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Mary Parsons: 'I want the building equivalent of a little black dress'

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Mary Parsons, director of business development at Places for People, on why well-designed bin stores are important and why a good building is like a ‘little black dress’

What kind of schemes are you currently working on?
Everything from mixed use regeneration projects, new models for retirement living through to masterplanning a new place of 10,000 homes. A real mix of large scale placemaking through to thinking about the detailing and layout of the individual housing product. 

How have the last few years been for you?
Hard work - but incredibly rewarding.   We’ve been able to push ahead with our developments and have created some great places to live even in these challenging times.  Out of all of the constraints, we’ve innovated and created new investment models and flexible tenure options that have really helped us push supply and help people access their new home.  It’s the whole package - good design, innovation in funding combined with real passion and commitment from everyone working on the projects.

What do you want from an architect?
We are passionate about great design - but not for the sake of it.To me, great architecture should be timeless - not a fashion statement. How many developments around the country can you date within a couple of years because of certain detailing? Whether its timber cladding, monopitch roofs … all of which were classed as innovative at the time.

I want the building equivalent of a ‘little black dress’; classic simplicity in its styling - can be accessorised and customised but doesn’t go out of date.  And above all it is an investment that is designed to stand the test of time.  I do accept that one may make some of my male colleagues groan though.

Are you currently looking for new talent and how do you find your architects?
We’re always looking for new talent and fresh thinking.  We’ve long standing relationships with some practices that have worked well - because they do understand Places for People. 

We’re always looking for new talent and fresh thinking

However, we try to find the best architect for any given job based on track record, but equally imagination and passion.

Which of your projects is your favourite and why?
Perhaps my own favourite is Norfolk Park in Sheffield, designed by West + Machell, Axis Architects and Matthew Lloyd architects. It has followed me throughout my career in various guises and was a really ground-breaking regeneration scheme at the time in terms of using good design to transform perceptions of a place and drive lasting regeneration in the most challenging environment. 

Bright Green Homes by Matthew Lloyd Architects in Sheffield

Bright Green Homes by Matthew Lloyd Architects in Sheffield

It took intensive working with the local community, battling on through funding and delivery issues - and now well over ten years on still seems a good place to live, although still work to be done.  It has taught me many lessons that have stayed with me.

What do you think to localism?
Places for People has always been committed to working with local communities in developing plans for their areas and it sits at the heart of what we do.  Going back to the scale of the housing challenge, can a bottom-up approach alone be enough? The NPPF has a major role to play - not by giving a back door route for developers to build wherever they want, but by acknowledging that housing markets do not always sit neatly within Local Authority boundaries and that strategic planning is needed in parallel to meet the scale of housing we need.

What will kick-start a wave of new housebuilding?
The market has become so dysfunctional you do need a pluralistic approach. However, we need to move our focus to long-term investment planning into new places and not have a market primarily driven on the short-term profits needed by housebuilders. That would change the whole thinking in terms of viability and value creation and potentially bring new investors in.

Who has given you the best advice and what was it?
One of my former bosses, many years ago, told me to design and plan my schemes ‘from the bin stores backwards’ - and that was before recycling really kicked in.  It may seem a minor point but it’s something easily overlooked and can have a real impact on how a place works in the future and the kerb appeal.

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