Housing development in London has a new weapon: AI

Data from an AI learning model that mapped the London Borough of Lewisham suggests the capital’s targets for ‘small site’ development could be radically increased, says Russell Curtis

When the latest iteration of the London Plan was adopted in 2021, for the first time in its 20-year history the policy demanded that the capital’s 35 planning authorities deliver a proportion of their overall housing targets on small sites – that is, with an area of no more than 0.25ha. The figures varied across the city, but the total number of homes to be found on these pockets of land stood at 120,000 – just under a quarter of the overall housing target for the whole of London.

This number was way below that originally proposed by the London mayor in 2018. Alongside a ‘presumption in favour’ of development on small sites close to public transport, the earlier version of his plan compelled planning authorities to find space on small sites for a quarter of a million homes, with the outer boroughs expected to deliver the lion’s share.

The pushback was inevitable, with London Assembly member Andrew Boff claiming, hyperbolically, that this amounted to a ‘war on the suburbs’. With the GLA lacking convincing data to demonstrate the figures were achievable, the targets were slashed before adoption.

But quiet, in the background, progressive boroughs knuckled down and got on with putting plans in place to promote intensification. In 2020 – nearly a year before the final version of the London Plan was adopted – Lewisham Council appointed RCKa and Ash Sakula to prepare dedicated guidance for new homes on its small sites. Just six months after the London Plan became official policy, Lewisham’s Small Sites SPD was formally adopted.

Two years on, as Sadiq Khan looks towards what’s increasingly likely to be a third and final term, he will be considering updates to the London Plan to cement his legacy as the mayor who did the most to tackle the city’s profound housing crisis. Small sites are likely to be a key focus of this work, and it would be a shrewd move to ramp up the small sites targets accordingly. But the question remains over whether there is sufficient data to justify this increase. To counter resistance to suburban intensification (as happened in Croydon) the new plan will need to be backed with robust evidence of the quantity and distribution of these sites.

So where are they? And how many? We tried to find out.

Land Registry data tells us that there are some 66,000 freeholds in Lewisham, and about 85 per cent of these meet the small-site criteria. Armed with our intimate knowledge of the Lewisham SPD and the site “types” it identifies, we set about mapping every one of them. Having built up a vast library of sites, based on the SPD, we trained an AI to categorise a bunch: backland, infill, amenity space and so on. Then, setting our learning model on the remainder of the borough, we created a complete map of Lewisham, including the location, size – and a rough idea of capacity – of every development opportunity from Deptford to Beckenham.

What we found was striking. While Lewisham’s London Plan 10-year small sites target is currently 3,790, based on early outputs from our data we think there might be capacity for two to three times this number. In fact, our AI model shows that there are enough sites to deliver Lewisham’s target on just two types alone. And as we trawl through the data, the AI improves. Ultimately, our plan is to apply the learning model to capture the whole of London.

Now, just because a site is developable it doesn’t mean it will come forward. The AI makes no distinction between public and private ownership, and many of the sites it has picked out will not provide new homes: some are private gardens, others active builder’s yards and occupied garages. But by establishing a policy landscape that makes planning less risky – as Lewisham has done – boroughs can go a long way to meeting these targets.

Extrapolating these figures across the rest of London, we think there’s sufficient capacity for at least 350,000 homes. Backed by our AI, there can be no more arguing over targets when we know not just how many sites there are. We can even point to them on a map. This is a huge opportunity, and those boroughs still lacking a dedicated small-sites policy should be compelled to implement it as soon as they can. It’s time to take small sites seriously.

This article was originally published in the Architects’ Journal.


Procurement Using 50% Scoring Ratio

This describes a typical limited tender process using standard methods of price / quality measurement, with a pricing ratio set at 50%. It demonstrates that this scoring ratio will almost certainly result in the cheapest price winning the project, even with a very low quality score.

