Building for Life 12: The sign of a good place to live


Download PDF

Inside you will find

  • An overview of Building for Life 12
  • Our vision for new housing   
  • Creating great places to live – the argument

This will interest

  • Local communities
  • Local authorities
  • Developers  

Building for Life 12 (BfL 12) is the industry standard for the design of new housing developments.

Cabe firmly believes that housing should be attractive, functional and sustainable – this guide presents how this can be achieved.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who published this guide?

This guide was published by the Building for Life partnership of: Cabe at the Design Council, the Home Builders Federation and Design for Homes with the assistance of Nottingham Trent University (the inside cover of the guide contains a full list of authors, editors and contributors). It is based on the new National Planning Policy Framework and the Government’s commitment to build more homes, better homes and involve local communities in planning.

Who can use the new set of BfL 12 questions?

The questions are available for use by anyone who has an interest in new homes and neighbourhoods. From developers to community groups to local authorities, Building for Life 12 aims to help people create better places to live.

Is there still a scoring system?

A well designed scheme will perform well against all 12 of the new questions and the performance will be determined using a traffic light system of green, amber and red. 

How does the traffic light system work?

Details are provided within the BfL 12 Guide. In brief:

  • Green shows the question has been addressed
  • Red elements identify aspects of proposals that need to be changed
  • Amber is used where there is clear evidence of local constraints on the scheme that prevent it from achieving a green

Who decides what is a green, amber, or red outcome for each question?

That depends of the purpose of the design conversation. BfL 12 is designed to be used at all stages of the development process, guiding design related discussions with the local community, local authority and other stakeholders. Through this process, all parties should understand what needs to be done in local circumstances to achieve as many green lights as possible, minimise ambers and avoid reds. Any ambers and reds should be identified early so that a suitable design solution can be found where possible.

Applicants should show evidence of how their development performs against each question, justifying either a green or amber outcome. Any ambers should be those where sub-optimal solutions are unavoidable because of the particular circumstances of the scheme beyond the control of the applicant.

It’s important that applicants score their schemes robustly.

The purpose of the new questions is to enable a conversation about the design of new schemes between the applicant and the local planning authority and thereby arrive at a mutually supported result using BfL 12.

Is there more guidance for using the questions?

The Building for Life partnership have taken on board a wide range of suggested improvements to ensure the questions are clear and unambiguous. Each question has supplementary information and pointers on how to approach an assessment. Training programmes developed by a range of providers may provide further material to help understand urban design principles and the specific issues underpinning each question.

What’s happened to Gold and Silver standards?

The partners will no longer award or reference gold or silver standards. However schemes that secure 12 greens will be eligible to apply for the Built for Life commendation.

Who can commission a BfL 12 assessment?

BfL 12 is designed to be used by anyone with an interest in development to frame conversations about good design. There is not a cadre of individual who has a right to complete an assessment. However, we recommend that to fully understand BfL 12 and how it has been designed to be used, those undertaking assessments should access the training opportunities available.

If a developer commissions or undertakes a BfL 12 assessment what status does it have?

A developer that commissions or undertakes an assessment will have a document that could be used to support the design quality of an application. However, these should be reviewed by local authorities. 

Can a local authority claim its interpretation of the traffic light system would prevail over a developer’s view?

If BfL 12 is used at the start of the process, there should be broad agreement at the outset as to how each question will be approached. Any issues, i.e. reds and ambers should be highlighted early and resolved. In turn, this should avoid fundamental disagreements at a later stage.

How are you going to ensure consistency across the many users of BfL with the new questions?

Consistency was a key issue raised in relation to the 2008 version of BfL. The BfL partners designed BfL 12 with a series of more detailed recommendations on how to address each question to better support those who use it. This in turn is expected to ensure a higher degree of consistency.

Why are there 12 questions when there were 20 before?

Some of the questions from the previous version have been consolidated, these questions referred to the same design feature or principle and were creating confusion. For example in the old version of BfL there were two questions both referring to the relationship between streets and buildings (questions 10 and 11), whereas now there is one (question 7).

We have removed some questions which the Build consultations demonstrated created problems and uncertainties rather than supporting a constructive dialogue. Current government policies are less prescriptive than previously and so other questions invite discussion rather than requiring compliance. We also believe that the traffic lights approach to measuring success in meeting the 12 principles will highlight any ‘cherry-picking’ i.e. failing to meet some principles altogether.

Why are there no questions on the qualities of the home itself?

BfL12 is very clearly focused on promoting quality in urban design for new residential developments. This has always been BfL’s primary emphasis. In the absence of national space standards for new homes, experience suggested that the questions relating to the internal qualities of the home were largely ineffective and proved difficult to apply.

Who can carry out and assessment and can you tell me who they are?

Building for Life has been designed to be used by anybody to ensure good design within a scheme, there is no list of authorised assessors. Please suggest to your design team to use the Building for Life 12 publication to assess your scheme.

Is there a pro forma that should be used to complete the assessment?

There is no set pro forma, please create your own document, using the 12 questions in Building for Life 12, which will work for you.

BfL 12 Rationale

Why is there a new set of Building for Life questions?

