We need housing innovation to repair our biodiversity and natural systems

Dr. Ana McMillin is Director of Architecture at Broadway Malyan, a global architecture practice with studios around the world, including London, Madrid and Mumbai. In this article, Dr. McMillin offers her views on how family house design can adapt to provide homes for more people while respecting the natural environment.

Dr. Ana McMillin.

We face a housing crisis amidst biodiversity and climate crises. These need to be addressed concurrently, which presents a challenge to architects, master planners, and urban designers like us. This also means that we have to learn to live better together and with nature around us to maintain the significance of biodiversity and natural environments.

Nature is our most precious asset on which our economic, social, and environmental systems rely, providing us with benefits that have supported human life for millennia. But we also need decent homes that we can afford and from where we can set our lives.

Three-story townhouses, inspired by Georgian houses, are a good, less land-hungry alternative house model for families. They create good family homes and frame streets, creating lively places. With internal layouts offering the flexibility of rooms and spaces, these houses have private gardens plus rooftop terraces to help reduce their land take. Illustration: Xavier Ayub.

The government has implemented a crucial new measure to address biodiversity loss. Legislation that came into force earlier in the year demands that all new sites set for development of at least ten dwellings increase biodiversity by at least 10%.

Demand for the family house

Regardless of the differing opinions on the extent of the government’s measure, the crucial point remains the same. We need to foster greater ecological resilience and align housing design with biodiversity objectives. This is the path to a brighter future that we and future generations deserve.

In practical terms, this means that for most housing development sites, less land is available for housing plots. Instead, more land must be retained for green assets, a necessary trade-off to ensure effective biodiversity gain. As a result, the biodiversity net gain areas may be (at least) partially inaccessible, highlighting the need to prioritise biodiversity over amenity in some cases.

However, the demand for more housing, particularly family housing, which is more land-hungry in its traditional design approaches, is increasing. These two needs are conflicting, and the pressure on land is mounting. Reinventing family house types is one of the best ways to address these competing needs.

Innovative family house design: compact back-to-back houses can save up to one-third of land compared to a standard dwelling unit. In this house model, each family would have its own front door, dedicated parking space, and private roof terrace. Illustration: Xavier Ayub.

In our studio at Broadway Malyan London, we have been dedicating time to reassessing and reinventing modern family house types that can save land and meet the needs of diverse modern families who choose to live in landscaped and rural areas. Unlike in flats, a sense of privacy and own front door is maintained in the house models we developed, meeting the aspirations of many families who want to live in rural and urban fringe areas and enjoy the countryside as part of their lifestyle.  

An affordable family house for more people

Resolving the housing and biodiversity crisis involves reinventing how we live, particularly our homes and settlements. Some of our studio’s innovative family house models can also provide more affordable alternatives and urbanise at more gentle and sustainable densities that can support local community facilities and local public transport, helping communities adopt healthier lifestyles.

Gently increasing densities can substantially impact saving land and help us deliver lively streets and public spaces where communities can meet up and flourish, avoiding the isolation felt by those living in low-density suburbs.

Shorter gardens plus a roof terrace offer a range of amenity spaces in a dwelling unit type that uses less land. This model is suitable for larger three- and four-bedroom homes and has an integrated private carport. The internal layout creates flexible rooms, including space to work from home. Illustration: Xavier Ayub.

Many of our innovative family house models have roots in historic houses and reuse strategies traditionally used to address climate issues or provide amenities in compact buildings, such as courtyards or roof terraces. These strategies, designed in integration with the local character, can help overcome planning considerations such as townscape composition and visual impact.

Courtyard houses, inspired by Mediterranean houses, are a cost-efficient model for large three- and four-bedroom family house types. They have plenty of amenity space, including a roof terrace and an internal courtyard. Illustration: Xavier Ayub.

In our studies, we compared how our innovative house models could overperform standard family house types typically offered by housebuilders, particularly when those are not affordable to many families and where there is not enough land to meet the biodiversity net gain requirements and have sufficient development to offset the costs of the development and built processes.

We estimate that our family house models can save circa one-fourth of land and can thus be combined with more standard forms of housing to help bring sustainable developments to fruition, addressing the housing and the biodiversity crisis in the round.

Aligning land uses to enable biodiversity recovery with innovative housing design is imperative if we are to overcome the current crisis and find ourselves having progressed as a human collective at its outset.

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