Question Time: Quality housing

Question Time: Quality housing

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What are the main concerns and challenges for architects building quality residential spaces into the cities?

Gort Scott Architects, with developer Pocket Living, recently came up with a proposal for 45 apartments in a disused office building in Walthamstow. The project is one of many currently underway or in planning stages, which aims to bring more housing to the capital and the surrounding areas. The Gort Scott design is not the first to land on my desk with the aim of improving housing options for the London area. The city is full to the brim and yet there is much to be done in terms of housing for all a manner of prospective buyers.
Spaces can be small ‘compact’ and still have character aplenty and pay respectful homage to its surrounding area and heritage.
With this in mind, what are the main concerns and challenges for architects building residential spaces into the city and how do you go about designing quality housing in more unusual settings that work for future inhabitants?

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Katrin Sölter, Gort Scott
The lack and relative un-affordability of quality housing in London, for all generations, is a huge concern for everyone. How can we maintain London’s historic scale and grain whilst tackling this problem? Inserting new housing typologies into this traditional London grain can be challenging, but is one way of responding to this pressing issue. We are interested in how these new housing types can respond to site-specificities and create opportunities for new kinds of social spaces that enhance the public realm.
Set in leafy streets of decorative heritage terraced housing our latest housing project in Walthamstow looks at addressing affordability of housing for younger generations. The scheme is for 45 new 1 bed, 1 person “pocket apartments” and is on a disused site that used to be an office block.
Taking inspiration from the legacy of the 1900s Warner Houses in Walthamstow, and the William Morris School that the site formed part of, the building aims to bring a distinctive style and quality workmanship to house London’s growing population. Responding to its neighbouring terraces, a simple rhythm of windows, punctuated with feature lintels, Juliet balconies and a slender precast stone belvedere draw on the legacy of carefully crafted, decorative architecture in the area.
A framed pre-cast concrete entrance porch with filigree metal gates leads through a spacious entrance hall with green glazed wall tiles and an open staircase. Beyond this lies a shared backyard garden that provides a social space for the residents throughout the building. In the same spirit, corridors wrap staircases to encourage interaction, and enlarged landings on the first floor are envisioned as common rooms with seating naturally lit by a glazed light well.
The entrance to the building extends the public realm within the site boundary. Benches are provided to encourage community interaction and short stay cycle racks service guests.
We believe that any success of newly completed buildings will result from its careful detailing and uniquely developed and yet robust ways of constructing building elements, similar to the award winning office building ‘Hills Road’ in Cambridge with its brick façade and concrete framed window openings.

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David Wolff, Wolff Architects
The challenge that architects are setting themselves in London, namely, to build increasingly efficient, compact yet aesthetically pleasing living spaces, is an incredibly noble one. However, this trend in favour of economic living, necessary though it is, should only form part of the solution to the capital’s housing problem, since the idea will only ever prove appealing to certain groups of prospective buyers.
I was reading recently about the contemporary design architect Gary Chang, who grew up with his family of four in a tiny 32 square metre apartment in the Kowloon suburb of Hong Kong. This isn’t poverty, merely the accepted norm for such a densely populated metropolis. Today, properties in Hong Kong are still among the most expensive in the world, even though the units are built smaller and higher than we would ever permit in London.
With development in the capital fast approaching the much-vaunted greenbelt, we must accept that compact living (even if the Government does eventually decide to build on the environmental ring) is a part of how we house the next generation comfortably and fend off a bout of our own ‘Kowloon Syndrome’.
Architectural and interior design innovations which better utilise a building’s natural light and provide creative storage solutions are making more out of less and should be explored further for first-time homebuyers.
On another platform of the housing market, London has seen the rise of guardianship schemes in recent years, which have allowed millennials to inhabit aging, sometimes listed, buildings in some of the city’s most central locations. Space-saving measures such as cubicles and communal living spaces are a nightmare to some, but the success of these schemes is down to the fact that they play to the two factors that many young professionals new to London hold most sacred: price and location.
Cities looking to save space should look also, I think, into greater provision of mixed-used developments and the possibilities that these can bring. Mixed-use facilities, particularly those that serve as town centres or are in the heart of urban areas, not only conserve valuable land resources, but also brighten communities and present opportunities for building efficiency, energy efficiency, and sustainability. Wolff Architects have just received permission for a five-storey mixed-use project that will deliver 13 residential units, along with over 1,500 square feet of retail and office space. Given the scale of the project, obtaining planning permission required that we meet a number of rigorous environmental and social standards, so I can appreciate that there is a multitude of off-putting boundaries for new players trying to enter a market that really does need more creative thinkers; such barriers to entry must be addressed by the national and local authorities if we are to truly revolutionise residential improvement.
If architects make provisions for the fact that there will be no ‘one size fits all’ solution to developing London’s residential spaces, then we will move much quicker as an industry towards preserving and proliferating character amongst its boroughs.

