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We are in the middle of a housing crisis. This appears to be widely accepted; whether that relates to the number of homeless people in our country, the lack of affordable homes or the fact much of our housing stock is considered unfit for purpose. An estimated 8.4 million people in England are living in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes, according to the National Housing Federation and 400,000 people are homeless or at risk of homelessness - including people sleeping rough, living in homeless shelters, temporary accommodation or sofa-surfing.

As a result, those of us involved in the design and construction of new homes find ourselves in a situation of panic, as everyone runs around desperately trying to deliver increasingly ambitious government targets for new homes. It would be wrong to allow the desperation in delivery to significantly impact the quality of the product being realised and we need a radical shake up in the way we are approaching building new homes.

In 2019 Goldsmith Street in Norwich, a council housing scheme, won the RIBA Stirling Prize for the UK’s best new building, the first time in the Awards 23 year history this has happened.

What was different about the Goldsmith Street approach?

The project for Norwich City Council comprises nearly 100 highly energy-efficient council owned homes, packed onto the site at 80 dwellings per hectare. Chair of the RIBA Sterling Prize Judging Panel Julia Barfield, said about the scheme:

“Goldsmith Street is a modest masterpiece. It is highquality architecture in its purest, most environmentally and socially conscious form. Behind restrained creamy façades are impeccably-detailed, highly sustainable homes – an incredible achievement for a development of this scale. This is proper social housing, over ten years in the making, delivered by an ambitious and thoughtful council. These desirable, spacious, lowenergy properties should be the norm for all council housing.”

In December 2019 Paddock Johnson Partnership invited a number of professionals from the housing sector and thought leaders to openly share their thoughts on the current barriers to design led development, to discuss what was different about the Goldsmith Street approach and suggest what needs to change to put design at the forefront of future schemes.

Why is design not higher up on the agenda?

When considering why design is not higher up on the agenda in new housing and in particularly social housing, one first must consider the way in which many new homes are being procured. An increase in land led development where sites are sold as turnkey package deals to Housing associations and Registered Providers often with schemes already in for planning or with approval in place, creates challenges when it comes to putting design first.

With the tail wagging the dog, the end user/ operator has very little control or influence over the quality of the product they are buying. With every Registered Provider under pressure to deliver schemes you can understand the appeal of these low risk, straight out of the box solutions, however, as commented by Jim McMIllan, Onward Homes even so, it is acknowledged “The sector should be building homes for life rather than churning out quantities”.

All focus on the actual people who will live in the homes we are creating and how they live seems to have been lost. As Charles Jarvis, Liverpool Foundation Homes commented during our discussions “Design should be about people and how people operate”. However, in reality community consultation and engagement is often undertaken when the scheme is a fait accompli, with no real intention of taking on board comments and suggestions from the community.

As architects the opportunity to engage with the community on social housing schemes very rarely forms part of our briefing or design process. Frequently the brief for a site is based purely on density and unit mix with no other objectives even discussed, resulting in predictable layouts with ‘cookie cutter’ houses which as a scheme develops becomes more difficult to break free from. That being said, some housing providers are beginning to listen to people like Kate Stewart of We Make Places, regarding the benefits of communicating with the communities in which they operate. Regenda Homes appointed We Make Places to spend time speaking to people in the Grove Street neighbourhood to find out what they would like to see on the site in the future to help inform the brief for the project.

Good housing design is about creating sustainable communities and without understanding people and place even the best design is destined to fail. Proper community consultation should be seen as an opportunity not a challenge, Kate Stewart, We Make Places commented “We should ask residents to dream as big as they can dream but at the same time manage expectations of what is possible.”

How can planning help?

Another barrier to design quality discussed by the group was the part the planning system has to play in the process; do local authorities have the skills and resources to act as gate keeper, preventing the proliferation of mediocre and poor-quality design?

The lack of current, adopted local plans and quality supplementary design guidance together with a general lack of robust policies in relation to design all too often results in subjective assessments of design quality by under resourced planning officers. A lack of defined expectations in terms of design quality allows schemes of poor quality to be approved time and time again because there are no tangible policy grounds on which schemes can be refused.

Unless the bar is raised on the quality of design needed to achieve planning approval, the commerciality of the housing market will continue to drive out anything that is considered above and beyond the minimum required to obtain consent. As declared by Charles Jarvis, Liverpool Foundation Homes “Design is everything”.

