In this latest episode of PropCast, Russell Pedley, co-founder and director of Assael Architecture; Mark Davy, who founded the culture and placemaking consultancy Futurecity; and Marcus Foley, the founder of the international advertising consultancy Tommy, join Andrew Teacher to discuss the role and potential impact of culture in build-to-rent (BTR) developments.
The unique cultural appeal of a BTR scheme is a boast we often see in marketing leaflets, but how far can architects and placemakers really go in integrating this nebulous concept into the bricks and mortar of their developments?
Very far, according to a team of culture, design and advertising experts who have launched a campaign called ‘The Places to Live’, arguing that residential rental developments can and should generate a meaningful cultural footprint that goes beyond choosing between a café and a supermarket.
Launched at this year’s Build to Rent Forum, Assael Architecture and Futurecity’s campaign advocates cultural strategies for the research, engagement, design, and operation of BTR communities.
Russell Pedley, co-founder and director of Assael Architecture, an award-winning practice that has designed some of the UK’s landmark BTR schemes, says that until recently we haven’t had enough data to accurately assess how people use amenities in BTR developments. Assael has been synonymous with BTR since the sector’s foundational years in the UK in the early 2010s and has designed and completed around 5,000 homes.
Post-occupancy reviews of BTR schemes over the last decade, however, have allowed practices such as Assael to hone in on how spaces are being used. According to Pedley, the data suggests that certain amenities, with the help of online platforms, have become social and cultural hubs for residents.
“The cyberspace has helped create a community within the community that is focused on a physical asset,” Pedley explains.
For instance, take a tennis court that Assael designed into a BTR development a few years ago. After a short period, residents started a WhatsApp group chat to arrange regular games, social events and tournaments. Post-occupancy evaluation of schemes like this is allowing architects to see the fruits of their labour. The team behind ‘The Places to Live’ campaign believe these early success stories should encourage the sector to place culture at the centre of developments.
“The BTR space has given us the option to be a bit more radical,” Mark Davy, founder of leading placemaking agency Futurecity, says. “Instead of looking at a space and asking how we fill it – the ‘hardware’ – we should be asking what we want to happen here – the ‘software’. How do we make this fluid and interactive so that it reflects the world we’re in?”
“The market and people’s expectation of life have changed radically,” Davy continues.
However, cultural placemaking can be far grander in its approach than focusing on amenities in small-to-medium-sized developments, argues Marcus Foley, who founded and runs the international advertising agency TOMMY and works with Assael and Futurecity on the campaign.
“Why aren’t there any gaming districts in our cities?” Foley ponders. “There’s this mass-cross culture that’s driving billions in revenue and we’re not meeting those needs anywhere.”
For Foley, gaming is but one example of a digital cultural phenomenon with mass appeal that could and should have a physical district. However, the ingenuity, optimism and social conscious of architects and placemakers inevitably encounters barriers – developers and investors will want to know how culture affects their bottom line.
Pedley argues that BTR as a business model is distinct in that a development’s financial benchmark of success is long-term net operational income. In this context, community involvement in schemes whereby residents, as in the case of the tennis court, are managing the spaces, can substantially lower costs. Furthermore, BTR operating income relies upon high occupancy of above 95 percent. Keeping residents happy by providing spaces that they genuinely use and appreciate is therefore vital for the long-term viability of the scheme.
There’s also an emerging convergence between developers’ desire to add social value to their schemes and create sites that will be popular long-term, with the desire for renters to live in enjoyable and social communities.
As Pedley concludes: “From day one, developers need a cultural strategy - where they explore what positive expressions of culture are already locally taking place and work out how their scheme can enhance it.”