The Housing Design Awards were created to drive quality during the rebuild of post-war Britain. In 1947 Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health with responsibility for housing, told Parliament that the Government would present annual awards for the design and layout of homes procured by the public sector. The initiative was part of the creation of the NHS, the aim being free health care and healthier homes (several common diseases of the period were associated with bad ventilation and damp).
The Awards ran until 1955 and during this time reflected the importance of urban reconstruction and the growing New Towns programmes, including an award to the country’s first high-rise development, The Lawns in Harlow, by Frederick Gibberd (1952).
A sharp rise in housing production from 200,000 new homes per annum in 1951 to 300,000 in 1954 put numbers before quality, unleashing the fashion for system built point blocks and leading to suspension of the Awards. When the quality of new schemes declined sharply, the Government was forced to look again to the Awards to protect its investment in new stock.
In 1960, the scheme was relaunched as the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (later Department of Environment) Good Design in Housing Awards, promoted jointly with the RIBA. It was extended to private homes. Eric Lyons, who brokered the arrangements between RIBA and the Government now led by PM Macmillan, became a multiple winner in the following years, reflecting the emergence of imaginative Span developments like Southrow, Blackheath (1963). The success of the Housing Design Awards encouraged the RIBA to set up its own Awards programme for all buildings in 1965.
The 1960s tracked the shift of emphasis away from public sector high density high-rise and private sector low-density low-rise to compact housing schemes in both sectors, pioneered by Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Gardens in Westminster (1969), a scheme which had won the competition for the regenerated bombsite six years earlier. By the time Lillington Gardens was awarded, municipal building programmes favoured intricate medium and low-rise development, perhaps the most complex being the Greater London Council’s Odhams Walk in Covent Garden CUT which won in 1983.
In 1981 the NHBC joined the DoE and the RIBA as sponsors, the cumbersome title shortened to Housing Design Awards. Separate categories for public and private sector were abolished, reflecting their increasing convergence around themes such as energy-efficient design, such as Spinney Gardens by PCKO Architects in Crystal Palace, the 1987 winner of a competition whose brief was written by Darbourne and Darke.
In 1989 the Royal Town Planning Institute joined the Awards, bringing more focus on schemes emerging from the planning process, the Project Awards. Completed Awards and Project Awards were then run separately on different annual cycles but in 1997 they were merged, each given equal billing. The opportunity to win an Award during the sales and marketing phase attracted the interest of more speculative developers and since the mid 1990s the market-sale developers, notably the larger house builders have been winning a greater percentage of awards, reflecting their move into site-specific design and semi-bespoke development, as well as their new found focus on place making.
In recent years the role of local authorities has been better recognised. Since 2005 the planning authority has been awarded alongside developer, architect and contractor. The role of the local authority as commissioning body or project party has also returned, with the Overall Winner award in 2009 being made to South Hams District Council, the same year a newly formed Homes and Communities Agency joined the Awards, reflecting its role in delivering a national housing programme in partnership with local authorities.
The Greater London Authority became a promoter in 2012, using the Awards to highlight what it was seeking through its SPD for Housing Design. There is an annual Mayor’s Award for the scheme which highlights benefits of the guidance. In 2016 the London Sustainable Development Commission, based at City Hall joined to promote a special award for sustainable high density living. In 2017 The Good Homes Alliance added its name to the partnership’s search for enduring sustainable innovation.
In recent years the RICS, representing housing’s largest profession, the Landscape Institute representing landscape architects and the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists have completed the circle of skills. It means the awards are genuinely a cross industry partnership between various arms of government, the private sector and all key professional institutions. No other housing awards have the mandate to call themselves the national programme. The seriousness of the awards and their links with Government is reflected in how sponsoring Partners each send not less than one judge to visit occupied schemes, to assess firsthand each shortlisted candidate. This travelling group of 10 or more judges, often on the road for 4 or 5 days at great expense (all without government financial support) highlights the gap between these awards and their imitators which are sometimes little more than commercial enterprises focused on maximising revenue from gala functions.
Under the guidance of chairman Gareth Capner and director David Birkbeck of Design for Homes, the Awards have increased their investment in explaining the details about winning and shortlisted schemes. Four or five short films are made each year about Completed winners, interviewing development teams, planning authorities and residents. This is a perfect continuation of the Housing Design Awards’ original purpose, to explain what residents think about innovative design and whether it can be replicated.