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Helen Fewster, Suna Interior Design
Without wanting to state the obvious, both those who work in the housing sector and those who don’t are very aware that we need more houses, especially in densely populated London. This is an issue for various income levels (except perhaps the upper tier and for the sake of this article let’s ignore their need for a super sub-basement). While the politicians debate back and forward how to remedy this, what can we, in our role as architects and interior designers do to ensure that what does get built is going to enhance the lives of future inhabitants?
In a press release issued in May 2016, London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan highlighted that “Of the 4,880 affordable homes constructed last year, only 738 were built for social rent at genuinely affordable rent levels. This is down by 94 per cent from four years earlier when 11,370 were completed.” (www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/londons-housing-crisis-revealed-by-mayor).
While it’s obvious that he was having a dig at the previous Mayor, that is still a shockingly low number in a city that needs to start thinking outside of the box in order to adequately house its residents.
Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement set out that “one of the biggest objections to housing development is often the impact on local infrastructure. So we will focus government infrastructure investment to unlock land for housing… With a new £2.3 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund to deliver infrastructure for up to 100,000 new homes in areas of high demand. And we will relax restrictions on government grant to allow a wider range of housing-types.” Great, so we’re getting the land to build on and our Mayor is determined to push the issue.
While rezoning unused commercial buildings for housing is one option, another is new builds. To this end developer Pocket Living have come up with what they term ‘starter homes for city makers’. One-bedroom apartments with a floor space of 38sq m that are made “affordable by including things you need, and leaving out things you don’t.” These homes are stated as being “compact, and [are] priced at least 20 per cent lower than the open market.”
While this could be one solution to our housing crisis, these apartments are smaller than the existing current space standard for a one bed new build, namely 50sq m (P48, Interim London Housing Design Guide) .Pocket Living’s Design Code (amongst other factors) ensures that their developments are community focused, “providing ways to encourage community cohesion” and are energy efficient.
So what are our main concerns and challenges for architects building residential spaces in the city and how do we go about making quality housing in more unusual settings, which will work for the future inhabitants?
Well, simply, the space must be able to function to its maximum capacity. Be that a 74sq m three bed apartment or a 38sq m compact one bed. We need to ensure that what we’re including in these apartments will enhance the user experience at the end of the day. There are some obvious examples, such as underfloor heating and adequate storage but how do we take this further? As an interior design company we are always influenced by the architectural design and aim to work on an interior that reflects this and creates a synergy with the building. There should be no jarring and the final result should be created from working cohesively together to produce an exceptional design. We have found that where architects tend to start their considerations externally, we start internally. This means that there is a natural meeting of the minds, which only enhances the final results. Through this process a refined structural product is crafted.
We can and should constantly work to improve each space, optimising and enhancing. Ensuring that the layout is both functional and aesthetically pleasing is a definite way to create designs that work for both the current and future inhabitants. We referred to smaller living spaces earlier. While these may be necessary and appealing to some, it should still be both the architect and designer’s responsibility to ensure that these are workable and liveable spaces that make people happy and enhance their lives. A major recurring theme is that while smaller living spaces may become more of the norm, what is important is that every centimetre of that space has been really considered. There should also be a level of flexibility and adaptability within the space so that not everyone is boxed into the same size and shape utilitarian home with white walls and laminate flooring.
Freedom of expression enables dwellers to create their personalised home, resulting in happier individuals. And those individuals will want to buy into this idealism.

Jade Tilley
Jade Tilley
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