The sample scores used to test this model is as follows:

Bidder NameFee (£)Quality Score (Out of 100%)
Practice A 102,45082
Practice B78,00075
Practice C125,15085
Practice D98,50068
Practice E25,00025
Practice F107,00076

Note that the scoring for Practice E has deliberately been set very low, scoring just 25% for quality but also coming in at less than a third of the next cheapest bid. Unfortunately, such wild variations in price scoring are not unusual when bidding for public sector work. There are few other sectors where any sensible person would accept a tender which was so much lower than the broad average of others; yet, for architectural services, such low-ball bidding is common—and rarely rejected, despite the Public Contract Regulations allowing commissioning bodies to reject “abnormally low” bids. Given that architectural salaries are broadly similar, the only explanation for low fees is that the bidding practice is anticipating spending far less time working on the project than others. There are no innovations in the market which enable practices to significantly reduce the cost of delivering their services without reducing amount of time spent performing it, and therefore the quality of the design which derives from these efforts.

For the purpose of this exercise, the most expensive practice has also scored the highest for quality. This is useful to demonstrate how different scoring methods can achieve a reasonable balance between quality and price, delivering best value for the client.

The following sections explore different methods of scoring and, using the figures above, illustrates how different ratios and scoring methods result in very different outcomes.

Relative to Cheapest Method of Scoring

In our example, the lowest financial bid was £25,000, and the highest £125,150. Scoring was based on a quality / cost ratio of 50:50.

The highest quality score was 85% which, when adjusted to the quality ratio of 50%, results in a quality component of 42.5%.

Using this method of scoring, Practice E (the cheapest) is the winning bidder. Clearly, any practice securing work with a fee of less than a third of the nearest bidder is either going to be unable to service the project properly or will be making a significant loss. Nobody in their right mind would accept such a low tender from, say, a builder, as clearly the quality of the work would be commensurately poor. Yet this happens all the time when it comes to commissioning architectural services.

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 50.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 50.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice E (WINNER)25,00050.0012.5062.50
2Practice B78,00016.0337.5053.53
3Practice A102,45012.2041.0053.20
4Practice C125,1509.9942.5052.49
5Practice F107,00011.6838.0049.68
6Practice D98,50012.6934.0046.69

Out of interest, let’s test the same figures using an alternative ratio: 70% quality and 30% price. This gives us the following results:

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 30.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 70.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice C (WINNER)125,1505.9959.5065.49
2Practice A102,4507.3257.4064.72
3Practice B78,0009.6252.5062.12
4Practice F107,0007.0153.2060.21
5Practice D98,5007.6147.6055.21
6Practice E25,00030.0017.5047.50

This result isn’t ideal either, as now the most expensive bidder has won the day, with a quality score that’s only marginally higher than the nearest competitor, but a pricing score which is a fifth higher.

Perhaps this suggests that the relative to cheapest method of scoring is never the best one to use?

Relative to Best Method of Scoring

An alternative way of assessing quality is to award all of the available quality points to the best submission. Having established a shortlist of what are, presumably, the most capable qualifying competitors on the market, it is nonsensical that the cheapest price tender receives the full 50% of the price score, but the best submission does not receive the full 50% of the available points for quality.

It may be that assessors have already given the best submission the full available score for quality, but if not, this method assesses all quality scores relative to the maximum percentage available, as well as giving the maximum marks for price to the cheapest bid. In other words, the best quality submission receives the whole 50% available, with all the remaining scores calculated proportionately to this.

It goes some way to preventing the cheapest bid “buying” a project with an inferior submission accompanied by an abnormally low financial submission—but does it ensure that the client is receiving the best value for money?

In this example, and using the same 50:50 ratio, Practice E still wins, having scored 50.00% for price and 14.71% for quality. So, pursuing this method doesn’t seem to make much difference.