Stick to the brief and keep vision at the forefront.

So, what was different at Goldsmith Street? To be frank, everything. Firstly, the project had a strong project brief with a clear set of objectives. When PJP spoke to Andrew Sharkey at Norwich City Council, he explained there was a strong desire to create an exemplar for social housing and deliver highly sustainable dwellings which had design quality at the heart. This is evidenced by the fact Norwich City Council appointed their architect through an RIBA Design Ideas Competition and when the need for Value Engineering arose, they put that same architect in charge of the process, guarding against design compromise.

Secondly, when the project faced challenges in terms of cost or viability and alternative options were considered, the client team stayed true to the original objectives and did not allow them to be dismissed just to see a project happen. Taking the decision to wait and keep striving, meant it took more than 10 years to see the project through to completion, the result was a scheme that achieved the original vision.

Other differences in the Goldsmith Street approach included an enlightened approach to life cycle costing and viability appraising. All too often these exercises are a high level tick box exercise, merely paying lip service to the process. However, for Goldsmith Street, Norwich City Council embraced the exercise and started to look much more widely at the economic benefits having a scheme which offered something different would have.

For example, by achieving Passivhaus standards, energy costs for the residents are minimal, giving them additional disposable income resulting in significantly lower instances of rent arrears and for the Council the lowest void rates across their portfolio. These two metrics alone offered significant cost savings to the council which could be factored into viability to justify greater capital outlay. 

When it came to assessing material costs, consideration was given to the increased life span of better-quality products such as triple glazed aluminum windows with a lifespan of 40 years over 10 years for a double glazed UPVC unit. Overall the capital costs of Goldsmith Street were probably 20% more expensive than the average Housing Association Scheme, however when the longterm benefits and savings of the scheme are taken into consideration the initial uplift was considered worth it. That’s before you have factored in the wider social benefits offered by the scheme in terms of resident happiness and wellbeing.

What lessons can we learn?

There are lots of lessons to be learnt from the Goldsmith Street approach whether you are a housing association, local authority or private housing provider, if you want to deliver high quality design you need the confidence and conviction to demand better at every stage of the process. Determine what you want out of the project and create a robust brief that you’re not prepared to compromise on. The more difficult it becomes for land led developers to get sites away when they don’t make the cut in terms of design quality the quicker the bar will start to raise in projects procured in this way.

How can we make design more prevalent in future schemes? Good design is a creative process, short cuts only shortchange the quality of the end product. We need to involve residents and the people who run and manage housing developments in the design process, seek out critical feedback on similar schemes, approach consultation honestly and interrogate the design at every stage. We need to make architects work harder, as Jim McMillan, Onward Homes remarked “The role of architects is not to give the client what he wants it’s to give the client what he never dreamt possible”.

Finally, we need to lobby our politicians, planning officers, local authorities to reform the planning system in relation to design quality. Advocate the use of external design review panels such as Places Matter particularly for larger schemes, after all these panels comprise experts in the field of design not planning.

As a group of professionals working in the housing sector, we want to enrich people’s lives and build the best design conscious homes and communities that positively shape environments, however this purpose can get lost as a result of market pressures. As commented by Anne McGurk, Phoenix Community housing in a recent online article

‘As organisations we can bring about change if we work together and support each other in presenting the case. This means making the argument, developing strategies, setting the boundaries and providing incentives that move us towards a genuinely sustainable way of living. And a sustainable way of building homes and communities’ Victoria Alderton, Director - Paddock Johnson Partnership

PJP held the first in a series of Round Table Discussions in December 2019 at the Royal Institution in Liverpool. The event was attended by;

  • Andrew Ruffler, CEO Professional Liverpool
  • Charles Jarvis, Liverpool Foundation Homes
  • Dominic Wilkinson, Liverpool John Moores University
  • Jim McMillan, Onward Homes
  • Kate Stewart, We Make Places
  • Mark Dickens, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority
  • Martin Davies, The Regenda Group
  • Phil Orr, Paddock Johnson Partnership
  • Simon Halliwell, Paddock Johnson Partnership
  • Tony McDonnell, The Davies Partnership
  • Victoria Alderton, Paddock Johnson Partnership