Architects have a responsibility for their local environment, says Jo Cowen. She explains how her practice engages with community architecture
I believe that as architects we have a certain responsibility towards our local built environment. We have the tools and the connections at our disposal to effect real change. I’m not suggesting that architects should pick certain clients or building types, but when you encounter a problem on your doorstep it seems churlish to leave it as you found it.
Jo Cowen Architects became involved with Waldemar Avenue in Fulham, south west London, when residents were repeatedly rejected for roof extensions through individual applications. They approached our practice because of our knowledge of local planning issues and reputation for good design. Thankfully, we were able to overturn the council’s decision by creating an extra level that ran the length of the street. Following this success, one of the residents drew our attention to a nearby abandoned site, which has been covered in hoarding for the last 20 years. The council had rejected all commercial applications to develop the site despite the antisocial behaviour that is inevitable with such neglected spaces. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has always been a politically charged part of London, with a feisty mix of Conservative and Labour councillors; each election tends to be a closely fought contest.
As a local business (and some of us are fortunate enough to live in Fulham) we are very aware that nearby community centres have been closing as public funding runs dry. We decided there had to be a way to create something on this site through a commercial/public partnership that could benefit the immediate population. The resident who had approached us wanted a private house and we realised that we could use this project to unlock the entire plot. Following a full feasibility study, we realised that we could make the numbers stack up with 30% of the site given over to the house and the remaining 70% for community functions, such as a garden and a multipurpose centre. Jo Cowen Architects came on board as co-investors, with a non-profit share, setting up a charitable trust to run the centre on a daily basis.
This process started almost two years ago and it has significantly grown and evolved over time. We’ve spoken to nearby schools that need outdoor teaching spaces and kitchen gardens where they can implement educational schemes such as the ‘From the Seed to the Table’ initiative. We also discovered that local businesses have an urgent need for enterprise spaces where they can rent desks without having to travel across London. The end result is a proposal for a new building with state-of-the-art, flexible space for rent by local people, both young and old, for a variety of different uses. The centre sits within a sensory garden, offering opportunities for nearby residents and schoolchildren alike to learn about plants and vegetables, as well as providing a natural setting for the public to enjoy. Beneath the Waldemar Gardens community centre, a basement level will act as office space available to rent by start-up businesses and individuals. It is a fully accessible, open-plan area, providing desk space and meeting rooms. The office space could work with numerous occupiers who rent a desk or multiple desks, and share the facilities, but also has the potential to be adapted into an office for a sole business or group.
Architects are in a unique position whereby we meet all of these multiple stakeholders and have an overview of their needs. We have the opportunity to understand how to make such a project viable through an awareness of the commercial market. Jo Cowen Architects has committed time and resources pro bono because we want to improve our locality and it’s been a pleasure to meet and work with all the different potential users. Because we do predominantly high-end residential work we are able to commit time and resources, using our local knowledge for a slightly different purpose. We have led the entire process but with a very different approach to developers who have been unsuccessful on this particular site.
There has been some opposition from nearby home owners who are worried about the impact the centre will have on the area as more people are attracted to a community hub of activity. Engaging with their concerns provides the opportunity to help educate people about the wider benefits for the whole area. We find that by creating open dialogues with concerned parties we can shape the project to best suit the needs of the local population. It is our responsibility as trained professionals to take action, especially in areas where we live and work. How else can we take an active role in the built environment?
Jo Cowen is director of Jo Cowen Architects