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Bristol can be a bridgehead for others to learn from, says housing festival chief

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Bristol Housing Festival’s director, Jez Sweetland, talks about how the event can tackle the ‘systemic failures’ in the residential market and how architects can get involved 

What is the Bristol Housing Festival?
It was inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851 and will act as an incubator to help develop a range of existing concepts and innovative solutions in a real-world scenario to help speed up the delivery of quality, affordable housing.

The festival will also showcase and celebrate the innovation that is already taking place across the city and help look at the city-wide narrative in the context of the challenges and opportunities the city is facing.

We launched the festival in October and it will now run for five years.

What has been the highlight of this year’s festival programme?
We’ve just launched the festival with a public expo at exhibition on Waterfront Square. It had more than 6,000 visitors and we also held six evening events. I’m not aware an expo like this has ever been done in this way before: an expo to showcase innovation in housing that is focused on engaging the whole city – not just the industry – in the challenges and opportunities that exist.

The highlight has been the level of interest, positive reaction and engagement and the opportunity to demonstrate that there are reasons to be hopeful.

The purpose of the expo was to create momentum and an opportunity to partner with the city council and other key stakeholders to create a culture that is prepared to test ideas.

We have a systemic failure in our housing market. This is not about demonising the existing housebuilders, which seems to be an easy option. In fact, without their volume or scale, the crisis is compounded. Nor is it about criticising political leadership; the blame game does not produce results. It is about vision and inviting a city with political courage to lead, to step up and test new ideas and share that learning for the benefit of all.

What design innovation emerged as the most like to solve the affordability crisis in Bristol?
The housing crisis is difficult and complex. It would be naive to think an expo in itself has discovered a likely solution. However, we intend to use the five years of the festival to help test and prototype a series of solutions in real-world scenarios to learn what will provide scalable solutions.

It would be naive to think an expo in itself has discovered a likely solution

The response from the public has been incredibly positive and supportive – though against a harsh reality that, whilst it was possible to ‘pop-up’ six houses for two weeks, it is still very challenging and complex to create housing at the scale we need. The delay in that supply is causing genuine misery and suffering for too many.

Zedpods at bhf

Zedpods at bhf

Do you think off-the-shelf systems like Bill Dunster’s ZEDPods can really make a difference and why?
The strapline of the festival was ‘reimagining the future of our cities’. Part of that reimagining is to rethink how we use existing space in our cities. ZEDPods provide a great example of what is possible if we think about land use in a different way -– such as the ZEDPod model of using air rights above hard-standing – to reduce the price of housing and build highly sustainable/zero carbon housing.

Bristol City Council has committed to investing in a number of ZedPods to be put up on a site that would normally be seen as undeliverable in terms of conventional development. These homes will be offered to people in housing crisis within six months, subject to planning. It’s going to be a great opportunity to test the idea in Bristol and to explore if/how that can be part of the solution in bringing on more housing supply at pace.

Should the Bristol Temple Meads site have been used for a new arena? 
This was not a project in which the housing festival was involved.

How can architects get involved in the next four housing festivals?
We are looking to engage a whole host of city partners through Bristol’s City Office and there will be both opportunity and need for architects, lawyers, planners, academics etc across all five years of the festival, to get involved as we bring on sites for possible development.

As we look to host an expo next year, the key will be what have we built – it’s not just about an annual showcase.

Would you consider running design competitions for the sites the local authority releases for houses?
Yes, we are considering various ways to enable engagement and unlock collaboration and innovation – this is not just about design but also about how we think, especially after the physical build of each site, about creating culture to host and support healthy and resilient communities to help tackle city challenges around mental and physical health, loneliness and rehabilitation among other things.

Can Bristol be a world leader in delivering groundbreaking housing?
Bristol has an amazing track record for creativity and design – it’s also a city with a strong sense of place and identity. The complexity of the housing crisis means that cities need to think about their own local and organic challenges and opportunities – creating solutions that can be shared. In that context someone has to go first. I am excited to see Bristol’s innovation and courage create a real bridgehead for others to learn from and build on.


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