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Engineers and the housing crisis

It has become increasingly apparent in the last couple of years that there is a serious housing crisis developing in London. Rents in the city have rocketed up, while wages have been relatively stagnant since 2008. A supply and demand problem has arisen due to the lack of affordable house building. Surveys over the last few years have indicated that:

1/4 London children are living in overcrowded homes.

1/3 Londoners are worried about paying their rent or mortgage.

26% of Londoners claim housing benefit.

This crisis has also lead to an increase in homelessness in the capital, with the response to it not being particularly constructive.

The current government’s response to this has been muted at best, with no plan to increase the building of social housing. The government did introduce the Help to Buy scheme in 2013, allowing potential buyers to purchase a home with only a 5% deposit. Having come from a country (Ireland) which dabbled with loosening credit limits for houses, I have little faith in this scheme solving the housing issue on a long term basis.

Engineering response

While the lack of government response has been noticeable, the engineering world has also remained quiet on this issue. The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) “As a body doesn’t focus on housing policy as there are a large number organisations who do that specifically and so are better resourced.”

While the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) recognise that “Structural engineers have a crucial role to play addressing the issue”, they see this role as “Developing low-carbon, cost-effective, strong and certified construction products which can speed up home building and increase affordability; and by encouraging the better use of land, like brownfield and pre-constructed sites, in major development projects.”

While these are encouraging words from the IStructE, there is a lack of anything (horrible pun aside) concrete in their statement, and there seems to be a lack of willingness to take direct action on the issue. It seems that for them, the best course of action is to wait for the government to tackle the problem and provide the expertise when that happens, rather than a more proactive approach of using the bodies’ influence to demand change.

But should this be a problem engineers tackle?

This brings me back to the quote presented to me in my first class on engineering:

A great art, on which the wealth and well-being of the whole of society depends.

Engineers have put themselves at the forefront of tackling big issues such as how cities deal with climate change or the growing infrastructure demands which will need to be met in the next hundred years. This has been a widely discussed topic within the engineering world with numerous conferences dedicated it. ‘Sustainability’ has entered the buzzword lexicon and is mentioned for consideration at the start of each project, without any real meaning being attached to it. Besides a general focus on reducing the energy required for construction and ensuring buildings become as energy efficient as possible. But they are relatively silent on this issue affecting the here and now.

Some of the bigger companies, such as Arup or Buro Happold, in the think pieces on their websites, seem to focus on less tangible problems. It is easier and, possibly, more rewarding to come up with creative solutions to problems which seem far away and not as real to us. This means there is less of a focus on problems which are occurring now, such as homelessness or lack of affordable housing. The industry as a whole needs to start focusing more on problems which affect society now, rather than solutions to problems which may never be realised.

Solutions

The solutions to the housing crisis are reasonably well established and the same list gets trotted out time and time again.

· Build more social housing

· Build on greenbelt

· Building at higher densities

· Penalise spare rooms/empty houses

These solutions, and the drawbacks to them, are so well known that I feel they are not being engaged with anymore. The engineering community needs to re-examine these solutions and offer up their expertise to try and realise some of them.

There are still issues of cost with social housing and people are still reluctant to live in tall buildings. Using high rises as an example, the image of Mandela House from Only Fools and Horses is still at the forefront of people’s mind. It is up to engineers to focus on these issues and address people’s concerns in a bid to improve today’s world. We have reached a point where it is possible for quality of life in high rises to be no different than that in houses for most people. Engineering should be about more than just making money and designing penthouse flats which will be used sparingly and it is time that the engineering world woke up to this.

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