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At the heart of all housing should be the human

Emily Booth
  • 1 Comment

Estate regeneration can be a positive, inclusive statement about what is possible, writes Emily Booth

So much vivid emotion is tied up in the phrase ‘estate regeneration’: notions of post-war idealism smashed to pieces; images of embattled residents standing fierce against forced change; a sense of homes reduced to mere unit cost and profit by overwhelming market forces.

And now we have the horror of Grenfell, which has quickly become a symbol of all that is rotten in our housing system. It is essential to unpick and understand the precise failings that led to the tragedy. That will take time. Already, there is a sense that the housing picture is now much, much bigger – and the canvas is not large enough to hold it.

This housing picture isn’t just about high-rise living, and the necessary safety checks and changes now taking place at council tower blocks. It isn’t just about public housing, and how residents are treated or ignored (or despised). And it isn’t just about the private sector, which in a chilling, market-driven way is seeing a concern that ‘there will be a lot less appetite for purchasing above floor 12 – everyone now knows that fire brigade ladders don’t reach higher than that’ (see News Feature).

03 silchester philipvile webcrop

03 silchester philipvile webcrop

Source: Philip Vile

Haworth Tompkins’ Silchester Estate

No – the housing picture is so large because there are so many interconnected elements, each one affecting and influencing another. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, and we can’t fully predict the eventual impact. But surely, now, we cannot endlessly look at types of housing in isolation: the ‘affordable housing’ section of an estate; the ‘poor door’; the private ‘gated community’.

The best projects engage with and involve existing communities

Housing estates weren’t built to be derelict, desolate and desperate places. They were built in hope. Their regeneration can be a positive, inclusive statement about what is possible. There is no single way of achieving this, and sometimes the right approach is to demolish existing buildings and start over. Haworth Tompkins’ revival of west London’s Silchester Estate, on the other hand, shows what can be achieved largely through careful infill. The practice was novated during its later stages, so was involved in the process of construction throughout – an obvious benefit to the scheme as a whole.

Essential to positive regeneration is consultation with residents; the best projects engage with and involve existing communities. Architects are in an ideal position to lead on this. As Dinah Bornat, director at ZCD Architects, says: ‘We are educated to bring together broader cultural and socio-economic factors that make up society – and work out a technical solution that creates places for people to live.’ If architects are novated, and can see whole projects through – and take communities with them on that journey – there is more of a chance of success.

No one is an island. We cannot live detached from each other. At the heart of all housing should be the human.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    Emotion, whilst important, has taken over in all debates. All rationality has gone. Architects are always 'scapegoated' for the failings of politicians, contractors and unqualified building designers. Why? Yes we make mistakes, we are only human, but why force the profession to carry the burden of the faults of others as well? In many instances, where a new building has 'failed to thrive' as social housing, it blooms when finally completed to the original design by the original architect (Brunswick Centre) etc. As a very small scale landlord I have discovered that a minority of tenants do not know how to live in houses! There are some fundamentals that are being missed before the population leaves school education with or without qualifications? Is the propping open of fire doors with fire extinguishers and the vandalism/theft of security/safety measures the fault of the building, I do not think so.

    There was a well researched documentary about Jane Jacobs on BBC4, why don't we, as a community of people, ever learn. The mistakes of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in the USA are still being repeated, for the same reason, in 2010s UK. 'Comprehensive' redevelopment NEVER works, too large a change in too short a time for humans to adjust to if living there. Large scale new developments CAN work but only by breaking the work down into packages of a human scale that relieve the monotony of monopoly.

    The Silchester Estate by Haworth Tompkins is proof that as a profession we are a solution, NOT the cause of the problem.

    'Quick' legal question: could somebody please explain why, if a client fails to follow advice, it is the architect that is at fault when something happens? As current caselaw stands I believe. No PII can cover that risk! Are doctors and judges subject to the same level of blame responsibility?

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