On 1 July 2020 RIBAJ and PiP were joined by a group of experts and award winning architects to discuss projects, materials and the recent government announcements around the construction industry.
As we start coming out of lockdown, many of us have been thinking a great deal about our homes, having spent more time there than expected. So it was apposite that the RIBA Pip webinar on 1 July, in association with Kingspan Insulation, focused on housing and residential development.
Topics discussed included a batch of fascinating projects and a financial model to show the actual returns on increasing internal space. All these were relevant but the most topical element of all was an interview that Helen Castle, publishing director of RIBA Journal, carried out with Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein.
Speaking just a day after Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ announcement as a way of helping the country out of recession, Park was not optimistic.
‘There is no doubt that we need more housing,’ she said. ‘That’s been clear for many many years. And no doubt that will need government investment.’ But, she warned, ‘We have to start building the right type of housing – housing that is good for people of all ages and good for the planet. My main worry is that the commitment to speed feels much larger than any commitment to quality or longevity. There’s also an underlying very explicit commitment to more deregulation. I really don’t think that is the answer, particularly in a sector that is dominated by private developers.’
She cited the quality problems of many office-to-residential developments that took place under permitted development rights (PDR) and said that it would be preferable to see the long-awaited review into the quality of homes before going ahead.
Park was also wary about the potential for converting shops into homes. She pointed out that many front directly onto narrow streets, and are deep with little light at the back.
‘Architects are incredibly important,’ she said. ‘We add huge social value as well as financial value. But often we are not given the opportunity to do our best work.’ But she added that developers, however lax the regulations, will find they still need architects if their homes are to be zero carbon. ‘It begins right at the start of the project and you have to keep that rigour going right through the project to where you put the letterbox,’ Park said. ‘It’s absolutely vital that they use good designers to ensure safe and delightful outcomes.’
David Ogunmuyiwa, partner in Architecture Doing Place, showed several of his projects for infill sites in central London. He is keen to make social housing better than much of it is at present. His understanding comes from the fact that before training as an architect he was a social housing officer. In addition, ‘I grew up in social housing,’ he said. ‘What you get at the end of it if you are careful is a good citizen. You get a poster child of good housing like me.’
His projects look not just at unusual materials, such as the use of rammed earth for a city centre building, but at circulation and ways of creating safe and open spaces. He is reinventing the idea of deck access, but with small numbers of apartments coming off a single stair. And the communities with whom he is working include a group of travellers. ‘I am really fascinated because this is a marginalised group of Londoners who also have an issue with lack of housing,’ he said. ‘It’s an opportunity for us to learn as well.’
Kate McGechan, an associate at Haverstock, led the audience into the nitty-gritty of a single project, Linden Farm supported living for young adults with autism. ‘When we design for disability we often come up with a better solution than designing for the “norm”,’ she said. This project, with its attention to every detail, demonstrated exactly that.
Many of the residents of the10 homes are non-verbal; they have extreme sensory difficulties and wear incontinence products. Several also have pica – a tendency to eat non-food items.
The complex, at Old Ford in Surrey, consists of five one-person cottages, a two-bed and a three-bed home. In addition there is a communal building which contains a sensory treatment room and staff accommodation.
The main challenge, McGechan said, was, ‘How do you create a homely environment with a brief for robustness, durability and cleanability?’ She has tackled this by, for example, paying careful attention to the junctions of the CLT panels which provide much of the homely, light feel, and by meticulous kitchen planning. Questions from the audience were largely about details and McGechan answered them in a way that showed the degree of thought that had gone into every part of the project.
The final speaker was Karen Jones, residential development manager at Kingspan. Her company commissioned Currie & Brown to quantify the financial benefits of using Kingspan’s Kooltherm phenolic insulation. This is about half as thick as mineral wool for the same thermal performance. The thorough studies show that although the material is slightly more expensive, the increased internal floor area always translates into a significant return on investment. As insulation standards continue to rise, the benefits should become ever more significant.
Our housing market may, yet again, be in flux, but at least there are plenty of thoughtful and talented people keen to give us the best solutions possible. •