In this exclusive interview Paul Karakusevic and Ellis Woodman discuss the profession’s revived interest in social housing
Ellis Woodman Many European cities are currently grappling with the technical and social failings of their post-war building stock but, in London, those challenges are complicated by our very considerable housing shortage. Is it not a struggle to maintain a sensitivity to the qualities of existing buildings and the communities that live in them when there is so great an onus on delivering more homes?
Paul Karakusevic They don’t have to be competing demands. We have worked on a number of estates where the building fabric has failed or where there are only certain functionality issues. The feedback we get from residents is that they generally want to be rehoused in and around their existing neighbourhood, but in reconfigured buildings or replacement homes that meet modern standards and expectations. Most local authorities and residents’ groups fully understand the issues of cross-subsidy and know you have to re-masterplan and increase density to facilitate new socially rented accommodation. All the resident groups we have worked with so far have been fully supportive of some sort of intervention, whether wholesale regeneration or infill within the underutilised parts of their estate.
EW Does the need for density and cross-subsidy tend to favour wholesale intervention rather than refurbishment strategies?
PK Not necessarily. On a lot of projects we are refurbishing: adding insulation, new windows, winter gardens, new access and security arrangements. And then we look at wasted or underutilised land to create new homes, which, in turn, helps cross-subsidise refurbishment work or the construction of new socially rented homes in and around the estate. We always look at re-use opportunities first and then investigate through the masterplan where the opportunities lie for ‘easy-win’ new-build projects for social, intermediate and market housing.
EW Housing has a unique capacity to define the form and character of the city. When you do rebuild, are you finding opportunities to significantly restructure sites?
PK On projects like Kings Crescent and the Nightingale Estate where tower blocks were pulled down in the 1990s and early 2000s, there are very large parcels of land where you can create new streets and whole new districts. On others, we may just be demolishing a small building, which sits within a much bigger land holding – a surgical architectural intervention rather than a major exercise in city changing. We generally try and work with the existing context and add new buildings that are responsive or add to the character.
EW At the Colville Estate, you are introducing taller buildings. How did the community respond to that proposal?
PK The residents had been speaking to the council about regeneration for about 15 years before we were appointed. They had three failed regeneration attempts, the final one being unravelled by the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008. We were appointed shortly afterwards to develop a new masterplan that the residents could support and would be deliverable over 15-20 years.
The residents established a very strong residents’ charter with Hackney Council’s support, which set out ‘ground rules’ and non-negotiable points – namely, that a lot of residents didn’t want to be rehoused in tall buildings, but wanted low-to-medium rise homes ranging from four to six storeys. A scheme of average height and density would only generate about 600 homes, however, which would have left many tens of millions of pounds worth of funding shortfall and, in 2009, that was not going to be subsidised by central government. So we had to look at increasing the density on one small part of the site –about 5 per cent of the overall land – to create enough cross-subsidy to build all of the low and medium-rise socially rented homes that were on the programme.
We suggested that the point on the south-western corner facing the park was a natural place for a series of bigger buildings, and so, after meetings and design workshops with the residents’ association, they were incorporated into the masterplan and designated for shared ownership and market sale. Over 90 per cent of the residents were fully supportive of the tall buildings because of the opportunities it gave for the wider estate to be built at a finer grain. Without the tall buildings, the whole estate would have been eight and nine storeys high – something that was not going to be supported by the existing residents.
EW Do you think London’s housing needs can be accommodated solely through intensification?
If local authority land is carefully planned there are lots of opportunities to create homes
PK There is still a huge amount of space in London, even within the city fringe. We are working in Hackney, Camden, Enfield, Newham, Lewisham, Lambeth and Southwark, and there is a lot of underutilised space in those boroughs that can be intensified and improved. The councils are financially constrained and, as a result, there has to be some sort of cross-subsidy element to a lot of these projects, be that through market sale or council-led build to rent. The local authorities own so much land – approximately 30 per cent of the capital in the city fringe – and if that is carefully planned over the next 20 or 30 years I think there are lots of opportunities to create the homes that everyone in London needs.
EW The past decade has seen a new generation of design-led British practices focus on housing in a way that hasn’t happened since the 1970s. At least in London we do seem to be experiencing a revival of expectations and skills. Are you optimistic about the present situation?
PK There has been an exciting revival of interest among architects in housing after 40 years of neglect. Five years ago we also saw a new era of local authority design officers coming through who were interested in quality and appalled by the low ambition of housing in the 80s and 90s. Everybody could see that the kind of recent development you encounter in places like Hackney Road is just an embarrassment to London: cheap, shoddy construction, delivered through Design and Build and forming one of the key routes into the city.
Boroughs see design as the absolute key to unlocking new housing
Many of the key London boroughs has now established its own design review panel with high calibre members and advisers. The benefits won’t be seen for a long time because these projects take so long to be realised, but I think in the next 10-15 years we will see that legacy of better projects coming through. Borough teams we are working with see design as the absolute key to unlocking the new housing they are planning because, without good design and resident support, nothing moves forward. A new era of practices combined with ambitious local authority client groups will have a major transformative effect on London’s housing. It is really exciting that councils are participating in housing design and delivery again with a focus on building longevity and quality.