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Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 13:42 UK

Are there too many 'white boxes'?

One of the white box houses that has spawned a wave of imitators
(Picture: Channel 4)


The man behind television's Grand Designs has said there is a glut of people building modernist "white box" houses after the success of the show. But are television shows changing the streets in which we live?

The houses are square and sharp, more Bauhaus than Barratt.

They are the kind of places you can imagine as the natural habitat of the architect or the graphic designer or the film director.

According to Kevin McCloud, presenter of Channel 4's Grand Designs, they are "white, rendered, rectangular boxes with punctured projections, wood-clad or slate-clad with some glass". Pebbledash is nowhere to be seen.

And there are apparently lots more of these "boxes" in gestation than there used to be, with McCloud offering a mea culpa on the matter. Grand Designs, which follows families as they construct their dream home, has "promoted" this type of building, he says.

Unless you are like Polly Pocket, there is nowhere to store your clothes… stupid kitchens with nowhere to sit where you have to balance the tray on your knees while you watch TV
Amanda Bailleu
On faux-modernist developments

Property shows have been in for some stick lately. Kirstie Allsopp, of Location, Location, Location has already had to deny suggestions that these shows have artificially pushed up prices and made life hard for first time buyers.

Now the charge is that even a show like Grand Designs is encouraging people to build very similar homes, perhaps because those doing the building are looking more to the long-term investment aspect than they are to creating a comfortable home for themselves.

Amanda Baillieu, editor of Building Design Online, says that developers building cheap, cramped city centre flats may have taken a cue from changing tastes.

"[They follow a type of] modernism which is the paint it white and give it the form of a modern building and stick in a balcony and you can sell it to aspiring young couples who want something modern and funky.

"But you get inside and it's really tiny and mean and out of sync with the values of modernism which are space and light.

"It is a bit irritating, it is so superficial. It's just the veneer of modernism. Unless you are like Polly Pocket [a small doll], there is nowhere to store your clothes… stupid kitchens with nowhere to sit where you have to balance the tray on your knees while you watch TV."

Kevin McCloud
The Grand Designs applicants now err towards the rectangular (Picture: Channel 4)

But it's a bit harsh to dump the blame for this wave of sub-modernist mediocrity at the door of the goggle box, says Ballieu.

"There are lots of good modern buildings, you can't put it down to just one television programme."

But the end result is a wave of rather similar houses and flats.

Or is it? The curious thing is that there's no way of finding out where trends are going in building design.

No-one can say for sure if there are more modernist houses than there were 10 years ago because no-one keeps detailed centralised records of all of the UK's planning applications.

There are over 400 planning authorities in the UK and ascertaining whether "white boxes" or brick-built traditional houses are currently the fashion is probably low down on their list of priorities.

"You have to rely on anecdotes," says Andrew Wright, of the Planning Officers Society.

And so the question of exactly how or whether the mania for home improvement shows is changing our streets is likely to remain unanswered.


Below is a selection of your comments.

There are too many daft Tudor knock offs and dismal cookie-cutter 30s semis. That said, even some of these have their place. It remains the case in the UK, though, that far too many of our houses are unimaginative rip offs of the housing of times past. Maybe the Modernist white box is joining this list of clichés? Why can't we have more imaginative forward-looking architecture?
Robert, London

White buildings like that only work in sunny climes. In Britain they look grubby even when they aren't, since the skies reflect in them. Lancaster University is an excellent example of how miserable it looks.
M. Ross, Lancaster, UK

Amanda Baillieu has the nail squarely hit on the head for my money. And a far more sensible analysis than a stock "modern carbuncle" rant. I think it's a sign of the times, really. Proper design is eschewed in favour of a veneer of vague "designerness" which impresses you enough to sign on the dotted line. Only afterwards do you realise that there are no kitchen cupboards (they're all cunningly disguised appliances) there's nowhere to stick your fleet of wheelie bins and that the oh-so-Bauhaus looking mixer tap constantly drips. It's the sheer lack of ambition that amazes me. If a £5000 car has remote central locking and I can get in and out of my place of work with a swipe card, why has the £300K new build I live in got a total of six different keys almost identical to the ones my 25 year old Saab does? Car designers have to work hard for their money because there's so much competition. Property developers have no such pressure because people will eagerly buy anything they churn out. Proper quality doesn't sell because demand is for new shininess. Which is what motivates many of the people on shows like Grand Designs to build it themselves - they can't get what they want any other way.
Andy Chequer, Bracknell

As someone in the building industry, I would actually say there is NOT enough of these modern and striking designs in the UK. It is very hard to get designs like these approved by the planners. One of the requirements to get approval is that the design 'goes with the flow of the local area', so we end up with rows and rows of similar looking terraced housing. Instead of having modern looking streets in our cities, new developments look no different from those built in the 60s.
Alvin Leong, Manchester, UK

I think it is great. All these programmes have done is open the eyes of their viewers to the possible alternative to drab mass-built homes offered by large developers or run-down Victorian semis or thatched cottages with exposed beams and an old Aga. We need to stop living in the past and create homes of 'our' time. The reason there has been an increase in these style of homes is that this is what people want.
Christopher Laing, Exeter

I used to watch grand designs and i found it refreshing for houses to break out of the norm. Kevin McCloud was always realistic about cost, possibilites and whether the design was suitable. The problem is the developers who don't follow a style, but cherry pick from them and then use it to gloss over poor design. They are not in it to make good buildings but just to make a cash cow. They can't even make innovative use of the limited resources they have.More should be done to highlight poor developers design like a wooden spoon award.
Rob H, London

I think these houses are great. They take modern materials and use them to make interesting homes. There is a glut of twee cottage style houses with small rooms and matching small windows They have a requisite dormer window stuck in the roof and I believe that these are the monstrosities that should be bulldozed. I only wish that I could find one and afford one of these "white boxes" - it would transform my life.
Frank Bridge, Marlow,UK

Loved programmes like Grand Designs but would rarely like to live in one of the houses. They never seem to have curtains for one thing, and you have to be soooooo tidy. For a hoarder like me it would be torture.
Liz , Shepperton

Give me a white box over a brick box any day.
Andrew Shakespeare, Cardiff, Wales




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