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Could building homes above public buildings solve London’s housing crisis?

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WSP believes tens of thousands of homes could be provided by building living space above state facilities - but would people want to live there? AJ gathered a roundtable of experts to discuss the viability of the proposals

Fancy living on top of a courtroom, a school or even a prison? Professional services firm WSP has a bold vision to solve the London housing crisis by building homes above public buildings. It claims air space above hospitals, schools, fire stations, and even prisons, could accom­modate thousands of new homes, which could in turn help pay for much needed improvements to a tired public estate.

Early estimates by WSP suggest 77,000 new homes could be provided by redeveloping existing NHS hospitals (without A&E facilities) to include flats above the buildings. This alone represents 20 per cent of the 400,000-home, 10-year target set out in the London Plan, and if other public buildings were brought into the mix, the figure could be even higher.

The concept is potentially ground breaking, but controversial. Would people be willing to live in such close proximity to criminals, schoolchildren or the seriously ill?

WSP is working with University College London to assess the feasibility of its proposal and publish a report next month. As part of the research, it organised a roundtable with the AJ in London last month to gather views from a select group of built environment experts.

WSP director Bill Price presented the findings of an exclusive ComRes survey of more than 1,000 Londoners. The results will be published in full in WSP and UCL’s report in November, but the AJ can reveal that public attitudes are likely to present one of the biggest barriers to widespread develop­ment of this nature. With the exception of libraries, more Londoners said they were unwilling to live above the public facilities listed than were willing to (see table overleaf).

However, the survey found that a significant proportion of respondents were willing, suggesting there is a market for such schemes. Around a quarter of Londoners said they were willing to live above a hospital or school, while almost half (44 per cent) said they would live above a government administration building. Notably, more Londoners said they were willing to live above a library (63 per cent) than above other flats (59 per cent).


Reclaiming the land

Price said his proposal was not about encouraging public bodies to sell off the family silver. ‘It’s about recognising there are many public properties that are not fit for purpose - they’re past their sell-by date, not energy efficient and do not occupy their sites effectively,’ he said.

‘Our plan involves reclaiming that land, reproviding the facilities and at the same time exploiting the air rights they offer. It’s not about literally building on top of buildings.’

Price said initial analysis of Lambeth Council’s databank of public buildings suggests that that borough alone could provide at least 13,000 new homes on its turf in this manner. Other countries have completed public-private mixed-use schemes. Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street in New York, otherwise known as the Beekman Tower, is a 76-storey skyscraper with a public primary school occupying the first four floors and 898 flats above. Also in New York, the Mount Sinai Tower comprises student accommodation over a teaching hospital. ‘These schemes offer a glimpse into the future of sharing land and space and overcoming problems with leases and ownership,’ said Price.

Delegates supported the proposals in principle, and the discussion hinged on overcoming potential barriers.

In the UK, Argent is planning a primary school with flats above it as part of the regeneration of King’s Cross. Argent director Roger Madelin said it was confident that demand existed among wealthy parents for sending their children to a non-private school that was an integral part of the community. As part of the section 106 agreement, the developer has committed to providing a Frank Barnes academy for deaf children and a mainstream primary school. ‘The first person to put their name down had just paid a large sum of money for one of the apartments upstairs,’ said Madelin.

Yet he is approaching the scheme with caution because of previous difficulties integrating flats into a different sort of mixed-use scheme: Brindleyplace in Birmingham. In the late 1990s Argent planned to build offices with flexible, three-year leases for the lower levels of the scheme, and apartments on 120-year leases for sale above.

‘I’m not saying it was a disaster,’ he said, ‘but occupation rights in the UK are strongly in favour of residents, making it harder to incorporate change underneath. RBS took all of the commercial space and asked to get rid of the apartments. They said it would ruin their reputation if people had wild parties up there. We agreed to turn the private flats into serviced rental apartments instead.’

He conceded that growth in the private rented sector may open up opportunities, but maintained that, generally, if you were putting homes above a dramatically different use, you made it a less attractive investment.

Emma Cariaga, residential development director at British Land, agreed. ‘Building volume market housing for sale above commercial developments is problematic,’ she said. ‘Its impact on investment value is chronic, not to mention the problems it creates when it comes to refurbishment. Even minor adaptations are difficult when you’ve got homeowners with the benefits of a long leasehold interest above it.’

Overcoming the issues

Public services offer more secure, longer term covenants than the commercial uses Madelin and Cariaga describe, but the need to secure financing across multiple leases remains, said Simon James, head of London acquisitions and disposals at NHS Property Services. One solution is to ensure compatibility of uses to drive demand and reduce negative perceptions, suggested Andy von Bradsky, chairman of PRP Architects. ‘The country has a big need for housing for older people,’ he said. ‘Why not integrate health and housing so older people can live closer to the services they need?’

