Why Build to Rent is the answer to London's housing shortage

Russell Pedley
The tenants' roof terrace at Creekside Wharf in Greenwich, a Built to Rent scheme by Essential Living

Every week, City A.M. invites an industry professional to write about an emerging trend in the property market.

Build to Rent represents a new way of living at a time when people are struggling with affordability and poor rental accommodation. And it could be the answer to the UK’s housing shortage providing large numbers of high quality homes to the market quicker than for sale accommodation.

These schemes are different because they are purpose-designed and professionally run, representing a long-term solution to squeezing out dodgy landlords, bad management and poor accommodation. It’s a whole new world where there are no ‘tenants’ and only customers.

You might wonder why an architect is so enthusiastic about this. Well, it’s because these new institutional players in the market really care about how the building will be managed, their durability, and how they can foster communities.

When design is not targeting capital values – as with the traditional for sale market – but focusing on net operating income for the life of the investment instead, different design decisions come into play.

The conversation at our design studio is not only about design resilience, lifetime costs, and low-energy costs as you would expect, but also about creating places that will attract customers.

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Renters need to feel that they are renting the whole building and not just their own flat. For instance, some apartments are purpose-designed for house sharing so no one has to draw the short straw for the small bedroom.

Although Build to Rent may be new to the UK, in the US there is a similar and well-established sector known as multi-family housing. We started studying the evolution of professionally rented housing there in 2009, exploring how housing designs have changed to help operators deliver an impressive customer service to a mass market of renters.

Although there are no standards in housing design or services, the quality is driven by competition – if it isn’t, the bad news quickly spreads via ‘TripAdvisor’-style renter reviews.

Critics say the UK doesn’t want this ‘customer service’, but I believe they will; it’s just that despite the hype, these places don’t exist yet. However, Essential Living will be one of the first schemes to try this out with their developments in Archway and Greenwich.

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And we’re already looking ahead and anticipating a shift in how these projects will be built, with volumetric modular construction coming into play. It’s faster, safer and better constructed with factory pre-completed apartments and houses delivered to site.

This isn’t a pipe dream. Savvy institutions such as Legal & General are already doing it and we’re assisting their team with their prototypes following the purchase and setup of a state-of-the-art automated manufacturing plant in Leeds.

Ultimately, these neighbourhoods will be delivered within a cultural strategy that ensures they are desirable and fun places to live. And I believe it will become the new way to live. Not just in our cities, but everywhere else, too.

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