Imagine if your home made you feel you could do anything?


Picture of David Ireland
David Ireland

Director of World Habitat

David Ireland is Director of World Habitat, a foundation that promotes innovative housing policies and practices

What are the solutions to the housing crisis? Across much of the Global North the spiralling costs of ordinary homes and staggering increases in homelessness are just two examples of a housing system that no longer works properly for people, especially those on low incomes.

The solution to this crisis – or so we are told – is supply. In England, for example, the government has committed to getting 300,000 homes built each year. Whilst few would dispute that there are not enough low-cost homes, we do seem to struggle to build good quality homes cheaply and quickly. And the way in which affordable homes are provided often creates new problems of social isolation and alienation.

I have worked in and visited places like the Aylesbury estate and the now demolished Heygate in South London. People who lived in these large concrete social housing estates built in the 1960s – the last time there was a significant government push to increase housebuilding – did not value their homes and were often afraid of where they lived. An elderly couple in Hackney in East London had developed a form of malnutrition because their experience of being mugged left them too frightened to leave their flat for more than a few minutes. Everything they ate was bought from the small selection of processed food that the local shop sold. They felt separated from their wider family, did not know their neighbours and viewed them with suspicion. The concrete walls dictated their lifestyle and they felt powerless to change it.

Quality does not need to be expensive; what is more valuable is how homes make people feel and how they inspire them to live

But surely housing works best when the home adapts to you rather than you having to adapt to it? People need to have an emotional connection with where they live – somewhere they will feel ‘at home’ and can ‘grow into’. This should not be a privilege for only the richest communities. There are places where this works for the poorest communities too, rather than them feeling that they should be grateful to accept anything that covers only their most basic needs.

I have seen remarkable examples across the world where inexpensive, quickly built homes work well – even in post-disaster housing, when the need to house communities is especially urgent.

Residents are involved in decisions about the design and homes are built so they are adaptable to the people who live in them. In 2011 in Western Pakistan, severe floods destroyed almost 850,000 houses, and around 9.7 million people were affected. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine the impact and scale of the rebuilding challenge, with entire villages and roads having disappeared.

However, with the help of the Building Back Safer project that developed and provided support and training for local people – using local labour, construction skills and water-resistant materials such as lime and bamboo – entire villages with more than 20,000 flood-resistant new homes were rebuilt in just a few months.

But they did not just rebuild homes, they built a legacy. Initially, the new homes were relatively small, but the project foresaw there would be the need and desire to extend and adapt them in the future. Residents – often led by local women – were trained in building design and construction. The foresight of this project gave communities the skills and ability to adapt and improve their houses to meet their needs as their families changed and grew.

Another example is the Post-Haiyan Self-Recovery Housing Programme, led by CARE Philippines. The strongest ever recorded typhoon, Haiyan, devastated large areas of the country in 2013.

Houses were torn apart and there was no water or electricity. What happened next was astonishing. The self-recovery programme helped over 15,500 families to rebuild their homes. They provided residents with guidance, equipment, cash grants and technical assistance, and locally available materials and debris from destroyed houses were used for rebuilding. This meant people did not have to move away and kept the rights to their homes and land. By taking charge of their own recovery, they have made their houses safer and more resilient to natural disasters.

There are also some good examples of these kinds of housing initiatives in the United Kingdom. Forty years ago, in Lewisham, London, people on the council house waiting list were offered training in basic building, land, and a kit to build – and subsequently own – homes through the Walter Segal Self-build Housing Project. Residents worked with architects to design homes and built them using simple timber frames and widely available materials.

They did not just rebuild homes, they built a legacy

This initiative has had remarkable impact on residents. Meeting many of them over the years, I have got the impression that they have lived more prosperous and varied lives than they otherwise would have.

Yet, what is so frustrating is that had this been replicated, it could have heralded a new era for affordable housing across the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

So how are we going to address the current shortage of low cost homes? How can we make public investment work for the best and not repeat the mistakes of the past? We must not look back in 20 years with regret as a huge opportunity missed.

Good housing is about building something that not only meets people’s needs but also their aspirations. Quality does not need to be expensive; what is more valuable is how homes make people feel and how they inspire them to live. I will never forget the words of Dave Dayes, one of the original Walter Segal Homes residents: “Once you’ve built a home, nothing’s a challenge anymore, you feel you can do anything.”

Imagine if over the next 30 years thousands of people could be so inspired by their homes that it makes them feel they ‘could do anything’. The positive impact on our societies and communities could be unprecedented.

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