If developers learn one thing from this year’s Stirling Prize winner, it is that they should invest time and energy in pursuing good-quality architecture in residential schemes – but this does not have to mean higher costs.
Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley is a humble masterpiece of council housing that looks beautiful and did not cost the earth. The scheme demonstrates a smart approach to design that benefits entire communities and stands developers in good stead.
It is no secret that developers need to improve their reputation, and the best way to do so is to build projects that win public admiration – and even affection. Local authorities will be more than willing to work again and again with those that have delivered successful schemes, and word will spread to other local authorities.
It may save initial costs to draw up plans to churn out identikit estates, but this is the worst kind of short-term thinking. A developer that proposes a soulless housing scheme completely at odds with an area’s existing architecture, heritage and community life should not be surprised when a wave of nimbyism sweeps its application to refusal.
Instead, developers should make it easy for local planners to get behind their schemes from the get-go by making sure they are brilliantly designed and planned.
Building up trust with communities and the public is equally important and, again, good design can achieve this. Homeowners will fight tooth and nail during consultations to get an application turned down if they think it will dent their house prices. The best way to combat nimbyism is with a track record of developments that people love and that genuinely improve local life.
Developers, therefore, need to do away with the idea of a ‘design first’ approach as being a threat to viability or an overall assault on the cost plan. In fact, good design entails understanding budget constraints and working with them. Good design is using a limited material palette and creating something interesting and thoughtful.
It maximises usable areas to reduce long corridors or dim doorways, embraces natural light and keeps mechanical servicing to a minimum, creating healthy, uplifting environments. This does not cost any more money, but does highlight a concern for the built environment.
Choice of delivery partner is also crucial. The contractor makes the difference between a mediocre product based on the best design intent and a truly high-quality end product that needs to be rolled out en masse with every detail perfect. The government’s recently published National Design Guide places emphasis on quality design and shines a spotlight on good examples of residential developments that function well, look good and truly complement and enhance places.
One of our own schemes, Chesterfield House, a 239-home build-to-rent (BTR) development in Wembley due to be completed next year, shows what can be accomplished when architecture is prioritised. With the tallest of the scheme’s two blocks standing at 26 stories, the development’s scale and appearance were initially a lot for the local community to take in.
It has been reassuring for the community and local stakeholders to look at HUB’s strong track record of delivering high-quality schemes. By working with another Stirling Prize-winning architect, Maccreanor Lavington, we are delivering a scheme that we believe pleases both local people and the local authority.
Beautifully designed council-built homes like Goldsmith Street are a welcome addition to the current mix of delivery models, but the housing crisis will not be solved by social housing alone. Approaches such as BTR and co-living will play a pivotal role – but progress in these sub-sectors will happen much faster if schemes are of the highest architectural quality and hence act as advertisements for these new ways of living.
Damien Sharkey is managing director at HUB