Providing housing for key workers, students and low-paid workers are other possibilities, said Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein Associates. ‘We need something up from student housing: accommodation for young professionals who are on very low wages and flat-sharing with maybe six to eight others. It could comprise hotel-like suites with shared kitchen and living room, and be designated for people on low income for up to five years to help them save for a mortgage.’

There are other challenges to overcome, such as the fragmented nature of the public estate. Jonathan Seager, policy director at London First, said: ‘Few public bodies know for sure what they own, and struggle to determine what is surplus. Nobody can magic up that resource, it’s extremely difficult, but you need this information publicly accessible before you can exploit it.’

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is compiling an online resource to streamline development and sale of public sector assets across bodies such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police. The Single Property Unit would list the status of each asset - for example, whether it is operational or surplus, has been earmarked for sale, and whether there are plans to redevelop it. But the facility, which was intended to go live in April 2013, has yet to be completed and does not include all the boroughs’ assets.

Colin Wilson, strategic planning manager at the GLA, reassured delegates there was the requisite political will to bring WSP’s proposal to fruition. This year City Hall has approved two school schemes with homes above, in Dalston and Old Kent Road, and plans have been submitted for another at Nine Elms. However, the practical hurdles are significant not just because of difficulties in compiling accurate data. ‘There are attitudinal issues,’ Wilson said. ‘The public sector needs to take monetary value out of the equation. It’s not about selling an asset at the highest price; it’s about retaining and investing in that asset.’

James Stevens, regional planner, London, at the Home Builders Federation, added: ‘Land supply is so scarce developers will pay a high price for it. The mayor should centralise decision making to ensure best use of land.’

Councils breaking free

Delegates agreed the Treasury should help make it financially viable for public bodies to hold on to assets and the Government Property Unit, within the Cabinet Office, should play a more proactive role, too. After all, said Cariaga, it is not the private sector’s responsibility to look after public assets, nor to provide affordable new housing. ‘There’s an over-reliance on the private sector to suck up and transform public sites,’ she added. ‘Yes, the market will pay and the market will deliver, but it will never deliver the quantums of housing we need. The public sector has assets in need of adaptation and a workforce on low wages struggling to find anywhere to live, but it seems unable to match the two issues.’

Councils and architects are ‘not being creative enough’, lamented Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture. Think outside the box, he said, and anything’s possible. ‘If you can’t build on top of new or refurbished buildings for leasehold, financial or other reasons, have a separate building in that space. Reclaim land,’ he urged.

Indeed, the planning framework to enable such development exists, said Caroline Harper, associate planning director at JLL. ‘It’s all down to design. If schemes are well designed and work, perceptions will change.’

Perhaps, as Seager suggests, it’s a case of trying to sell the message better. ‘How about saying to the public: actually, you don’t get these social benefits - new medical centre, new school and so on - unless this extra residential development happens,’ he suggested.

‘If you ask people: would you like more housing and to live closer to work, I suspect the answer would be an overwhelming “yes”. It would yield a more positive response than simply asking people: would you like to live above a hospital or prison?’

The panel

  • Bill Price, director, WSP
  • Andy Von Bradsky, chairman, PRP Architects
  • Caroline Harper, associate director, planning, JLL
  • Colin Wilson, strategic planning manager, Greater London Authority
  • Emma Cariaga, residential development director, British Land
  • James Stevens, regional planner, London, Home Builders Federation
  • Jonathan Seager, policy director, London First
  • Julia Park, head of residential research, Levitt Bernstein
  • Peter Murray, chairman, New London Architecture
  • Roger Madelin, partner, Argent
  • Simon James, head of London acquisitions and disposals, NHS Property Services
  • Will Hurst (chair), acting deputy editor, The Architects’ Journal
  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • I read with interest your report into the question Could building above public buildings help solve London’s housing crisis? This is not a new idea, and some of us have been putting it into practice for a decade and more. Furthermore, our experience does not bear out the reported survey finding that Londoners are reluctant to live above public buildings.

    In 2001 we designed and co-developed the first new London school to be built with flats above, and have gone on to create a series of schools and around 250 mixed-tenure homes on this model. All have let and sold easily, and with no perceptible reluctance from occupiers or the need for a price incentive. Furthermore, any initial concerns about shared management and occupancy problems have proved unfounded.

    This is not a universal solution - it’s quite complex and works best in relatively high density contexts – but it is already contributing to the delivery of more homes and better homes, and we have several similar projects in the pipeline.

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