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 50.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 50.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice E (WINNER)25,00050.0014.7164.71
2Practice A102,45012.2048.2460.44
3Practice B78,00016.0344.1260.14
4Practice C125,1509.9950.0059.99
5Practice F107,00011.6844.7156.39
6Practice D98,50012.6940.0052.69

Mean Narrow Average Method of Scoring

The mean narrow average (MNA) method of scoring discounts the highest and lowest tenders, establishing the mean value of those that remain, and scores all tender prices against the closest to that mean value. Fee bids which are less than half, or more than double, the mean value receive a price score of zero.

With Mean Narrow Average scoring, bidders are compelled to identify the appropriate fee required to service the project rather than cutting prices to buy the job, which could lead to underperformance or claims for additional fees later in the programme. Excessively low—or high—fees are penalised.

For these pricing figures, the mean (average) bid, including the lowest and highest fee submission, was £89,350, and the median was £100,475.

The highest and lowest fee bids have been excluded when calculating the mean average.

Using Mean Narrow Average with a price ratio of 50% results in Practice A being the winning bidder. Intuitively, that seems like a reasonable result: Practice A scored very close the median score (there were two more expensive bids, and three cheaper ones), and scored second highest in terms of quality. The full rankings are as follows:

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 50.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 50.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice A (WINNER)102,450.0046.9141.0087.91
2Practice D98,500.0048.9634.0082.96
3Practice F107,000.0044.5538.0082.55
4Practice B78,000.0040.4237.5077.92
5Practice C125,150.0035.1542.5077.65
6Practice E25,000.000.0012.5012.50

Alternative Ratios

To test a few alterative scenarios, I’ve run the same figures as above, but using different price/quality ratios. In most cases, the outcome is the same: Practice A wins, right up to the point where price comprises just 10%. Then, the highest scoring quality submission—and the most expensive bid—is the one that’s successful.

This means that the use of Mean Narrow Average is probably best deployed with a quality/cost ratio of around 60% – 70%.

Quality: 60%, Price: 40%

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 40.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 60.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice A (WINNER)102,450.0037.5349.2086.73
2Practice F107,000.0035.6445.6081.24
3Practice D98,500.0039.1740.8079.97
4Practice C125,150.0028.1251.0079.12
5Practice B78,000.0032.3445.0077.34
6Practice E25,000.000.0015.0015.00

Quality: 70%, Price: 30%

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 30.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 70.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice A (WINNER)102,450.0028.1557.4085.55
2Practice C125,150.0021.0959.5080.59
3Practice F107,000.0026.7353.2079.93
4Practice D98,500.0029.3747.6076.97
5Practice B78,000.0024.2552.5076.75
6Practice E25,000.000.0017.5017.50

Quality: 80%, Price: 20%

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 20.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 80.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice A (WINNER)102,450.0018.7665.6084.36
2Practice C125,150.0014.0668.0082.06
3Practice F107,000.0017.8260.8078.62
4Practice B78,000.0016.1760.0076.17
5Practice D98,500.0019.5854.4073.98
6Practice E25,000.000.0020.0020.00

Quality: 90%, Price: 10%

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 10.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 90.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice C (WINNER)125,150.007.0376.5083.53
2Practice A102,450.009.3873.8083.18
3Practice F107,000.008.9168.4077.31
4Practice B78,000.008.0867.5075.58
5Practice D98,500.009.7961.2070.99
6Practice E25,000.000.0022.5022.50

Out of interest, what happens is we reverse the ratio to prioritise cost over quality, using the Mean Narrow Average scoring method? Well, here we go:

Quality: 20%, Price: 80%

RankingBidder NameFee (£)Price Score (%)
(max. 80.00)
Quality Score (%)
(max. 20.00)
Total Score (%)
1Practice D (WINNER)98,500.0078.3313.6091.93
2Practice A102,450.0075.0616.4091.46
3Practice F107,000.0071.2815.2086.48
4Practice B78,000.0064.6715.0079.67
5Practice C125,150.0056.2417.0073.24
6Practice E25,

Surprisingly (at least to me), Practice A still scores very highly, coming second to Practice D which had a similar, but slightly lower price, but the second-to-bottom quality score. Nobody in their right mind would advocate for the commissioning of architectural services based on such a skewed ratio, but this serves to demonstrate that our earlier conclusion that a quality ratio of between 60% and 70% is likely to yield the best outcome for everyone.