BfL needs to be fit for purpose: relevant and helpful to users and up-to-date to with changes in the surrounding political and economic environment. This latest version of BfL is the third refresh since it was first launched in 2003. The previous version of BfL (that BfL12 replaces) was launched in 2008.

In 2010 CABE commissioned a review of BfL, looking at how BfL was being used in practice. Cabe assessed an extensive sample set of completed BfL assessments from across the country. This recommended a need both to update the questions and to provide additional guidance on how to interpret questions to ensure consistency and improve scheme design at an early stage. In May 2011 Cabe completed an online survey of the Accredited Assessor Network reaching over 200 assessors. This also pointed to significant issues with some of the existing questions.

Since 2010 there has been also been a significant change in the planning environment with the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework, the Localism Act and the removal of the requirement for reporting on housing quality in Annual Monitoring Returns to central Government.

Finally the design support landscape has changed. Cabe is now a smaller focussed team at the Design Council, now a charity, and is working in partnership with a range of organisations across England to deliver design support services rather than delivering them directly.

Is there a defined name for the new set of questions to differentiate them from the old set?

Yes, ‘Building for Life 12’ or if shortened 'BfL12'.

What is the status of the old set of questions?

The new 12 questions replace the previous 20 questions, much as the 2008 version of BfL replaced the original 2003 version.

Has there been input from Building for Life users? Who has tested the new questions?

Over the past year the BfL 12 partners have undertaken extensive consultation with users and piloted revised questions with local authorities on live planning applications. Two extensive online surveys in 2011 invited comments on the existing set of questions, and in 2012 on a draft of the new questions, seeking the views and suggestions of over 200 BfL users. Through this process we continued to refine and improve the questions before arriving at the final version.

Planning Policy

We refer to Building for Life in our adopted planning policy: can we use the new questions?

You can continue to reference BfL in planning policy but local planning authorities should consider whether they need to amend the wording of their existing policies to reference the new set of questions. This will depend on the way individual policies are worded as authorities have referenced BfL in different ways.

If the wording of the existing planning policy simply references BfL it may be acceptable to leave it. But if the policy references the 20 questions, or mentions a minimum score, it will be necessary to amend the policy to refer specifically to BfL 12  if the new questions are to be used. 

We refer to BfL in our adopted planning policy and require a minimum score under the old 20 questions. How do we work with the new questions?

BfL12 is not designed to be used for “scoring”. If an authority wants to change to reference the new questions they should make an amendment to their planning policy to make clear what they require. For example, that there are no ‘reds’ or as many “greens” as possible.

Can we keep using the old 20 questions?

It is up to local authorities to decide how best to secure good design locally. However, parts of the previous questions may no longer be appropriate where government policy has changed. We also believe BfL12 will facilitate community engagement and consultation more effectively.
We suggest that widespread adoption of the new version will be in the best interests of supporting professional staff and the development industry who in many cases work across local authority boundaries.
Whichever version local authorities choose to use, we recommend that local authorities make clear to applicants which version they use, i.e. ‘Building for Life 12’ or ‘Building for Life (2008 version)’.

Will we have to rewrite our planning policy?

If the wording of the existing planning policy simply references BfL it may be acceptable to leave it. But if the policy references the 20 questions, or mentions a minimum score, it will be necessary to amend the policy to refer specifically to BfL 12 if the new questions are to be used.

Do you know the lifespan of the new questions? We are writing a local plan and don’t want to keep changing it.

Whilst this is the third version of BfL since its launch in 2003, in 2008 only minor changes were made, so the original version arguably had a lifespan of 11 years. Whilst we cannot anticipate future changes to the planning system, we hope that this current version, which refers to general principles of good design, will have a lifespan of at least 7 to 10 years.

Accredited Assessors

I was an accredited assessor for the previous BfL questions. What is my status going forward?

Accredited Assessor status relates to the previous BfL questions. It ceased on 20 September 2012.

How do I become an accredited assessor for the new BfL 12 questions?

We will not be continuing the Accredited Assessor Network. So there is no “accredited” status with regard to the new questions. You can however go on a training course in the new questions and consider applying to become a BfL 12 expert if you qualify.

I describe myself as a BfL accredited assessor. Must I stop describing myself as this?

The status ceased to exist on 20 September therefore the term is not be recognised beyond this date.

Can I describe myself as a ‘BfL12 Questions’ assessor? What happens if there’s a disagreement, whose view is final?

As part of the launch, we are encouraging the use of BfL 12 as a collaborative dialogue, with the 12 questions used at the start of and throughout the development and consultation process. We hope that rather than ‘assessor’ and ‘applicant’ there will be a move towards a constructive design team approach, involving the local community, developer and local authority.

The emphasis is very much on everyone working together to help build more homes and better homes.


Will there be a Building for Life 12 awards scheme?

The new Built for Life commendation is now available. Developers will be able to apply for from from 3 April 2014 onwards on behalf of schemes that achieve 12 greens.
The Built for Life commendation replaces the previous Building for Life Diamond.


For more information please contact:

Built environment services

Cabe at Design Council can help you plan and design high quality, inclusive public spaces.

Find out more

News & opinion

Knowledge & resources