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Ben Adams Architects’ office-to-resi scheme branded ‘human warehouse’

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Ben Adams Architects is under fire over plans to convert a north London office block into 219 tiny flats after critics described the scheme as a ‘human warehouse’

The award-winning practice notified Haringey Council of its plans to turn the 11-storey Alexandra House in Haringey into housing and offices under the controversial permitted development rights (PDR) loophole.

But the scheme, drawn up for Ability Developments, has sparked a flurry of objections from local residents and politicians over the size and quality of the proposed living units.

The row over the project on Station Road, first revealed by The Guardian, kicked off when local architect and resident Colin Kerr staged a one-man protest outside the building.

Kerr printed off the proposed floor plans, lodged with the council as a prior approval notice, and took physical measurements from the second-floor bay window width to verify the scale. According to his calculations, some of the flats on the second floor come in at 15m².

Ben Adams Architects has rejected Kerr’s calculations, arguing the plans have been scaled incorrectly. The practice initially told the AJ all of the units exceeded 21m² but later retracted the statement. 

A spokesperson said: ‘The plans referenced in the article have been scaled from a PDF downloaded from the internet and not CAD data, and have been scaled incorrectly.

‘The Ben Adams Architects design response, as always, will seek to maximise the opportunities available within the client brief.’

Objectors to the scheme include Catherine West, the incumbent MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, the constituency the development is in. She said the units planned for the 1980s block fell ‘far short’ of national space standards. The standard for a new one-bedroom one-person home is 37m².

‘It is completely inappropriate to seek to create so many units in such a small space,’ she said, ‘and it raises serious questions about the quality of the accommodation and the impact such space constraints would have on people’s physical and mental wellbeing.’

Ben adams ah proposed second floor

Ben adams ah proposed second floor

Ben Adams Architects’ second-floor plan for Alexandra House as submitted to Haringey. The AJ’s own calculations put unit 11 at 16m².

West has called for the scheme to be rejected. However, local planning authorities can only refuse PDR schemes on grounds of flooding, contamination, highways and transport issues or impacts of noise from commercial premises. 

Since May 2013, when the government relaxed restrictions on change of use, converting a building from an office into housing has not required full planning permission. The changes were intended to boost housing supply and promote regeneration. 

The Alexandra House row is the latest in a series of controversies over the quality of PDR schemes. Critics have warned the planning free-for-all is creating the ‘slums of the future’ and undermining a system established to ensure homes are fit for human habitation. 

Despite criticism, including from academics, architects and groups such as the TCPA and London Councils, the government is planning on rolling out new PD rights including plans to demolish offices and build flats without permission.

Architects’ role in permitted development is increasingly coming under the microscope. Former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire has previously called for architects to boycott PDR schemes, and Julia Park head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein has said practices should ‘set their own red lines’.

Commenting on Alexandra House, Derbyshire, tweeted: ‘Such schemes cannot be in the public interest, therefore contravene the RIBA code of conduct.’

Kerr, a founding partner of now-closed Molyneux Kerr Architects, described the conversion as a ‘human warehouse’.

He added: ‘In putting forward a scheme, let it be with the knowledge of the law or not, which does not comply with standards, as contained in the Housing Act 2004 and Fitness for Human Habitation Act 2019, there would surely be a breach of the [RIBA] Code. What of the end-user? What of society?’

Kerr said while there might be ways the building could be converted into decent flats, ‘the way to do that is to contribute one’s skill to a scheme that is subject to the normal democratic planning process and, if need be, to stand up to a client who may not fully appreciate what they propose. And in the last resort walk away.’

Ben adams ah proposed fourth floor

Ben adams ah proposed fourth floor

Ben Adams Architects’ fourth-floor plan for Alexandra House as submitted to Haringey.

Meanwhile, Park, who has written a report highlighting the problems with schemes built under permitted development rights, described the Alexandra House scheme as ‘dismal’.

Park stressed it was not only the unit sizes that were an issue, but the fact all flats would be single aspect and, because the building faces north/south, half will get no sunlight and the other half are likely to overheat without mechanical cooling.

No one wants to eat, sleep, sit, cook, relax and socialise in the same space

‘No one wants to eat, sleep, sit, cook, relax and socialise in the same space and it’s very unlikely that Alexandra House will only house single people,’ she said. ‘The carving up of the floor plates takes no account of the windows or the structural grid. The columns on the first and third floors are in the middle of the narrow flats, making them even less usable.

‘There is no excuse for developments like this. It may not have been the intention, but PDR is actively incentivising substandard housing.’

The RIBA said it could not comment on individual cases, but the institute’s president Alan Jones, said: ‘Current permitted development rules are shocking.

’Office-to-residential conversions often result in poor-quality, potentially dangerous housing that sidesteps vital quality and sustainability standards.’

Ability Developments is owned by billionaire Andreas Panayiotou, once dubbed the UK’s biggest landlord until he moved into the hotel business.

The developer has been approached for comment. 

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Daniel Lacey

    LA's should implement an Article 4.

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  • Industry Professional

    Unfortunately, the phrase "seek to maximise the opportunities available within the client brief" leaves plenty of wriggle room. How tight is the brief?
    It reminds of my university hall of residence from the early 1980s but at last there were also communal showers and toilets down the corridor.
    Also, how well sound-proof will each unit be? Jeffrey - an Engineer

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    The scheme is of course utterly repugnant. What I find intriguing is how the architect intends to resolve the fire and sound transfer issues of the separating walls between "units" or people's houses being drawn at 150 mm thick, and how he intends to resolve the flanking sound and fire issues where the wall between these little hutches meets a window pane. I think as the design is developed for poor old Alexandra House, the units are going to get a whole lot smaller, as the walls get fatter.

    That of course is only one of myriad issues detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the occupants. Density is another, exacerbated by over-occupation of accommodation designed for a lower density, made desirable out of necessity, because of its location and the high cost of ownership or rental.

    We had problems of density of occupation in Glasgow, being social problems and crime, spread of disease and low life expectancy. However they were largely resolved over sixty years ago by Acts of Parliament and by community groups supported by architects, resulting in mass demolition, rehousing and in some cases clever and sympathetic reuse of existing buildings. Seems like we have gone full circle here, and those same detriments to human wellbeing as existed in our unenlightened past are knocking on the door in this scheme.

    In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, where part of the problem was that the redevelopment works were entirely monetised, there has been a lot of talk of rebalancing of the role of the architect, away from Lathamesque satisfaction of the client at any cost, towards balancing that requirement with the needs of the users.

    What this layout for the Alexandra Poorhouse shows is a reversal of that thinking, demonstrating a movement away from any concept of habitability, travelling, deliberately deregulated towards the satisfaction of a wish for profit. If the Government in England and Wales, in its infinite wisdom, still thinks that deregulation in the construction industry is a good idea, I for one don't think that an architect should be involved in that, and I think we should be campaigning against it.

    Well done, Colin Kerr, Architect. We should all do what you have done.

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