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Together we can do it best

Josephine Smit

Designing places for people is done much more effectively when the architect works with the people who will use them, the final Knauf/RIBA Journal seminar heard

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We could all learn a thing or two from building users and residents like Rachel Richardson. Richardson lives on a south London council estate, whose design left her feeling isolated. Everyday life changed for her and her daughter when they discovered a hidden area of the estate with a patch of safe and overlooked open space, where her daughter could play out and she could meet and chat to other residents. ‘It made such a difference to our lives and relieved our isolation,’ she said. ‘But I was frustrated that some areas of the estate had not been designed for participation.’

It’s a simple and somewhat familiar story, but reminds us how embedding a sense of community and neighbourliness in architecture and landscape can exert a powerful influence over the wellbeing of residents and users. It is also a key ingredient of the cocktail that ultimately results in a vibrant, cohesive and commercially successful place, a factor not always recognised by clients.

Perhaps surprisingly, Richardson was speaking from the audience at an evening architecture debate, drawn to relate her experience by a notification about the event on Facebook and a desire to make a difference. The panel debate – hosted by RIBAJ in partnership with Knauf Clerkenwell and chaired by RIBAJ publishing director Helen Castle – looked at the design of spaces with and for people.

Community value
Input from residents like Richardson is invaluable, said panel member Tony Staples, team leader at RCKa. ‘I feel there’s so much you can be educated about through engagement. People have so much knowledge about a project.’ He explained that his own rol e increasingly sees him work hand in hand with communities. 

‘The role of the architect is more and more about facilitation. I’m not an expert in any particular field, but I’m well placed to identify opportunities, and perhaps that is what good design is about.’ An opportunity, he pointed out, could be the difference between a purely functional circulation space and designing that space to be a pleasant winter garden.

Facilitation skills are needed most when working with homeowners on their cherished makeovers and extensions. Private clients may know they want their dream home or kitchen, but pinning down precisely what that means is key for businesses like Pride Road. ‘I start with a half day hand-drawing workshop with clients,’ explained founder Lisa Raynes. ‘I get their ideas down on paper. You have to draw things out or clients can’t see the problem areas. You have to help educate clients on everything – not only plans and economics, but on their own future lives.’

This kind of co-design approach can work at a larger scale, engaging with communities and stakeholders, said Sarah Jones-Morris, director with Landsmith Associates. And it is prompting her to think about working very differently: ‘More and more I’m looking away from doing plans – 99% of the public don’t understand them.

  • An attentive audience listens to the discussion about good design at the Space in Architecture series, Knauf Clerkenwell
    An attentive audience listens to the discussion about good design at the Space in Architecture series, Knauf Clerkenwell Credit: Charlotte Collins
  • How to collaborate: Sarah Jones-Morris, director at Landsmith Associates; Felicie Krikler, director with Assael Architecture and Tim Wood, founder of Forge Architects and chair of Bankside Open Spaces Trust.
    How to collaborate: Sarah Jones-Morris, director at Landsmith Associates; Felicie Krikler, director with Assael Architecture and Tim Wood, founder of Forge Architects and chair of Bankside Open Spaces Trust. Credit: Charlotte Collins

Powers of persuasion

But such approaches are far from universal and some clients still pay too little attention to the general public, whether as participants in the development process or as users of the end product. Given many clients’ emphasis on hard economics, it is important for designers to use economic arguments when promoting social benefit, advised Jones-Morris, although she acknowledged ‘our profession is not good at talking economic value’. She outlined how her practice encouraged one client to support the incorporation of street trees into its scheme: ‘The developer had more expensive houses looking onto a green, so we argued that the street trees would help to bring other homes up to their level.’ 

Other clients don’t need persuading, notably the new breed of enlightened build to rent residential developers working in some of our major cities, pointed out Felicie Krikler, director with Assael Architecture. ‘In build to rent, clients retain their assets so they may remain in the same ownership for something like 40 years,’ she explained. ‘These clients have a real interest in how you build community spirit.’ One example of community building in action is Essential Living’s Union Wharf, a 249-home scheme at Deptford Creek, in Greenwich, where the developer’s ambition is to create a vertical inter-generational neighbourhood. The scheme combines a 23-storey tower containing homes for singles and couples with a 12 storey tower designed specifically to attract families with children. The development team has looked to its target market to learn how to make its homes family-friendly, hosting focus group meetings with local mums to discuss the realities of family life in an apartment and what was important to them. That in turn led Assael to design practical features into the homes like larger balconies, while there is also communal space for children’s parties and play. The effectiveness of the strategy will begin to be seen when the development opens early next year. 

Share lessons
Tim Wood, founder of Forge Architects, chairs Bankside Open Spaces Trust, a charity established to drive the creation and restoration of open spaces on London’s Bankside, such as Waterloo Millennium Green. The latter brings engagement with all the different players that make up a community, from dog walkers to rough sleepers. ‘I’d love to bring some of the lessons of the trust to the development world,’ Wood said emphatically. He also chairs the Bankside Neighbourhood Plan, which has seen local successes like the Low Line, one local resident’s vision to open up the public realm – and regeneration potential – alongside the area’s Victorian railway viaducts. ‘There’s an interest out there in how great places are brought together, and a lot of discussion about it,’ added Wood. The results speak for themselves, and so can communities, if given the opportunity. 

See the rest of write ups of Space in Architecture 


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