A combination of Mean Narrow Average (MNA) and Relative to Best scoring methods could also be used, i.e. where the price score is calculated as the MNA result with the highest quality score receiving all of the points available, but given the success of the simple MNA method, it’s probably unnecessary.

All of these figures have been generated using a live model which you can test with different figures of your choice, here. And if you’re a procurement officer or public client, try putting so real-life tender figures you’ve received into this too, and see whether the outcome would have been any different.


After posting this article on LinkedIn, I’ve been directed to a comprehensive analysis of the various pricing models available to the public sector, written by Rebecca Rees of Trowers & Hamlins, which sets these out far more comprehensively than I could ever hope to do.

You can download the document using the button below.


The removal of the small sites policy from Sadiq Khan’s London Plan is a betrayal

Take a stroll around any London suburb and before long you’ll come across a pocket of land – a row of garages too small for modern cars, an overgrown gap of uncertain ownership nestled between houses, a sliver of broken concrete beside a railway line – which, with a little tenacity and creativity, could provide space for a new home or two. These sites exist in their thousands across London and are particularly abundant in the outer fringes of the city.

London itself is not very dense. Islington, with around 160 people per hectare, is the borough with the greatest number of people relative to its size. Bromley, with the smallest, has 22 people living in the same area. Compared to Paris and Madrid (neither of which could reasonably be described as unpleasant places to live), with figures of 213 and 286 per hectare respectively for the cities as a whole, it’s clear that London should be able to accommodate far more people than it already does.

In his version of the London Plan (the blueprint for London’s growth over the next ten years) Sadiq Khan set out ambitious targets for the delivery of new housing across the capital. Where the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, adopted a “blue doughnut” approach to planning, which capitulated to the Outer London, largely Conservative-voting, boroughs’ demands for more autonomy over planning decisions, Khan initially required those very councils on the edges of the city to do more to help deliver new homes. As an example of this new approach, Merton’s housing targets rocketed from just over 4,000 in the Johnson’s version of the London Plan to more than 13,000 in Khan’s – an increase of nearly 225 per cent.

For the first time, a key strategy of the Plan was the exploitation of small sites to help achieve overall housing targets. (Small sites, in this context, are defined as those providing up to 25 homes). Previous Plans had ignored the potential of such sites to make a significant dent in housing targets, largely because their capacity was so hard to quantify. Yet under the current Mayor this was to become an important component of the new housing strategy. In total, it required no less than 245,730 homes to be delivered on small sites over ten years—more than a third of the total housing target for London over that period.

To compel insubordinate councils to comply, the Plan included a controversial clause requiring them to adopt a “presumption in favour” of approval for small developments on sites close to stations or high streets, at the same time acknowledging that the character of some areas would need to evolve to accommodate London’s anticipated population growth.

Predictably, this was met with a hyperbolic response from Conservative politicians, with Andrew Boff, leader of the Tory group on the London Assembly, claiming that the policy amounted to “war on the suburbs”. Yet a less partisan analysis clearly shows that the Outer London boroughs are not doing nearly enough to combat the housing crisis. Even the government’s own, less ambitious, targets demonstrated that several of the suburban boroughs are falling short, with Havering achieving only a third of its target.

Prior to becoming official policy, any new London Plan has to go through a process of public consultation and interrogation by an independent planning inspector. With Mayor Khan’s draft new Plan, this took place in spring of 2019, with a queue of homeowning suburbanites duly trotting up to City Hall to lambast the Mayor’s proposals. Complaints were raised about the complex statistical methods for calculating the capacity of Outer London to deliver new homes and familiar, tired accusations that a wave of “garden grabbing” would be unleashed were made. Inevitably it was the least dense boroughs – and therefore the ones with the greatest capacity for growth – which pushed back hardest against the Mayor’s proposals.

