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My MacEwen: We can still learn from Byker’s inclusive design ethos

Dan Kerr

Byker’s design principles of life cycle costs, energy usage and community involvement remain ‘special’ in housing, 40 years later. They should be routine

  • The outer face of the Byker Wall.
    The outer face of the Byker Wall. Credit: Dan Kerr
  • Pedestrian cut throughs within the estate.
    Pedestrian cut throughs within the estate. Credit: Dan Kerr

The project showed that involving people who will live in the homes makes for a sense of ownership and pride

It seems like a cliché to someone that lives and works in the North East to pick out Ralph Erskine’s Byker Estate in Newcastle as an example of architecture for the common good. Somehow it seems too obvious a choice. However, on further consideration, I don’t think it is. The project is as relevant today as it was when being built during the 1970s and early 1980s, and there are still lessons to be learned from it as a housing project.  
In 2007, English Heritage gave it a grade II listing stating: ‘The Estate’s ground-breaking design has been influential across Europe and has proved a pioneering model for its approach to public participation.’ 

The revolutionary approach at Byker was to embed the design team into the community during the project, and this became as important to the final product as the design. The project demonstrated that deeply involving the people who will live in the homes makes for a sense of ownership and pride. It also brought a holistic agenda to the fore. Life cycle costs, energy usage and the longevity of the building became much more important to the project objectives than in a speculative build. These are all obvious things, yet this process of design and true community involvement is still seen as ‘special’ and not commonplace in housing schemes nearly 40 years later.

Byker is not without its critics and it certainly isn’t flawless, but to embed the community in the design process can only strengthen a scheme and make it more sustainable and relevant in the future. Today there is the need for more housing, but not any housing; we need better housing that champions the ‘process’.  This will ultimately make a better product. ‘The job of buildings is to improve human relations,’ said Erskine, ‘Architecture must ease them, not make them more difficult.

Dan Kerr is director at MawsonKerr, which won the MacEwen Awards 2019 for its Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle. The MacEwen Awards 2020 are now open for entries

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