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Q&A: Chloe Phelps on turning Croydon’s in-house team into a commercial practice

Chloe phelps
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Chloe Phelps, head of the newly rebranded Common Ground Architecture, explains Croydon Council’s decision to offer residential design services to other local authorities

Where did the idea of setting up Common Ground Architecture come from?
We’d been operating as a small architectural team for the last two years on a number of projects for Brick by Brick, the development company established by Croydon Council, and also providing a design client role on a range of projects. Establishing Common Ground Architecture continues this journey and provides us with a specific identity that reflects the nature of our work.

Acting as a commercial practice enables us to work with other local authorities, developers and designers on a wide variety of schemes. In keeping with the Brick by Brick structure, any profit we make will be returned to the council as sole shareholder.

How would you best describe Common Ground Architecture?
We are a new type of design practice; we bridge the worlds of private and public sector, bringing together the best from each.

We bridge the worlds of private and public sector bringing together the best from each

To each of our schemes we bring commercially savvy architectural experience coupled with development and planning expertise and practical knowledge of working within a local authority. We are a small team that aims to design joyful and place-specific new homes on the toughest and tiniest of sites.

Will Croydon’s in-house architectural team, which you set up two years ago, continue to exist?
Yes, the team remain employed by the council and provide a variety of services to Common Ground Architecture. We are really proud of our links to Croydon and the council.

What sets it apart from a traditional architecture studio?
In some instances we are very similar; we take a unique and crafted approach to each and every scheme and exceptional quality design is our aim in everything we do. Where we differ is in our set up and experience. As part of Brick by Brick we provide in-house design advice, product development and specification and ongoing quality monitoring, so our scope is wider than many other practices.

What sets it apart from, say, the architects’ department at Hampshire County Council?
Hopefully there are elements of their success that we can emulate – particularly the consistent quality of their schemes and well-earned reputation. However our focus is somewhat different in that we are focused on designing housing on smaller, underutilised sites rather than civic or educational projects per se. On an operational level we are keen to stay small and nimble, working closely with other architects and designers where needed.

What kind of work are you looking for?
We have particular expertise of designing for awkward sites in urban areas which may not be realising their full potential. Designing a high quality and viable development is tough on these sites, but we have demonstrated it is genuinely possible to make these work no matter the size or shape. We are keen to work on all projects, however big or small and we have experience in a range of sectors, not just homes.

We want to work with other councils, developers and designers as we feel there is a benefit in cross-pollination of ideas and addressing the skill imbalance between public and private sectors. We are also here to provide wider services such as design adviser or critical friend roles.

What type of projects have you already got?
So far our schemes are predominately small-to-medium-scale residential projects on a range of sites around Croydon that have previously been considered undevelopable for one reason or another. They tend to be backland garage sites that are no longer fit for purpose or infill sites on existing estates. Our most prominent scheme is at Station Road, South Norwood, where we have designed a scheme for 14 new homes with a significant new community space at ground floor level.

A nine-home scheme in South Norwood Mews by Common Ground Architecture

A nine-home scheme in South Norwood Mews by Common Ground Architecture

A nine-home scheme in South Norwood Mews by Common Ground Architecture

Planning consent is now in place and it will start on site towards the end of the year. We are also designing three other schemes that are between nine to 12 new homes each, which we hope to submit for planning very shortly. These include a nine-home scheme called South Norwood Mews and another 12-home scheme on an old garage site in north Croydon.

Where do you see the practice heading – could it one day rival the old London County Council?
We’re very different in scale and purpose from the old LCC but share a similar ethos to create socially relevant architecture. Our practice is intended to be small scale, tailored to the nature and opportunity of the type of development sites that are now available in many London boroughs.

What do you want Common Ground Architecture to be known for?
Simply; characterful and well-considered places to live and enjoy that people will be proud of for generations to come.

Do you have any ties with Finn William’s Public Practice initiative?
We have strong links with Finn, who also worked in the Placemaking Team at Croydon Council. The Public Practice initiative is a much-needed intervention to help address the skill imbalance between the private and public sectors. Having good quality architectural and development expertise in the public sector is vital to unlocking the potential of sites in a sustainable way.

Are you recruiting?
We will soon be on the lookout for a fifth person to join our team. This is a fantastic team to be part of. It really suits architects who want to do something different, be it getting client-side development experience through our links with Brick by Brick or working with external public sector clients on locally relevant schemes.

Common ground croydon chloe phelps (4)

Common ground croydon chloe phelps (4)

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