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.
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 also returned, with the Overall Winner award in 2009 being made to South Hams District Council, a success repeated by London Borough of Camden Council as both client and planning authorit for the Overall Winner award in 2018, Camden’s redevelopment of blocks within its Bourne estate.
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 the GLA’s design priorities.
In recent years Homes England has introduced a Masterplanning award, which seeks to identify ideas that deliver higher quality places at pace, whether that is through a single development parcel or a number of phases within a larger development. Homes England has 2 judges on the panel and uses the awards to train its staff about routes for delivering quality.
Two other specialist awards promote evolving responses to managing climate change. The Building with Nature award is focused on reversing the challenge to biodiversity and the award goes to a scheme which reflects the Building with Nature standard, while the Towards Net Zero Carbon award, promoted by the Good Homes Alliance, showcases the industry’s early progress towards net zero carbon homes.
The Housing Design Awards’ connection to Government and a range of objectives across government departments and agencies is reflected in the commitment of sponsoring Partners which each send not less than one judge to visit occupied schemes, to assess first-hand shortlisted candidates. This travelling group of up to 20 judges, often on the road for 4 or 5 days (all without government financial support) highlights the gap between these awards and their commercial alternates which spend almost nothing on the evaluation process and avoid the cost of explaining why any scheme won. By contrast the Housing Design Awards website contains more than 1000 case studies dating back to 1997 and more than 100 films and animations of winners, making the site the foremost resource on the internet.
The Housing Design Awards try to deliver their outputs without commercial sponsorship. But they make an honorable exception for Velux and the VKR Group which is not only one of the largest employee-owned companies in the world, but whose charitable foundation is dedicated to researching and promoting the links between good design and health. This perfectly mirrors the original purpose of the awards when set up alongside the NHS in 1948.