With housing a national crisis, 2015 Turner prize winning collective Assemble discusses solutions that put the individual, the community and the environment at their heart of new housing.


What is affordable housing?

Affordable housing is something we hear about a lot in the media and in the lead up to the last general election, but what is it? The government defines affordable housing as “social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing provided to specified eligible households whose needs are not met by the market”.

The problem

The affordable housing market in the U.K. is dominated by a small number of volume housebuilders; they are currently responsible for 65% of sales in the new build market. Commonly, they value a quick and cheap turnaround on their projects, and so houses are all limited to the same boxy design. A recent article in summarised:

“The design and quality of new housing is poor…with an increasing squeeze on space and a preference for standardisation, especially the two-bedroom flat and three-bedroom family home that disregard the growing variety of lifestyles, changing environmental imperatives and changing social values.”

We can all recognise the need for change. We need affordable housing that puts the needs of the individual, the community and the environment first.

The solution

We at the Arts Development Company are working with Assemble and other partners to find a solution to this, specifically for more than 700 new affordable homes in Bridport.

In brief, Assemble are a group of creatives working across art, design and architecture to build new spaces, but the important part is how they do this. They value connecting, collaborating and understanding the entire making process to make spaces that put people and their needs first.

James and Giles from Assemble recently presented their current research and findings to a jam-packed room and live stream audience. We’ve summarised and sorted the group’s approach to building and designing spaces into four key areas:

Putting people first

New, affordable housing affects the residents and communities near them, however they have very little involvement. Consultations between the council, housing developers and residents can be confrontational and limiting. Developers want to push through their proposals and so the public get very little information on the design and impact, resulting in residents feeling frustrated, unsure and often intimidated.

The local community should feel involved and informed. Assemble propose and practice a more informal and transparent approach with the public that de-mystifies the building process and takes on their ideas, concerns and questions. They wish to encourage a more open, honest and informed feedback that will result in a build that best suits the needs of the individual and the community. This could include gatherings to see and discuss the building materials, building workshops so the community are directly involved and leaflets that clearly explain the process and house designs.

Taking responsibility and showing care

This approach to building projects is vital and it stretches to all stages of the new build process. It means those working on the houses are valuing people and the environment over time and money. The human element in architecture is top priority. The example Assemble presented demonstrated that architects tend to design a house but are not involved in or responsible for the build. This can lead to impractical or unrealised designs that cut costs at the expense of the function and purpose of the space. Assemble’s team have a background in architecture and includes experts in materials, construction and design, and they believe they have a responsibility at every stage of the build, not just the design. It stops things from falling through the gaps or being misinterpreted, and they don’t lose sight of their top priority: the person or people using the space.

Adaptable living spaces

As we grow our lifestyle changes, and our homes should adapt to these shifts. Assemble propose more flexible living spaces where utilities, like electric and water, are installed in one area so that other walls can be knocked through and extended without having to move pipes and wires.

Flexible approach to building spaces

As with any project, there are snags along the way. Large-scale builds tend to come to a halt when the unexpected happens, for instance a drop in funding. However, Assemble try to find ways to keep developing their projects even when they come up against obstacles. Their ideas and designs aren’t dependent on one another, but can be realised as and when funding becomes available.


For instance, two of the derelict properties in their Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool required too much work to renovate into a house, and so they used the existing structure to create a communal greenhouse. This welcoming space brings together the community and makes best use of the materials and funding they had to hand.

About this project

Raise the Roof explores how we might link the use of local materials to affordable housing. This is in partnership with Wessex Community Assets, Common Ground, Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Dorset Woodhub and Bridport Town Council.

Further reading

What is affordable housing? A Bureau guide by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/explainers/what-is-affordable-housing-a-bureau-guide

Let’s Not Waste the Housing Crisis, by Irena Bauman. Stir Magazine, issue 27, pages 16 – 19