Opinion: Architect-designed housing can have a lasting economic benefit

Susan Wilson is architectural manager at Mactaggart & Mickel Homes

Dundee’s new V&A Museum, set to open in September, is an architectural gem. The bold design has drawn worldwide acclaim and there’s no doubt this iconic building will be a huge draw for Scotland – and an elegant feather in the cap for its Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma.

However, for every Kengo Kuma, there are hundreds of talented architects in Scotland who may never become a household name – but whose skills are crucially important for our economic prosperity. We need their talent to be put to inspired use, creating the buildings, homes and streetscapes we use every day.

To the casual observer, this sort of architecture may lack excitement – in fact it may not even be considered as ‘architecture’ at all. I work for a large housebuilder and am aware that some of my architect friends regard my role as less interesting. I disagree!

The truth is that skilled architectural design, applied to volume house building, can be transformational. An architect’s input can make an ordinary housing development something extraordinary. This opportunity – to deliver housing and streetscapes that will make people feel better about where and how they live their lives – is vital.

Kengo Kuma outside his £80m V&A Dundee museum. Image credit Alan Richardson

Housebuilding is a ‘reality’ of architecture. The home is where most of us come into contact with building design. So the challenge for architects is to push to design quality homes and streets that will promote flourishing communities for generations to come; communities where people have pride in where they live and take care of their properties and shared spaces.

But it’s not just about the softer benefits. Poorly designed homes and communities can have a negative effect on people’s quality of life, health and so on, which in turn can adversely affect the economy.

Mactaggart & Mickel Homes strike the right balance between great design and commercial realities. Some volume housebuilders don’t employ architects; however, Mactaggart & Mickel recognise the benefits the architectural training can bring to the role and the importance of quality design in achieving a quality product. As a fourth-generation family-owned business we understand what’s important for families in their day to day lives. That personal touch may explain why people who buy a Mactaggart & Mickel home end up buying a second, third or even fourth property from us.

We are equally proud of our work in creating high quality ‘affordable’ homes in Scotland. Good design is arguably even more important for these properties, creating vibrant communities. A great example of this is in Dalmarnock, where, as part of the City Legacy consortium, we created the Athletes Village for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games – now converted into attractive social housing that has transformed the area. We never forget that this sector represents far, far more than simply a roof over a family’s head.

A Mactaggart & Mickel house at the Athletes’ Village

Encouragingly, there are now more examples of high quality volume housebuilding coming to market in Scotland but this was not always the case in years gone by. From that perspective it’s perhaps understandable why a trainee architect may be less inclined to seek work for a housebuilder and yet the sector desperately needs their input. Perhaps the housebuilding industry needs to do more to engage with universities, and students considering architecture as a career, to highlight the importance of this role for Scotland’s future prosperity.

I’m an architectural manager, which means being an architect, design manager and principal designer. This broader role definitely develops your skills faster and is just as interesting – if not more so – than working in private practice. You learn more about the commercial and planning processes that need to be progressed in tandem with good quality design.

I believe many architects currently employed in private practice would enjoy working in this sector – but they are simply not aware of the career opportunities. They hear ‘housebuilding’ and immediately think ‘standard product’ and look elsewhere. My advice would be – take a closer look. You may not become a household name, but your work could benefit families and society for generations to come.

  • Susan Wilson is architectural manager at Mactaggart & Mickel Homes