The outcome of the examination was a resounding rejection of the small sites policy by the inspector, who called for its wholesale removal. A recently as November the Mayor rejected this call, claiming that London could indeed “deliver those homes within London’s boundaries with no development on the Green Belt” (the latter stance, by the way, was something else the inspector had recommended the Mayor reconsider). However, when the Mayor’s final version of the Plan appeared in December, the small sites policy was almost entirely gone – and with it the associated housing targets. In some cases the numbers had been slashed by half. Across London, this resulted in a total reduction of 125,000 potential homes.

What was the reason for this extraordinary change of heart? With an election looming, perhaps the Mayor was hopeful of making a political play for support in those boroughs currently holding fast against the red tide? After all, eight of the ten biggest reductions for small sites targets were in non-Labour voting boroughs, the same number that voted Conservative in the 2016 mayoral election. Perhaps it was felt that this policy risked holding up adoption of the Plan? That seems possible, though recent criticism by secretary of state for housing Robert Jenrick suggests that the government considers the Plan not to be ambitious enough. In his letter to the Mayor, Jenrick also objected to the Plan’s emphasis on building flats rather than family houses – something that small sites tend to deliver.

The idea that the suburbs continue to represent a bucolic escape from the grime and overcrowding of Inner London has long been anachronistic. With home ownership in the central boroughs now out of reach for most, Outer London is increasingly proving an acceptable compromise between commuting and housing costs. Change in the character of Outer London is inevitable as the city adapts to growth, yet in reality even the more ambitious small sites targets of the Plan would hardly have resulted in noticeable change in the character of suburban neighbourhoods. Dividing large houses into flats, small-scale development on infill sites, utilising scraps of redundant land and above shops: all of these count against the figures, and when spread across a wide area would barely be noticeable, even with the higher targets.

The claim that suburban boroughs are unable to deliver their fair share of the homes is preposterous: under the latest, less ambitious, version of the London Plan, Hackney – with a total area of 1,900 hectares – is, over the next decade, expected to deliver 6,580 homes on small sites compared to 2,950 in Hillingdon, despite the latter having an area six times larger. Inevitably some standards must change: policies that require a minimum distance between windows of no less than 20 metres, as is the case with many suburban boroughs, are no longer fit for purpose in a rapidly densifying city. As has consistently been pointed out by campaign group Create Streets, many of the older homes considered desirable today would not comply with contemporary planning policies.

The removal of the small sites policy from the London Plan represents a betrayal, not only for those citizens of London desperate to get a foot on the housing ladder but also for all of those small businesses so vital to the city’s construction economy: builders, developers and design professionals, for whom the risks inherent in the planning and delivery of small-scale developments are often too great to justify. With the last-minute extension to the Mayor’s term due to the coronavirus we can only hope for the reintroduction of the small sites policy so that we can get on with delivering the homes London needs.

This article was originally published by OnLondon.


Heart of the matter: Why architects need a key role in the construction process

To find an architect lamenting the erosion of the profession’s role within the construction process may elicit from many little more than crocodile tears or, to others, smack of a futile act of self-preservation when faced with challenging financial targets, shrinking capital budgets and the avoidance of risk. But while architects’ railing at the demotion of quality in favour of ‘certainty’ is hardly new, events of the last year have suddenly thrust our concerns into the spotlight.

It is still far too early to apportion culpability for the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in June, but it is possible that this may emerge as the latest, and most tragic, manifestation of decreasing oversight that architects have been warning about for so long. At the very least, there is clear evidence that a lack of professional, independent scrutiny has resulted directly in catastrophic failures elsewhere that could – had circumstances been only very slightly different – have resulted in tragedies of their own.

One example is the Edinburgh Schools fiasco, where Professor John Cole’s extensive inquiry into the collapse of a masonry wall at Oxgangs School in Edinburgh identified clear areas where a lack of oversight during the construction process phase had allowed poor workmanship to creep, unchecked, into the works.

