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Martyn Evans: ‘Not every architect should be a developer’

Essex Mews Split
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Martyn Evans of developer U+I asks whether we should really all be developers

Martyn Evans

For 30 years, architect Roger Zogolovitch has been a developer, promoting what he describes in his new book, Shouldn’t we all be developers?, as a ‘development as art’ movement that seeks out small gap sites in London and proposes in-fill development as an authentic and original way of increasing the supply of housing in our city.

Roger offers us a model where smaller development interventions create buildings that fit their context, enhance their surroundings and meet the needs of local residents. It has also allowed him to develop a clever design thesis driven by the very constraints of gap development.

The modest Mr Zogolovitch wouldn’t dream of suggesting that he has the answer to London’s housing problem but in his celebration of creative, opportunistic development what he does offer is a model that we who work at the higher-volume end of the business could learn a lot from.

Simply because of the number of units we are able to deliver, larger developers are the first to whom politicians turn for answers to the question of how we house the rapidly growing UK population in our cities. But when the low-supply-equals-high-prices market doesn’t incentivise developers to ramp up production, when a broken, unfit-for-purpose planning system gets in the way and when lazy developers overlook sites that could provide the answer because they’re ‘too hard to develop’, then we’re in trouble.

I believe one answer to the problems is to follow the example of Zogolovitch and develop the key relationship in our business – that of developers and their architects.

Developers will characterise their architects as a necessary evil and architects see their developer client as a Philistine

We have some work to do in that regard, though. I am constantly surprised at how these two key collaborators can so frequently exhibit such a complete lack of mutual understanding and sympathy. It cuts both ways. Developers will typically characterise their architects as a necessary evil and architects often see their developer client as a Philistine, only interested in profit and value engineering the quality out of everything. Many times, both have a point.

If we’re going to win, then we have to work harder to understand each other and how by doing that we can create better places that have greater value, meet (or challenge) the requirements of planning policy and offer inspiring places for people to live in. We have to tear up the rule book and stand in each other’s shoes to write a new one, one focused on those we are in business to serve – our end-consumers, the people who will live, work and play in the places we design and build.

Together, we have to understand that we have a responsibility, not just to deliver units, but to deliver inspiring places that are socially and economically sustainable (easier if you are delivering a 20-acre masterplan but just as effective if you are a single-building developer adding to an existing townscape).

Hiring a good architect means your scheme will work better

Developers have to understand that architects add value through design; that hiring a good architect means your scheme will work better, will deliver more saleable floor space and will produce greater profit. Architects must understand that developers are in business to serve their shareholders and make a profit – in our modern political landscape the vast majority of social need served by building property is being provided by profit-making private developers rather than a public sector that has completely washed its hands of the responsibility to deliver affordable homes and other community infrastructure.

How can creative masterplanning and urban design offer alternatives to planning policy that simply holds up good development? How can great architectural design deliver profit-making buildings in areas where low values mean you don’t see developers for dust? How can better, more inspiring developer briefs fuel architectural visions that deliver practical answers? And how do create the kind of forums where real debate happens between architects and their clients?

When did Property Week last carry an article about how good design can at least deliver a significantly increased margin to a development project and at most turn the unviable into the viable? Or, for that matter, when did the AJ address itself to those developers who wouldn’t imagine they should even pick it up?

Together we have to grasp that building property is an enormous responsibility, especially when it is built on public land (local authorities are the largest landowners in the UK). We hold the future prosperity of our towns and cities in our collective hands and if we don’t do this with a common understanding and a mutual respect for each other’s contribution then we will be in trouble. It’s our duty and in our commercial interest to develop the kind of places that are not simply tumbleweed dormitories between 9am and 6pm and where complex, mixed-use development in our town centres is what we need to revive and futureproof them. To understand this is to understand the rich relationships that exist between architects and developers that get it right.

So, do I think we should all be developers, as Zogolovitch suggests? No. But if we all read his fascinating book it might just inspire us to think more carefully about how mutual respect, understanding and greater collaboration between developer and architect could help us find some of the answers we need.

Martyn Evans is creative director at U+I 

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