Chris Hildrey has created a database matching up homeless people with addresses of the UK’s empty properties. He talks to Ella Jessel about ProxyAddress
‘Just don’t design a better tent’ was the blunt advice a front-line worker gave architect Chris Hildrey when he began researching a tool for tackling homelessness.
According to Shelter, 320,000 people were recorded as homeless in Britain last year. Rough sleeping in London recently reached a record high, rising in 2018/2019 to a huge 18 per cent spike over 12 months.
As the numbers climb, so too do architect-designed ‘responses’, from collapsible sleeping ‘pods’ to converted shipping containers and pop-up shelters. But Hildrey, 34, decided that, rather than simply ‘making a problem more palatable’, he wanted to find a means of intervening before people fell through the safety net.
Hildrey sought to tackle the cruel ‘catch 22’, which denies people access to essential services precisely because they do not have an address. His solution was ProxyAddress, a database that matches up homeless people with a ‘virtual copy’ of an address, taken from one of the UK’s 500,000 empty homes.
ProxyAddress does not give those sleeping rough a home. But it does provide them with a means of accessing necessities which can provide a key role in recovery: benefits, a bank account, seeing a GP, even getting a driving licence or library card. The project is complex, requiring buy-in from local government, postal services, and the financial sector, but it has taken huge strides. In 2018 it won the RIBA President’s Medal for Research and this year a trial is starting at Lewisham Council in south London, and a strategic partnership with homelessness charity Crisis is being set up. Hildrey hopes to roll the scheme out in full in 2020. It has attracted interest from abroad, too, from as far as Spain, the USA, and China.
So how did a young architect end up negotiating with major players on such a radical invention? And could Hildrey’s entrepreneurial approach – born out of his frustration with architecture’s lack of agency – encourage the profession to rethink how it engages with the UK’s most pressing social problems?
I remember lying in bed at night and thinking: if I could flash-forward, in 30 years’ time what will be important?
When we meet at a pub in Clerkenwell, it is easy to see how Hildrey managed to win over such a diverse range of sectors. London-based yet originally from Liverpool, in conversation he is part-architect, part-app developer, and part-academic. It is perhaps this ability to work across disciplines which won him a Design Museum residency in 2017, the first architect to be admitted on to the programme.
His brief for the residency was just one word: ‘Support’. ‘I remember lying in bed at night and thinking: if I could flash-forward, in 30 years’ time what will be important?’ he recalls. Hildrey was aware of the UK’s homelessness problem but had always felt like it was ‘too upstream’ for an architect to do anything about. His first idea – nailing postboxes to road signs – was ‘terrible’, he concedes, and made him realise he needed to get out and talk to people. He travelled around the UK visiting homeless shelters, front-line workers, MPs, finance bodies, and ‘anyone who would listen’.
It was only then he realised how little he knew about the scale of the problem. He reels off the grim statistics: the rise in rough sleepers since 2010 (165 per cent), the life expectancy of a rough sleeper (44), the number of households in temporary accommodation (80,000).
The numbers are shocking, but it was the stories behind them that hit Hildrey hardest. He describes meeting a former GP who slid into homelessness after his wife died from cancer. ‘Eighteen months and he was on the streets,’ he says, adding: ‘It’s like a table with four legs – work, family, friends, health. Anyone can lose one but, if you lose two, you’re probably going and if you lose three, you’re gone.’
As he looked deeper into the bigger picture, the lack of an address kept coming up as the key issue. As Hildrey points out, the address system arose during the late 18th century to ‘describe a location’ but today it has become a de facto form of ID. ‘If you lose it, it breaks you off from benefits, bank account, ID, marriage certificate, all the things that make you an engaged citizen,’ he says.
Ultimately the people architects engage with are the upper echelons of society or large institutions
As Chris Hancock of Crisis says: ‘People facing homelessness have to deal with multiple demands and pressures. The lack of a permanent address exacerbates all of these.’ Those lucky enough to have permanent addresses tend to think of them as inextricably linked to towns, streets, or bricks and mortar but, as Hildrey explains, addresses are not actually ‘owned’ by anyone. They are effectively just a ‘code’ comprising a street name (which the local authority provides) and a postcode (which Royal Mail provides).
It is this ‘code’ that ProxyAddress uses, copying the address data from the UK’s vast bank of empty properties, creating a ‘virtual duplicate’ and then assigning it to a homeless person who needs it. The addresses can then be accessed via a secure database. All post to the virtual address is redirected by the Royal Mail to a short-term real address or collection point picked by the proxy address holder.
