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NEWS FEATURE

Vote for your architect: The new way to win work

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Community land trusts are an increasingly popular development model that can include residents’ ballots to select a designer. Ella Jessel looks at how architects are delivering bottom-up projects in the first in a series of reports on new ways of working

It is Saturday afternoon at the boxy Brixton Methodist Church in south London and teams of architects hover next to exhibition boards wearing name tags and nervous smiles.

There are all the hallmarks of a typical public design consultation – a table neatly stocked with biscuits and a jaunty string of ‘W-e-l-c-o-m-e’ bunting. But at the door, there is a cardboard ballot box and a stack of polling cards. Instead of one practice there are four: Mole Architects; RCKa; Reed Watts; and 15-40 Architecture. And there’s another twist: no developers.

Housing, whether for sale or for rent, is genuinely affordable in perpetuity, based on actual salaries

This is a Choose an Architect community ballot being held to win a commission for 27 homes on Christchurch Road, a brownfield site in Streatham Hill with a build cost of under £5 million. All Lambeth residents are eligible to vote on the finalists, whittled down from a shortlist of 15. 

As procurement goes, an architect election is unorthodox. But while it might be ‘a little unnatural’, as RCKa’s Dieter Kleiner puts it, it is entirely in keeping with the bottom-up development model of the project’s client, the London Community Land Trust.

Community land trusts (CLTs) are a form of community-led housing set up by people to develop and manage their homes. Housing, whether for sale or for rent, is genuinely affordable in perpetuity, based on actual salaries, and is ‘based on people, not profits’.

In two years, the number of CLTs has doubled across the UK. Whether pitching for homes, or launching their own CLTs, architects are increasingly drawn to the model.

So what’s the big appeal? 

Origins

The CLT model was originally imported from the US where it was developed in 1969 in Georgia by the civil rights movement to help African-American farmers. In the UK, they began appearing in rural communities, particularly in the South West, in the early 2000s.

In its first decade, development was slow. But while in 2010 there were only 36 CLTs, today this number has mushroomed to 290. According to the Nationwide Community Land Trust Network, 2018 was a ‘pivotal year’ partly due to the launch of the Community Housing Fund (CHF), which has provided £163 million of revenue and capital funding for co-housing projects. It already has 3,500 homes in its pipeline.

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Waugh Thistleton scheme in Chobham, Surrey, for Sustaining Chobham CLT

CLTs shape shift, taking on different forms depending on the particular housing problems of the community in which they spring up. ‘We are an expression of the variety of housing demand,’ says National CLT Network director Tom Chance. 

In Liverpool, the Granby 4 Streets CLT and architecture collective Assemble won the 2015 Turner Prize for a project that breathed new life into a derelict cluster of terraced streets left decimated by clearance schemes.

In cities such as Bristol, Newcastle and London, where ‘acute affordability’ is the challenge, high land values have choked off CLTs. Yet, London CLT has successfully bid for two plots under the Mayor’s Small Sites, Small Builders programme, one of which is Christchurch Road. It hopes to deliver 120 homes by 2021. 

Appetite for alternatives

For architects disillusioned with traditional housing delivery, the principal motivation for working in community-led housing is the opportunity to tackle these issues. As Chance explains, CLTs attract ‘architects who don’t want to spend their lives watching [major housebuilder] Persimmon make millions.’

Architype started as self-build architects over three decades ago, working with various groups priced out of their areas. Associate director James Todd said support and funding for community-led schemes gradually fell away. But now, with projects such as the affordable self-build development for Rural Urban Synthesis Society CLT in south London, the practice’s journey has come full circle.

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Church Grove, Lewisham, by Architype for RUSS CLT

‘We’re back in a position of new momentum,’ says Todd. ‘There’s a huge appetite for alternatives. I think the mainstream approach to housing delivery – public or private – is failing to deliver the housing people need.’

Meanwhile in north London, StART CLT raised £25,000 through a crowd-funding campaign to hire 6a architects and Maccreanor Lavington to create a masterplan for 800 homes on the site of a former hospital. Last year, in a major boost for the campaign, the mayor bought the site to build affordable homes.

6a’s founders Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald had not previously been involved in UK housing projects. However they were so impressed by StART’s energy and vision they decided to ‘take a punt’ on the scheme despite it, at the time, having ‘no background infrastructure in place, no site and no funding’.

Emerson says: ‘When you do speculative work there is something there that you are aiming for. In this case the most interesting thing was this group of people and how radically they were trying to challenge the housing system in London.’

St anns hospital site

St Ann’s Hospital site masterplan by 6a and Maccreanor Lavington for StART CLT

Architects are instrumental in making projects happen in cities with diverse housing challenges, according to Stephen Hill, a housing expert who advises urban CLTs across the UK.

