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Architects should be angrier about poor office-to-resi conversions

Newbury house

Practices should set their own red lines and be strong enough to walk away if asked to cross them, says Julia Park

I’ve yet to meet an architect who believes office blocks should never be converted to housing. The issue is not whether this should happen, but how, when and where it should happen. There are examples of very good office-to-residential conversions but I’ve been surprised and disappointed that architects aren’t angrier about the worst outcomes that this form of permitted development has enabled. 

Yes, the planning process can be intensely frustrating. It urgently needs revising to reflect the more diverse ways we now live, work and play; it needs to be quicker, less subjective and more effective. But outcomes like Newbury House in Ilford, and proposals such as 15-17 Grange Mills in Balham, as recently detailed in the AJ, have demonstrated why development control is still essential and probably always will be. Not just here, but around the world, we see the built consequences of inadequate development control. They range from degrading to dangerous. 

Some architects have suggested that the answer is simply to take the Nationally Described Space Standard (NDSS) into regulation and do something about daylight. It would certainly help; I’ve always lobbied hard for internal space standards and continue to campaign for the NDSS to be mandatory. That would create the level playing field that developers want, allow the cost to come out of land value and make homes more flexible. But it wouldn’t solve the problem entirely. 

Building Regs never required a habitable room to have a window because no one imagined anyone would offer a living space without one. Well, they need to think again

Take a close look at the approved drawings for Grange Mills (below). These 13 flats all meet the NDSS but how many of them are decent homes? Flats 2, 3, 4 and 5 (at the rear of the ground floor) are more than five times as deep as they are wide. Flats 4 and 5 are directly overlooked by another flat (confusingly also numbered 4). The living/eating/cooking/sleeping/space in each home is soulless; the lights would need to be on all day, the bed would be in full view, and there is nothing to look at through the only window. The first-floor flats are much the same. 

Grange mills pjma

Grange mills pjma

Now look at the latest proposal that doubles the numbers (below). Studios 19, 20, 21 and 22 (at the rear of the first floor), appear to have no vertical window at all – just a skylight. English Building Regulations have never required a habitable room to have a window. Not, I was told, because it doesn’t matter, but because no one ever imagined anyone would offer a living space without one. Well, they need to think again; we already have entire homes without a window. 

Grange mills caridon

Grange mills caridon

Even that’s not really the point. This is a truly horrible building tucked away at the back of a small, scruffy industrial estate. It has no usable outdoor private or shared amenity space; two ground-floor flats each get a small triangular yard and that’s it. There are no redeeming features, no creative touches, nothing to delight and an awful lot to worry about, not least the potential impact on the mental health and wellbeing of anyone who might live there. If it goes ahead, I don’t think any of these homes would be ‘decent enough’. 

I felt genuine despair at the drawings of Newbury House. Realising an architect had been involved was an added disappointment

Knowing what we are capable of, and the difference that good housing makes to our lives, I can’t help but feel angry about schemes like Newbury House and Grange Mills. Most of the blame undoubtedly lies with the government for introducing this form of permitted development. Despite the recent warm words from the Ministry of Housing, this is all to do with numbers and speed and nothing to do with quality. 

Ironically, not only does it give developers a free pass, it also raises the value of run-down office blocks. Offers over £2.3 million were sought for Grange Mills. You can begin to see that the developer, who defended his decision to double the numbers on the grounds of viability, might have been telling the truth. But he didn’t have to buy it. Walking away is always an option and that goes for everyone involved; difficult though it may be. 

I felt genuine despair when I opened the drawings of Newbury House. Realising that an architect had been involved was an added disappointment; I somehow felt it weakened the case in the letters I sent to the secretary of state, the housing minister and the London mayor. 

I’m quietly confident that the government will eventually end this form of permitted development. Until then, while a boycott by the profession is one option, I suggest that every practice might like to set its own red lines and be strong enough to walk away if asked to cross them. If it would help to rehearse how you’d feel to see your scheme as a double page spread in the AJ. I recommend that too.

Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein


Readers' comments (2)

  • The government consultation on ending the PD right to convert offices to flats closed last week. I hope all architects supported this change.
    Andrew Catto
    President - Association of Consultant Architects

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  • John Kellett

    There is no point in architects boycotting any such policy until it is a requirement to appoint an architect to carry out our professional roles. The only outcome of architects taking the moral high ground will be non architects carrying out our roles badly and architects getting the blame. The news media already blame for the poor quality of British housing despite architects designing less than 20% of it, and nearly 0% of the poor quality housing.
    For example, the failure of most housing is poor construction, maintenance, renovations and extensions/alterations by cowboy builders and under qualified ‘architectural’ service providers.

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