The Affordable Rural Housing Challenge

by Andrew Bruce, Director

After the last war, there was a severe housing shortage. The then Labour government instituted a programme of prefabricated houses – ‘prefabs’ as they were known – which were essentially modular, factory made units, to address this problem. It worked, accommodating thousands while a huge housebuilding programme got rolling.

Many lived in prefabs for decades. They were essentially a stopgap solution but enabled people to be housed and communities to be formed and sustained. The huge postwar housing boom which followed also worked, although that stock is now largely replaced or obsolete.

The whole was a demonstration that determination and necessity, allied to the enormous power that can be wielded by government if it chooses to do so (as our generation learned in the response to the pandemic) can make things happen and solve problems. So our rural housing problems aren’t some naturally occurring phenomenon; they are a result of political choices and therefore can be effectively addressed if the political will exists to do so.

Na Tri Stuadhan - The Three Gables
Na Tri Stuadhan - The Three Gables

Lack or unaffordability of housing in the Highlands and Islands is a significant issue which seriously impacts at all levels - socially, economically and culturally – and solutions must be found. Our work on social housing has shown that even the best designs result in high unit costs which effectively limit the numbers possible. Local authorities and other social housing providers are required to follow a performance specification which is of significantly higher quality than any private mass housebuilders; rightly so, but this means that costs per housing unit generally exceed £200k.

They are similarly bound to ‘traditional thinking’ and planning restrictions in terms of areas, roads, house types and capacities etc.

Given the restricted (and shrinking) government funding available, it’s simply not possible to meet demand effectively on this basis, no matter what political promises are made.

Along with restricted availability of rural sites (with effective land reform seemingly stalled), holiday accommodation outpricing rentals, inflating prices and a seeming inability or unwillingness by local and national politicians to promote more radical solutions for fear of offending powerful lobbies or compromising other areas, it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s a ‘stubborn crisis’, a second highland clearance if you like, which is impacting most areas of Highlands and Islands life and risks our future prosperity and growth.

We’re actively engaged with clients and collaborators in exploring creative alternatives, be this in different construction methods, adapting urban housing densities to rural settings, challenging accepted thinking on vehicle access requirements or reviewing how housing standards should be changed to address financial realities.

Our JNESpace modular housing development, designed for the Highland Council in Alness, demonstrated that a fully modular, off site assembly approach works and can deliver real benefits. We are now looking to develop smaller units for different occupancy types.

JNE Space Alness
Kendal Court, Alness

Addressing and solving the housing crisis needs real and creative engagement from all the parties involved in procurement, design, construction and funding. At root this is a political issue but we can envisage a creative strategy forum with open minded participants from all the stakeholders – including cross party politicians - willing to challenge conventional thinking to find solutions.

Architects are (or should be) visionary thinkers; we spend lots of time exploring and illustrating potential with an inherent holistic approach to problems. Our profession in the Highlands and Islands might consider taking a real lead in promoting and leading such a creative strategy forum. I believe we would be pushing at a door which can certainly be opened.

Meiklefield Estate, Dingwall