“The housing market, in my opinion, is not less important than the food market, but you have nowhere as many choices as you have in that case.”
“If you look at the food market, you will notice that it is capable of providing an amazing variety of products, with a great range in costs, from the cheapest to the most expensive. All have one thing in common: their quality is guaranteed, which means that if you eat them your health will be safe. Furthermore, as a potential buyer you are given access to a lot of information, like where the meat was processed, where the fish was caught or where the vegetables were grown. As a consumer, you are empowered to use these information to decide what you will buy, clearly also in relation to your budget.” Being interviewed is Dr. Federico De Matteis, an architect teaching architectural design at "Sapienza" University of Rome since 2006. “The housing market, in my opinion, is not less important than the food market, but you have nowhere as many choices as you have in that case. On the contrary, if your budget is constrained, you may not have any choice at all: like going to a supermarket where all is sold is one type of bread.”
About Dr. Federico De Matteis
De Matteis’ research activities are mainly focused on urban space, and on how housing design influences the transformation of the city. He has been the lead partner for the working group HOPUS (Housing Praxis for Urban Sustainability) within URBACT, which ran from 2008 to 2010, and was dedicated to the use of design codes and other forms of "smart" guidelines for new housing developments, from the urban design scale to the level of building technology and energy efficiency. In an URBACT publication called Housing for Europe, De Matteis wrote an article called Housing Europe where he compared buying food versus buying a place to live.
Comparing the housing market to a supermarket
By only buying products at the supermarket consumers are not assured of a good meal yet. They actually need to be a decent cook to whip up a nice meal. But at least you will not get sick from what you eat, which is something quite important. De Matteis argues that there is little choice on the housing market. “If by chance you have enough money to spend on housing, you may have more choices between different locations, but in the end you will wind up with the same kind of housing, just larger. This is like a supermarket with big and small loafs of bread, but all just one kind of bread. It is peculiar that a market consuming such a large amount of people's resources is so rigid, and also that, while EU regulators have put a lot of effort into creating a homogeneous discipline for the food market, nothing has been done so far for the housing market. Despite its great importance in ensuring quality of life, it is mostly private developers who decide what kind of housing is to be built, and what dwellings to be offered to future residents.”
How can the EU orient a market with mostly private housing developments?
The EU cannot orient the market directly, but it can certainly help consumers do so. An informed consumer has far greater expectations from the market, and is capable of making better choices. In the food sector, to return to that comparison, consumers have grown accustomed to being well informed on what they buy, and to be reasonably sure that what they eat will not harm them. In the long run, this has led producers to be more competitive, recognizing the importance of providing quality products, something consumers are willing to spend their money on.
How can something similar take place in the housing market?
Private developers can be invited to disclose a greater amount of information about their projects, and local authorities can play an important role in this by "promoting" good practices, possibly also using a labelling system. But what is more important is that the public must be informed, to help people look beyond the many marketing tricks which developers adopt to promote their projects.
The physical structure of cities is the effect of a certain society, not its cause
De Matteis firmly believes that good housing can do a great deal
to help an individual, but it is not capable of influencing a
social structure. The physical structure of cities is the effect of
a certain society, not its cause. There is not much faith to be put
in architecture and urban design in terms of social engineering,
for history, both remote and recent, has shown us that the way a
group of individuals reacts to a specific place where it is set to
live can be hardly predicted.
“I think the real problem is connected with the possibility of choosing. As long as one is free to choose between a number of options, he/she will never be actually "forced" into living somewhere he might feel uncomfortable. In fact, there are many cases of housing in Europe or around the world which are considered "prime" real estate, but only because they are fashionable, not in relation to real urban quality. Likewise, many workers' housing settlements from the 1920's and 30's, which we today consider as masterpieces of urban design, were originally ghettoes where no one would deliberately move to.”
The issue of increasing the availability of choices, i.e. access to decent housing, is clearly becoming a market problem. Public housing programs in Europe are mostly defunct, and even social housing is moving increasingly away from public control. Unfortunately, social groups with weaker economic power end up having little if any choices at all. In my opinion, what the public sector can do to improve living conditions in these disadvantaged neighbourhoods is not so much related to the physical transformation of the city, but rather promote and support a balanced development. A thriving community will eventually create a good urban condition, especially if it feels empowered to take its own decisions in shaping its living environment.
That good housing must be expensive is a false myth
Housing costs are mostly driven by land value and territorial density, and both are aspects which should be kept under control through adequate planning. Unfortunately, what happens in many European contexts is that planning is too influenced by private investors, who lobby to protect their interests and have far more power than other stakeholders. When the "balance of power" between the different actors is not tuned enough, very little can be done to avoid speculation and urban sprawl. It's the failure of urban governance.
When it comes down to design choices, there are a lot of things which can be done to keep costs under control
What is most important is that to a large extent housing quality can be created at zero cost, just by optimizing some fundamental aspects of design. In this sense, design guides can be truly useful, since they can set out minimum requirements, outlining possible choices ensuring positive outcomes without excessively impacting on building costs, and leaving the individual designers the freedom to come up with original and innovative solutions. In my opinion, regional-level policies promoting the use of design guides as non-binding technical tools, representing an agreement between different stakeholders, could help leap beyond the old-fashioned building regulation, shifting from quantitative to qualitative indications.
The Housing Quality Mesh
Housing is a very difficult topic because it is tightly
connected to local culture. What might be considered excellent
housing in Belgium could be totally unfit for the Greek market, and
vice-versa. So one first issue was that of identifying
methodological aspects rather than physical ones, not simply
stating that a certain type of housing solution is good or bad, but
rather that it is capable of establishing a certain auspicable
A second problem is that quality cannot easily be measured. Typically, quality labelling protocols are analytical, which means that you go through a lot of checkboxes, and in the end sum up the score to obtain a result which should somehow measure quality. To be honest I find this kind of approach very reductive, since at times a single negative aspect in a whole development can bring the overall quality down to zero. Imagine, for example, a housing development built close to a highway: no matter how environmentally friendly, energy efficient or aesthetically pleasing you build it, residents will still be plagued by the incessant noise.
The housing quality mesh was therefore a challenge to find a set of general aspects which should, in our opinion, be thoroughly considered in each and every housing development, providing the best possible answer for any specific condition. In the end, I believe, there is nothing which can truly substitute a skilled designer's problem-solving ability.
Conclusion: What would you like to see on the European housing market in the future?
“I think the best thing which can happen to European cities in
the future is that they start looking "inwards" again,
working on the transformation of the existing fabric instead of
sprawling outwards. Many cities are already working on a
compact-city model, and this is likely to be the only sustainable
strategy on the long run.” In this perspective, the market should
also be focused more on the transformation of the existing housing
stock, in particular those public housing estates which so strongly
characterize 20th century urbanization. Intelligent strategies for
the transformation of this huge endowment could be a true
propellant for Europe's inner cities, since they could also
produce a great impact on the quality of life in many disadvantaged
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Urbact publication | Housing for Europe
23 Aug 2011, pdf, 9MB