‘Most community-led groups will have at least one architect on the activist side,’ he says, ‘and the lines that define all these traditions are getting more blurred, which is a good thing.’

Architect-turned-activist is an apt way to describe Sanya Polescuk, who founded her own trust, NW3 CLT, three years ago after growing frustrated at the council’s strategy of selling off its high-value public assets in Hampstead to fund its capital investment programme.

NW3 CLT has 110 members, around 30 per cent of whom are architects, and recently successfully bid for £10,000 to draw up a feasibility study for its first site. Polescuk describes the experience as an ‘amazing learning curve’. 

‘As architects we’ve been hoodwinked into so much,’ she says. ‘You have to deal with the parameters and frameworks handed down to you. With community-led housing there is less of a “them and us” mentality. It feels more empowering.’

Anthony Engi Meacock, of Assemble, who worked on the Granby 4 Streets project, says architects are often confined to ‘designing frocks for frames decided by other people. I think [CLTs] challenge architects on the ethics of what they are doing.’

Challenges

One of the main criticisms of the CLT movement is that, despite the National CLT Network’s aim to become a ‘mainstream housing’ option, in reality it is a niche sector which does not offer a genuine solution to the UK housing crisis.

Engi Meacock says that while CLTs are often discussed as a panacea, they rely on groups of ‘extremely well-intentioned’ people. ‘I would be sceptical of the idea [they] could meet the scale of national housing demand,’ he says. ‘CLTs are not a replacement for social housing, but they do challenge the rest of the market to show there are other options.’

Chance insists there is scope for ‘larger-scale delivery’ and explains the network is looking to set up ‘enabler hubs’ to help local CLTs get going, as well as launching training programmes. 

Nationally, however, the movement’s growth is under threat from the curtailment of the Community Housing Fund. The funding stream was initially expected to run over five years when it was launched in 2016. However following delays, bidding only opened last July and will close at the end of 2019. Chance is lobbying for an extension until 2023. 

Yet in London, where the Greater London Authority opened bidding for its £38 million share of the pot in January, head of London CLT Calum Green says the available cash is starting to make things happen.

Development is slow and requires ‘bloody-mindedness’, he says, but the fund launching has caused a shift.

Councils have clocked the funding and are starting to ‘take CLTs seriously’, he adds, with the biggest pragmatic challenge now being equity and the CLTs’ ability to borrow from investors.

Archio brasted close

Brasted Close, Lewisham, by Archio for London CLT

For architects, CLTs bring new design challenges. The sites are often complex, says Mellis Haward, of Archio, who worked on the Brasted Close CLT scheme in Lewisham, which is expected to win planning approval imminently.

The pre-determined prices of the homes also affect the design process, she explains, ‘As architects, we can’t add any monetary value by making them [the homes] bigger or better. The budget is tight and it won’t ever go up. But there is a clear social benefit that is motivating.’

There are also stories of architects being asked to work pro-bono. ‘The schemes have to wash their own faces,’ says Todd. ‘It might work on a one-off but this can’t become a mainstream delivery if people aren’t being paid.’

Vote winners

Back in Brixton, the competing architects have passed the first test by resisting the temptation of bringing any fully fledged designs. Instead of glossy CGIs they are relying on portfolios of community-led housing projects, and their best bedside manner.

15-40 Architecture is making the most of its Passivhaus ‘USP’. Reed Watts founders Jim and Matt have talked themselves hoarse. ‘We’re presenting a process rather than a design,’ says Mole Architects associate Naga Simpson – though his table’s tiny plastic trees and cars, not to mention free rulers, are also helping to bring in punters. 

Simpson cheerily describes the ballot as ‘a bit mad’. ‘How do we know someone hasn’t brought a coachload of their mates [to vote]? But it’s people power and that’s what London CLT are about, giving power back.’

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Choose an Architect community ballot

As four-year-old Leo lines up cars, his mum Claire Summers, a nurse trapped in a ‘vicious cycle of renting’, who hopes to one day buy one of the homes, says: ‘They are looking at what we actually want and need rather than just building a block of flats where a one-bed costs £700,000 for a tiny box.’

The 44 Lambeth residents eventually vote ‘overwhelmingly’ for RCKa, which also drafted the initial feasibility study. Kleiner says the practice is delighted and looks forward to ‘meeting more of the community over the coming months and designing genuinely affordable, beautiful homes’.

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While there is a long way to go, the CLT movement is making headway and is succeeding in showing local authorities, big developers, and architects, that an alternative exists. As Haward says: ‘While it might not make a huge wave, it demonstrates the possibility of something extraordinary.’

 

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