer/builder), land banking and/or financial resource capacity ( e.g. historic land banking, finance available through parent company), and to some extent, region of operation (especially East/West Coast in the Central Belt). Inevitably, the nature of the business affects the developer's approach to design, such as who takes key decisions affecting design and how these decisions are undertaken, as well as issues concerning profit-maximising strategy and the company image.
  • In this respect it is important to note that while the largest developers are UK national companies, who tend to operate in the larger market of the Central Belt, there is a significant Scottish regional market share, split between small and medium size companies with the latter producing significantly more housing. As to the nature of output, most firms operate across segments of the market, with the majority focusing on mid-market. In general, although respondents all considered design important, it was seen as more important for executive housing than starter housing and this was related to the nature of standardisation.
  • Design quality is perceived by developers as a complex mix of factors which include dominant economic aspects of supply and demand revolving around costs and sales potential - buildability, standardisation, market assessment, customer feedback - within which the visual or spatial quality is a secondary set of values. As such, individuality of design is generally seen as raising costs, providing less certainty in sales and possibly a lower quality of product This view applies to the internal layout, which tends to be the most standardised feature; the external "jackets" applied to these layouts, also often quite highly standardised; site layouts, which tend to be dictated by the aim of maximising the return on the number of units on costly land within the narrow parameters of road regulations; and overall urban design within context, which is perhaps the design feature least considered by developers, partly due to the fragmented form of land delivery and partly due to the general lack of site specific design guidance.
  • Essentially, private sector housing developers tend to see themselves as offering a predominantly manufactured product rather than a predominantly crafted product, and the economics of some elements of mass production affect their activity. However, what is offered is increasingly not only seen as a manufactured product, but marketed as a "lifestyle" option (whether "traditional" or "contemporary"), and this is most clear in the sales techniques.
  • The supply of partly mass-produced manufactured lifestyle products is, however, conditioned by the fact that there is excessive demand in relation to supply, and hence the level of market research tends to build on existing products and the lifestyle images which can be associated with these and not necessarily investigate wider varied demand. In this respect, therefore, any changes in design of the product need to take into account the processes that firms use to assess market demand, and also more general projections of how this is changing / likely to change, or might be encouraged to change. Mass media is a very powerful tool in regard to the latter, but projections of demographic change and changing socio-cultural attitudes to home and even work are potentially needed to impact on the former. These affect the whole market and are arguably unlikely to be undertaken by individual developers.
  • While there is a tendency for production to become more standardised in certain aspects (internal layout and components for instance) it is also becoming less standardised concerning site layout and (to a lesser extent) the external "jacket". This can be seen to reflect three main issues: the nature of land release, with brown field land and masterplanned sites requiring more individual treatment; the demands of the planning and other approval systems, with design being seen as a more important consideration; and the changing nature of the construction process, with a shortage of skills and cost benefits from off-site manufacturing of components.
  • The research found that in relation to wider social issues such as accessibility and sustainability the prevailing attitude is that these are driven by government policy and not the market and hence developers will take these on board as they are required to, but not voluntarily. This is partly as there is a perception that these are not customer led, but also as they entail higher up-front costs and hence affect saleability - especially of starter homes. There is little evidence of understanding or design based on the concept of whole-life houses, partly due to the nature of the housing market as developers assume households will move when facing different needs.
  • Referring to sustainability, some developers pointed out that, while in general they find the changes in regulation a negative factor and in fact they respond positively to the "level playing field" of regulations for new build, the lack of parallel regulations concerning existing housing stock is putting new build at a disadvantage, apart from the preponderance of existing stock across the nation and hence the need to address these issues more widely. That said, some developers are aware that sustainability can be a part of branding and that this is likely to be more important in future, in relation to both market demand and government regulation.
  • Concerning design in the development process, the research shows that the form of land supply has a major impact on housing design, in various ways. This includes the limiting of time for design between competitive land purchase and starting on site - exacerbated by lengthy planning and related approval processes. It also includes the fragmented nature of much land release and the lack of overall spatial planning for a number of adjacent sites. The price of land itself also forces developers to optimise the number of units built on the site, and hence reduces site layout and urban design options.
  • The government focus on brown field development is changing the nature of land availability and the inherent issues in developing this land - decontamination, contextual development, site size - are leading to a different balance of land acquisition and design in the earlier stages of the development process, including more "bespoke" and externally provided design inputs and a shift from more standardised in-house led design.
  • Concerning the nature of approvals and design guidance, while most developers welcome design guidance and policy statements, the current general nature of such guidance still needs to be interpreted for sites and here the developer either wants clearer guidance or wants to be able to take the initiative and be sure of an informed and timely response. In general developers see planners as having a key role in promoting design quality; however, they find that planning authorities have difficulty in providing the necessary response due to staff limitations/skills, lack of consistency in application within authorities ( e.g. planners, other regulators and/or councillors) and across authorities, with differing requirements, and that there are problems in the timing of the whole process which lead to minimising design changes which might otherwise be considered, due to the cost implications of lengthy approvals.
  • In this context the issues of road design and site layouts and general place-making and urban design are recurrent problems, as are drainage issues. Some developers do take the initiative in urban design, as encouraged by national policy and guidance; however overall there was agreement on the usefulness of urban design frameworks, masterplans and design statements. Other than the possibility of increased staffing and design skills across authorities and better in-house coordination and streamlining of approval processes (which could be differentiated by development size), it is also suggested by developers that independent advice be called on to increase design inputs. A partnership approach to working between developers and regulatory authorities is seen as being potentially beneficial, as the case studies have shown in practice.
