Building for a Healthy Life: it’s time to shine a light on wellbeing

Sachin Parmar (pictured), senior planner at Marrons Planning, planning consultancy, part of law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.

The UK has been in the midst of a housing crisis for years, and COVID-19 has highlighted that a failure to cater to people’s needs is an integral part of it. A housing revolution is required, with residents’ wellbeing put at the forefront of new developments rather than speed. Incidentally, the launch of Home Englands ‘Building for a Healthy Life’ (BHL) could start exactly that.

The requirements of lockdown have demonstrated the importance of building homes that fit the owner’s needs. People’s priorities have changed, in turn putting increasing pressure on developers to explore new housing and residential scheme designs that cater not only to the provision of housing, but also to people’s wellbeing.

July saw the launch of the BHL guidelines, which have been backed by Homes England. These will replace ‘Building for Life 12’ (BfL 12) and aim to encourage housing developers to plan healthier lifestyles into their housing schemes, creating communities with people at their heart.

When lockdown began, well-lit private spaces and greenery became more than nice-to-haves. For residents in urban areas with limited space and limited access to the outdoors, the pandemic caused them to become prisoners within their own homes, often impacting on their mental health.

Many city developments are designed with space saving in mind. Although this approach allows more people to live in these areas, it does not always take wellbeing into account, instead assuming that residents will be able to travel to meet their needs for light and fresh air. As lockdown showed, this assumption can be a dangerous one.

The impact of unsuitable housing on mental health has not been high on many developers’ agendas in the past, but it is now a national problem that must be addressed. At the moment, British home design is homogenous, focused on vertical building, tight quarters and in many cases, offers limited green space. This method does not promote wellbeing, instead fostering a one-size-fits-all solution that no longer suits the majority of the population. However, the BHL guidelines should hopefully go some way to changing this.

BfL 12, BHL’s predecessor, was designed to help decision-makers to assess the quality of schemes using a set of 12 questions that cover features such as facilities, tenure types and private spaces. However, BHL appears to move away from the old BfL 12 process, relying instead on architects and planners submitting well thought out evidence that proves how health and wellbeing has been considered.

This evidence can be based on the visual aids provided in BHL, a key part of the new guidelines and one of the main ways that it moves away from the previous BfL 12 structure. By giving a variety of examples to developers of what healthy spaces look like, developers can take design cues from them and research how they could be implemented in their own site.

The use of evidence such as drawings and written plans also increases the likelihood of schemes being looked upon favourably by the local community, in turn speeding up the planning permission process. As such, if implemented correctly, BHL could be a win-win for both developers and residents.

Similarly to BfL 12, there are 12 main considerations for developers. Each comes under one of three categories: integrated neighbourhoods, distinctive places and streets for all. From cycle paths and well-defined public spaces to green and blue infrastructure, these considerations will help to create communities that are better for people. However, BHL should not be used as a tick-box scoring system. Each element should be considered in context with the site, ensuring they will suit the needs of those who will live there, whether they be young families or the elderly.

In addition, all developments should look to find a balance between quality and affordability, allowing everyone to have access to suitable homes, not just the wealthy. If COVID-19 has taught the housing sector anything, it is that everyone should have access to green areas, adequate natural light, and reasonable private space.

Whilst speed of building is an essential part of combatting the housing crisis, this volume-centric approach to building undoubtedly puts a strain on people’s mental health. In order to tackle the crisis effectively, homes must be built for the long-term.

BHL appears to acknowledge that quantity is not everything, quality is also a vital part of the solution, and decision makers must ensure that it is being weaved into their developments wherever possible. Change will take time, but both BHL and the pandemic have created an opportunity for developers to rethink their approach to housing for the better.