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Brick by Brick’s Colm Lacey: ‘There’ll always be those who feel sites shouldn't be developed’

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Brick by Brick’s Colm Lacey talks about the challenges of the developer’s council-backed house-building programme and its latest batch of architect appointments

It has been three years since Brick by Brick set to work. What have you managed to achieve?
So far we’ve won planning consent on around 40 sites for 1,200 units or so, of which 45 per cent are affordable. We are actively on site on around 24 of those sites, and our first three schemes are on sale and attracting a lot of interest. We are also working up a new programme of 50 small sites and we have appointed a variety of practices to help us do this.

One of these is our own Common Ground Architecture, which is now fully up and running as an active practice, working for both Brick by Brick and external clients. We’ve significantly grown our development and construction teams which gives us more capacity to take on new work.

Weren’t you originally targeting 50 per cent affordable?
Over time, we aim to deliver half of our residential programme as affordable housing. To date we have achieved around 45 per cent through the planning system, more than double what was achieved in Croydon in the years before Brick by Brick was established.

In each individual year, we would expect the overall percentage of affordable housing to fluctuate depending on the nature of the sites and the wider funding context for affordable housing.

The council chooses not to deliver traditional council housing as a great deal is almost immediately lost to Right-to-Buy

What exactly do you mean by affordable housing?
The affordable housing we deliver is a mixture of shared ownership and affordable rent. We are also increasingly looking at other forms of intermediate affordable such as community-led sub-market housing.

The affordable rent housing is allocated by the council through Croydon Affordable Homes at a range of rents, including social rents up to a maximum of 65 per cent of market rent.

So you aren’t building any social housing?
The council chooses not to deliver traditional council housing – namely housing to be held in the housing review account (HRA) – as in lower-value boroughs like Croydon, a great deal of any new council housing is almost immediately lost to Right-to-Buy.

What’s next on the horizon and will you be looking for more architects in the near future?
Our overall aim is to deliver between 500-600 new homes a year, typically on smaller suburban sites. We’re currently working up a new batch of 50 or so sites with a view to submitting planning applications towards the end of the year.

We have commissioned a variety of interesting practices to help us do this, and we will always remain keen to work with the best architectural talent.

We remain keen to work with the best architectural talent

We’re also looking at diversifying our construction methodologies with a view to making them as efficient as possible, for example by continuing our exploration of how offsite technologies can usefully be employed on constrained infill sites.

Carl Turner was brought in as a Design and Build contractor to deliver the Thornelow Gardens scheme, which had been taken through planning by vPPR. Why did you go down this route?
We’re always keen to try out different commercial delivery routes and this one is a unique case in point. With the benefit of an excellent planning consent, designed by vPPR, we were able to commission Turner Works under an innovative Design and Build arrangement.

This offers us comfort on design quality and price, but offers Turner Works the ability to maximise its own return from the scheme by increasing value.

It is, in effect, a development partnership designed to incentivise design and construction efficiency.

Vppr thorneloe gardens elevation crop

Vppr thorneloe gardens elevation crop

What have you learned from the delivery of your earliest projects?
Delivering on small sites is never easy. One of the key lessons we’ve learned is to know as much as possible about what is in the ground. When you are working at pace and scale, things like utilities diversions or other ground complexities can have a big impact at a programme level.

A key lesson: know as much as possible about what is in the ground

We’ve now updated our site investigations scope to gather even more information at an early stage. We have also learned a lot about each component of our design in production: what works and what doesn’t; what aspects of design contractors may struggle with; where the difficulties in supply chain may lie etc.

We constantly update our design brief and specification to incorporate this learning and I think this is a crucial process in ensuring that aspirational design remains deliverable over time.

How are you addressing the climate emergency in your schemes?
This is obviously an all-encompassing issue and it’s something that we are trying to address at a company-wide level. We’re updating our sustainability strategy, taking advice from experts in the field, to try to ensure that everything we do takes this into consideration – from the design of our schemes to our staff travel patterns to the extent to which we recycle in the office.

At a project level, all of our schemes already take a very common-sense approach to sustainable design by employing good urbanist principles, as well as factoring in the careful use of materials, waste issues, carbon, ecology, good construction practices etc. But we’re very aware that there is always more we can do, and of the importance of doing so.

How involved are you with the local residents?
As a developer working on infill sites in a suburban setting, we undertake a great deal of consultation and engagement with local communities. This takes a variety of forms, from public sessions to one-to-one meetings to all sorts of digital methodologies. A development programme of this scale is obviously not without challenge and there will always be people who feel that certain sites should not be developed, or who don’t like the scale or form of architecture or tenure of certain developments.

Lack of access to good quality housing is a catalyst for all sorts of problems

Our key aim is to ensure that existing residents feel they have had a genuine opportunity to comment or get involved in proposals as they are being developed, and that their voice has been genuinely heard and considered. As more and more of our schemes complete, I think they are making a huge difference to people in Croydon. Lack of access to good quality housing is a catalyst for all sorts of problems. We have a responsibility to do something.

What are you most proud of to date?
Periodically, we have get-togethers of various people involved in delivering our schemes, where everyone gives a short update on each of their sites. Seeing all of the schemes together in one place really brings home the fact that since the beginning, we have maintained an unerring focus on good-quality, properly designed housing that will make a difference to Croydon for many years to come. I’m extremely proud of that.

Colm Lacey is chief executive of the Croydon Council’s arms-length development company Brick by Brick

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