Crucially, it became apparent that this was not an isolated incident, but one which was found to be endemic in the wider schools delivery programme, with a further four collapses directly attributed to workmanship not in accordance with the consultant’s designs. Professor Cole determined that independent scrutiny would likely have prevented such incidents occurring.

As well as the obvious risk to life, such events have had a dramatic financial and personal impact, with hugely expensive rectification work and extensive disruption to the education of students the new buildings were supposed to enhance.

There are innumerable, less spectacular, examples to be found throughout the country, many resulting in minor irritations but others which dramatically affect the enjoyment of buildings by those who inhabit them; in some cases, such as the Orchard Estate in east London, the result of a poor quality construction process and a lack of oversight has had a detrimental effect on residents’ quality of life.

It is a criticism often levelled at architects (and one not entirely without merit) that we have allowed ourselves to be pushed to the margins of the construction process, becoming adept at piloting complex schemes through an increasingly tortuous planning process, but superfluous when it comes to putting the thing together on site. One consequence of a decade of austerity is the presence of many young architects rising through the ranks of the profession for whom an understanding of construction techniques remains an abstract concept; lines on a drawing that have no analogue on a muddy building site.

While there’s some truth in this, in reality our marginalisation extends back far further than the recent financial crisis, with our traditional role at the heart of the construction process having diminished gradually as contractors, and other professionals, stepped into a void that we only had a small part in creating.

A shift away from what came to be known as ‘traditional’ contracting and the adoption of so-called ‘collaborative’ forms of contract, exemplified by design and build, were conceived as a way of reducing the adversarial nature of construction in the hope that by working together the entire team could focus on delivering projects to programme and budget.

It was expected that D&B would magically reconcile the elusive triumvirate of cost, quality and time. What really happened was a transfer of risk, with the balance of power shifting from the contract administrator (a role most often fulfilled by the architect) to the builder.

With the architect no longer acting on behalf of the client, and often taking their place as just another subbie within the builder’s extensive supply chain, the custody of quality was left up to those consultants, often from a cost background, remaining by the client’s side.

The benefit was obvious: a contract could be signed – often much sooner than would previously been possible – and the cost was fixed, with the risk of cost overruns now the responsibility of the contractor. It was up to the builder how to deliver the project within the sum agreed and any unexpected increases would be down them to resolve. This arrangement was so compelling it became the default choice for most public sector projects of any significance. The inevitable consequence was, however, that contractors would look to save money within the parameters laid down by the contract information in the desperate hope of widening excruciatingly narrow margins. Something had to give, and the sacrifice was quality.

There’s a perception in some sectors that our obsession with quality is simply a demonstration of our detachment from the realities of modern contracting. Why spend £50 on a tap when we could spend £500 and have it in gold? This is nonsense, of course. Our concern extends not only to the needs of the commissioning client but also those who will ultimately occupy those buildings we design; rarely are these the same, particularly in the public sphere.

We care about the contribution our buildings make to wider society; the effect on those who live and work around them, too. We understand that decisions made during the design stage can have a profound effect on longevity, enjoyment and quality of life. Quality extends not only to the thoughtfulness of a building’s design, the selection of materials and how they are put together, but to the enjoyment of those that live, love, work and sometimes die in it.

The impact our buildings have on the lives of the people that inhabit them can be profound and success cannot simply be assessed on the day the building is handed over, but only after months, years or even decades have passed. Architects understand that the construction process itself is only a brief excursion within a far greater journey. By retaking our position at the heart of the process, we can concentrate our efforts on arriving at the right destination.

This article was originally published in PBC Today and was quoted in the BSR (Bereaved, Survivors and Residents) Group’s submission of evidence to the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry.