  • In relation to construction, off-site production is increasing, partly due to new product availability and on-site skilled labour shortages, but also related to economies of scale. Potentially more off-site manufacturing could improve sustainability, but this is also related to the standardisation of products. As noted above, there is a tendency to standardise some aspects of the building design process such as internal layout and components, but a tendency for these to be required to fit in different site conditions and with different external "jackets" related to lifestyle marketing and planning / urban design contextual considerations. Developers differed between those which have in-house construction and those without, contracting this out, with the former more open to changes in design, such as internal layout, in response to customer demand or planning requirements.
  • The design skills base is an important factor: while it is clear that developers rate private sector housing development experience higher than formal architectural skills vis-à-vis design "flair", mainly due to the implications for the highly prized "buildability", the number of design-related staff is rising, both in-house and bought in from external consultants. The nature of which option is primarily operated (in-house / bought-in) and on what issues (standard house types, bespoke design etc) however varies considerably. The fluctuating nature of the market tends to mean that it is more secure to have a certain core capacity, closely involved in implementing company policy, with other design needs being bought in as required. There was a general agreement from developers of a limited experienced skills base and/or appropriate training, with developers investing in some training and nurturing of experience of their own staff.


The Research Team draw on the substantive research findings summarised above, as well as other relevant recent research reviewed in this report, to make a number of recommendations for developers, local authorities and other regulatory bodies, and other indirectly involved institutions. In addition to the specific findings it is suggested that a much clearer picture of what private sector housing development entails also needs to be transmitted to a wider audience, including the public. Changing wider public attitudes to design is a key issue but a long term process, and one which requires government support for innovation and 'capturing the imagination' through wider media. The following is a summarised overview of the recommendations for the key stakeholders in private sector house-building.

  • Developers need to recognise that design quality has become a more important component of the development process, both as far as approvals are concerned, but also in relation to the nature of demand, with social change, and future land availability which is likely to entail more urban brown field developments. As rightly indicated by developers, design quality covers a wide range of issues and to address this in a comprehensive way entails developing a clear design ethos within firm, and explicit definition of the firm's approach to design quality. This can then be translated into design statements for different developments, including design frameworks and masterplans when suitable.
  • Whether firms want, or have the capacity, to drive the site specific design quality agenda or not, early consideration of the likely planning and other regulatory constraints in any site development is essential, as is a willingness to negotiate early with the relevant entities which provide approvals. Planning in particular has a key role to play in placing design at the heart of house building, and this requires adequately staffed and skilled planning departments with a realistic understanding of the economics of development. In this process planners need to be able to apply the wider guidance on urban and housing design in a clear and consistent manner. Councils need to provide an adequate number of appropriately skilled planners, upgrading these skills as required in design areas. Local authorities, landowners, as well as other interested bodies, can also use more proactive approaches to ensure design quality is high on the agenda in each development, including prior design competitions and awards.
  • Consistency and close coordination across regulatory bodies and others with design quality interests is recognised as being a key factor. Local authorities need to invest in plan-led design guidance to avoid excessive individual guidance falling to planners, who may thus display less consistency, and they need to build in more coordination across the various local authority approvals. Councillors inevitably have the final say, but need to be aware of design and economic issues and avoid differential treatment of firms or sites, basing their decisions as much as possible on expert advice. Expert advice can be from in-house planning and architectural design personnel, but can also be external through advisory groups. Specific issues needing closer coordination, clear and non-conflictive and unambiguous guidance include target densities, contextual design issues, drainage, building regulations etc. Such a more collaborative approach to housing development essentially requires a partnership working approach.
  • One of the most important issues in private sector house building is access to land, and while it is recognised that the government has adopted a policy of promoting brown field development over green field development, an adequate supply of land in both categories to address the rising demand is essential, as the current position of limited supply is pushing up land prices. As land becomes more expensive, this is passed on to the house buyer making starter homes in particular less affordable, squeezes out time for design and also may squeeze out the smaller developer with limited land banking capacity and access only to direct commercial finance. Companies which place an emphasis on design quality, whatever their size, should not be disadvantaged vis-à-vis competitors who are more oriented towards maximising profits when such companies are in competition for land.
  • Developers recognise that what they provide is a largely craft-based, partially manufactured product, and are increasingly adopting some of the gains in added value in modern manufacturing processes, especially related to off-site component production and marketing. This however needs to be backed up by more customer-focused processes, including deeper market research, especially concerning flexibility in user demand in design of final product. This will require a strategic change from relying primarily on development gains largely based on land-related issues to development gains based more on issues related to design, embedding design at the heart of the development process with a subsequent impact on the quality of the housing produced.
  • If developers are to strategically engage with design in all aspects of their activity, this requires well qualified designers that have a good understanding of the development process. A more design-focused approach is more likely to draw on qualified architects, whether in-house or external consultants, and educational institutions have a key role to play in promoting practical skills training as part of curricula as well as assisting with design-related training for a wide range of parties through Continuing Professional Development, which requires government support.
  • Government agencies which have provided policy and guidance in architecture and planning, also need to now encourage engagement between professions and practice in mutual knowledge transfer activities in a wider manner. Government also needs to provide research support for the housing sector in facing challenges such as more sustainable housing, research into more varied demand, and research into strategic trends. In this respect, the new house-building sector needs to operate on as level a 'playing field' as possible vis-à-vis wider housing sustainability, accessibility and whole-life housing issues. Most importantly, such research should be widely disseminated and translated into practical guidance and/or regulation.