ProxyAddress explains the idea on its website with the example of the 80,000 children a year who write letters to ‘Father Christmas, Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland XM4 5HQ’. The actual destination is a sorting office in Belfast. But – ‘and this is the point’, the website stresses – it could be anywhere.
There are more concrete examples. The British Armed Forces and families have special BFPO (British Forces Posted Overseas) addresses, which they use to get post. On their behalf, the Royal Mail introduced a new ‘BF’ postcode, based in the non-existent UK town of ‘BFPO’. The same tactic is employed by ProxyAddress.
The ProxyAddress website emphasises this process involves no interaction with the actual property and has ‘no effect on the original property, its owners, or its property value.’ In fact, the addresses don’t even need to be from empty properties, it was just ‘common sense’ to start with these.
As Hildrey says, one of the first questions from stakeholders and users is whether there is potential for fraud. He explains ProxyAddress is currently being tested through live trials with the Financial Conduct Authority and that its system is certified by the UK government cyber security accreditation scheme. The project has received funding from The Design Museum/The Arts Council (via the Designers in Residence programme), the Royal Society of Arts, and Ordnance Survey. Once fully live, ProxyAddress will be provided to councils on a subscription basis as a social enterprise.
ProxyAddress’s aims are big enough. But in the RIBA Journal, Hildrey writes how his project raised a question which has clearly bugged him for quite a while. How the architecture profession’s knowledge of the built environment could be used to effect change. ‘Might this also suggest a strategy to mitigate the increasing marginalisation of the profession through a new outlet for professional skills?’ he asks.
Hildrey has long wrestled with the architect’s role in wider society. A Bartlett graduate, he has a roster of respected practices on his CV, including Níall McLaughlin Architects (where he worked on the National History Museum), ZHA, OMA’s Rotterdam office, Foster + Partners, Flanagan Lawrence, and Jestico + Whiles.
But he has also found traditional practice frustrating. His research degree at the Bartlett was on the causes and effects of overtime in architecture (‘that went down well in interviews’, he jokes). In 2010 Hildrey worked with an artist to wrap an east London gallery in developer hoarding emblazoned with ‘grotesque’ marketing, pretending the building was to be demolished and replaced with a tower of flats and supermarket.
It was meant as an act of protest at the quality of some architecture being built in a rush ahead of the London Olympic Games but was a ‘massive failure’, Hildrey admits. Local residents were just happy they were getting a new Tesco. The lesson, he decided, was that architects needed to get better at communicating with the general public.
Such projects reveal Hildrey chipping away at the paradox whereby architects enter the profession with good intentions to design for society, only to find members of the general public are about as ‘far away from being a client as it’s possible to be’. He says: ‘The difficulty architects face is: a) who can afford a house anyway? And b) who can afford a bespoke house? Ultimately the people architects engage with are the upper echelons of society or large institutions who can bankroll a bit of bespoke design.’
But, rather than give up, or trying to fight marginalisation by ‘reclaiming the role of a project manager’, Hildrey argues architects should recognise they have a wealth of skills beyond just designing buildings.
Diversification is a ‘dangerous phrase’ and can be done well or badly, but the profession has little choice, says Hildrey. ‘We can’t make technology less sophisticated in order to reclaim parts of our role, so we have to adapt and seek to affect the built environment in a different way.’
His disenchantment with traditional practice was the catalyst for setting up his own practice, Hildrey Studio – purposefully not ‘Hildrey Architects’ – to allow him to remain free to work on a range of projects. These have ranged from traditional refurbs of Grade II-listed buildings to a music video for a DJ.
ProxyAddress has certainly put him in the spotlight. In addition to the RIBA’s research medal, which was unexpected (he thought the project was not ‘architectural’ enough) he was also a finalist in the Arts Foundation’s recent first-ever Experimental Architecture award. He seems happy with the label, and says the profession’s ‘blurry fringes’ is where ‘most of the interesting stuff happens’.
According to Hildrey, the younger generation is already rethinking what it means to be an architect. While the industry is not responsible for solving social ills, when it comes to issues like homelessness, declaring ‘we have no agency’ is not enough, he says. ‘Sometimes it’s important as architects to step back and say why we are doing this.’
He recalls his time at OMA, where details were put through rounds of design interrogation. ‘What is a balustrade, what is the role of a balustrade? What does a balustrade want to be? That can create amazing little [architectural] moments. But it also sometimes struck me as a case of people with too many answers and not enough questions, trying to find more questions.’