After Grenfell

Passengers touching down at London City Airport are likely unaware that buried beneath the tarmac lie the brayed concrete remains of a 22-storey tower, the demolition of which signified a watershed moment in British housing. Erected hastily towards the end of the 1960s, Ronan Point concluded two decades of rapid housebuilding. At its peak, some 400,000 homes were completed annually, and in the fervour to replace the bomb-damaged slums of Victorian London it was perhaps inevitable there would be compromises in quality, with budgetary constraints eclipsing architectural ambitions and social concerns.

It was remarkable that on that spring morning of May 1968 so few people lost their lives. A gas explosion in a kitchen on the 18th floor blew out a load-bearing panel, which led to a collapse of one corner of the building, killing four. Although it stood for nearly 20 more years, Ronan Point was eventually pulled down in 1986, along with a number of other blocks built using the same construction methods, and deposited under the nearby airport runway.

This notorious event had two important outcomes, the effects of which we are still feeling today. The first was a comprehensive review of the Building Regulations — the statutory instrument that determines a building’s suitability for habitation — which were revised to outlaw the form of construction that enabled the ‘disproportionate collapse’ of the east London block. Secondly, it signalled an end to the British love affair with tower blocks and the modernist utopian dream. By the late 1970s we were building hardly any residential towers at all.

Fifty years on, the housing crisis of the early 21st century has reacquainted London with the concept of high-rise living. Inflating land prices have meant that developers wring every last square foot of space from tiny patches of brownfield land scattered across the city. Many of those towers that survived the purge of the 1970s and 80s, previously decried as failed social experiments, have been snapped up by canny developers and rebranded as desirable places to live: ‘luxury flats’ in convenient, accessible locations. Towers that remained in public ownership underwent less glamorous refurbishment through the Decent Homes programme, announced by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott at the turn of the new century. This ambitious initiative demanded that, within a decade, all social housing achieve minimum levels of quality. Often this work included the replacement of kitchens and bathrooms; in some cases upgrades to windows, thermal insulation and cladding to ‘spruce up’ ageing concrete.

Much of this work was carried out by a cabal of large construction companies who had become adept at offering councils a ‘one-stop shop’ of design and delivery, shielding the client from the risk of cost and programme overruns. Public clients, recoiling in paroxysms of fear at the prospect of capital projects running over budget, embraced this approach, taking comfort in the fact that fixed-price contracts would prevent costs unexpectedly spiralling out of control. As with the housebuilding boom of the late 1960s, the ambition of this new programme meant that design quality was sometimes of secondary importance to the need to deliver desperately needed new homes on time and within budget.

A consequence of this approach was the gradual excision of the architect from the construction process. The profession became seen as contributing little other than cost and complication, and its responsibility withered away to a point where it was seen as useful only for picking colours of cladding and helping to navigate tricky planning committees. Its technical expertise, pursuit of quality and consideration for those affected by the work became of secondary importance – an inconvenience that the budget and programme could ill afford. Rather than working directly for public clients, the design team began to work instead for main contractors, isolating architects yet further from the communities they were supposed to serve.

Just a few short weeks on from the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, it’s still too early to speculate as to why the fire spread with such terrifying rapidity. It may be that a particular configuration of standard building components contributed to the spread of flame across the outer skin of the building. Quite why in this case a small domestic blaze – of which there are many hundreds each year within tall residential buildings – led to so many deaths may take many months to determine.

It’s also impossible to say whether more meaningful involvement from the architect could have mitigated the tragic effect of the Grenfell Tower fire, but it is apparent from other recent cases that their exclusion has allowed bad practice to seep unchecked into the construction process. The recent Cole Report into problems with a raft of contractor-led schools in Edinburgh identified poor construction and inadequate supervision as the principal reason for a large number of serious building failures. Architects used to serve a nobler cause; now they have little choice but to serve those who pay the bills.

In his riposte to the Prince of Wales’s withering criticism of the profession in 1984, ex-RIBA president Maxwell Hutchinson claimed that the failure at Ronan Point was not because architects were involved in the construction. It was because they were not. Can it really be the case, half a century on, that we are back where we started?

This article was originally published in Icon magazine.