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In a much cited-study from 1984, the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich demonstrated that people who were recuperating from surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital recovered faster and needed less pain medication if their bedside windows looked out onto leafy trees rather than a brick wall. Later studies found that even photographic reproductions of nature helped recovery. At the end of the exhibition, a drab curtain with a forest print fails to convey that effect. Yet the thoughtful central message on how vital healthy buildings are will stay with any visitor.

We spend a lot of our time at home or at work and, therefore, indoors. As much as 90 per cent of our day takes place inside a building. It has long been recognised that the places where we live, sleep, study and work affect our health. The Romans had underfloor heating and public baths to keep the population healthy. Light and sound influence how well we sleep. A particular shade of pink is used to calm people down in some police cells for the detention of drunks.

More than a century after Dickens campaigned for “decent and wholesome” dwelling places, a fifth of English homes  today fail to meet the standards of a “decent home”. According to the government’s English Housing Survey, houses that are not “decent” don’t have minimum health and safety ratings, are not in “a reasonable state of repair”,  and do not have “reasonably modern facilities” or a “degree of thermal comfort”. It is estimated that the NHS spends some £600 million a year on illnesses that have resulted from bad housing.

Today, London faces yet another housing shortage. It’s not too dissimilar from the “housing question” encountered by my grandparents in the Soviet Union, as beautifully portrayed in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, where only the devil and his entourage can claim a large and comfortable apartment in Moscow.

In the recent Budget, the chancellor Philip Hammond abolished stamp duty on shared ownership properties for first-time buyers. But over half of owners have experienced major problems with shoddy new builds. And there’s little recourse against powerful construction companies for those millennials stranded with a boiler in the wrong place, or a wobbly balcony.

At the other end of the spectrum, the developer of London’s Centre Point has recently halted the sale of its luxury flats, citing too many lowball offers that are “detached from reality”. Selling small one-bedroom flats for £1.8 million on a street that regularly breaches the legal air pollution level is an odd “reality”.
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December 20th, 2018
9:12 PM
It is customary, when elaborating on the delivery of enough shelter for the population, to ignore any factors exacerbating the apparent shortfall. To nitpick, the Chancellor is, in reality, one Mark Serwotka t/a Philip Hammond and is very happy with life as a socialist votary.

December 6th, 2018
8:12 AM
Wonderful. If only our housing market was free of the big builders and nimbys and we could revitalise our home-owning democracy.

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