Tomorrow’s slums

Back in 2013, I interviewed RICS’ property experts about the coalition government’s then-temporary relaxation of planning rules on office-to-resi conversions, for Modus magazine. I summarised it like this: “Despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances.” My hometown Croydon was set to be a hotspot, with loads of the right sort of office building and loads of demand for flats not too far from London.

The policy was made permanent in autumn 2015, declared a success by the new Conservative government. But successful for who?

Under permitted development rights, conversions take place without planning permission – and therefore with no scrutiny of design, quality or space standards, and without developers making any contributions to local infrastructure or affordable housing. The impact has been far worse than predicted. In May 2018, a report by the Bartlett School of Planning revealed the true face of England’s offices-to-resi boom: studio flats measuring just 12m², “homes” in the middle of industrial estates, children growing up in noisy, overcrowded blocks with no play space. By then, approximately 60,000 new housing units had been created in this way.

I interviewed the authors for the Bartlett Review 2019. They began their research in 2017, when the impact of four years of deregulation was increasingly discussed but little had been published beyond desk-based studies. Over the course of a year, they made 568 site visits across five English cities plus two comparators, surveying projects and their surroundings, counting door buzzers and speaking to residents. Lead researcher (and fellow Croydonian) Dr Ben Clifford told me they were “shocked” by what they found: “What stood out for us was the quality of residential development. It was much poorer than we anticipated and affected people much more severely in terms of their quality of life.” Some shabby commercial premises had barely been converted at all – one of the many grim photos in the report, taken in Croydon, shows a tiny unit fronting onto a busy main road with personal possessions piled against the windows. Only 30% of conversions met national space standards, and few had access to amenity space. Overall, 77% of the homes were studio or one-bed apartments and many were aimed at the investment market – hardly reflecting or meeting housing need. The five local authorities – Camden, Croydon, Reading, Leeds and Leicester – had lost a potential £10.8m in Section 106 contributions and 1,667 affordable homes, as well as £4.1m in planning fees.

For the least scrupulous elements of the property sector, permitted development rights has been a get-rich-quick free-for-all. The rest of us will be feeling the repercussions for decades to come.

Bartlett Review 2019_pages 8-9

A different shade of green

In February, I travelled to Sweden to interview Johan Edstav, a Green party councillor in Uppsala who is leading a nationwide programme to build sustainable new towns. Sweden is one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, but it’s seriously constrained by a lack of affordable housing: in 2017, 255 out of 290 municipalities reported a shortage and the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning says that it needs to build approximately 710,000 homes by 2025. Like many other countries, it is struggling to balance city prosperity with affordability, help an ageing population to downsize, and decarbonize its economy. What sets Sweden apart is that this small country of barely 10 million has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other in Europe. In 2015, at the peak of the European migrant crisis, more than 160,000 people arrived seeking asylum. Sweden’s immigration policy is justifiably a source of national pride, but it has also raised questions about how so many newcomers can be integrated – or even housed.

So the challenge for the government, and Edstav as its representative, is not only to increase a paltry rate of housebuilding, but to plan new developments to bring people together in more integrated, better functioning communities. The Nordic countries already lead the world in environmental sustainability; now Sweden is seeking to isolate the DNA of the more complex and much less explored social dimension. I asked him how in this piece for The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for WSP.

Don’t mention the c-word – it’s “reconstituted stone”

The summer issue of Concrete Quarterly is packed with curiosities: an insurers’ office with a Soviet missile as its centrepiece; an Oxford faculty building compared to a marshmallow, a spaceship, a stack of CDs and a pile of washing up; a ruined Spanish castle controversially refurbished as a block of concrete; and a French music school deliberately splattered with paint. We also ran an exclusive interview with AHMM’s Paul Monaghan about how the practice managed to win the 2015 Stirling Prize with a school largely built in a factory, and how he persuaded Barking council’s housing department to love concrete again…

CQ is a Wordmule production for the Concrete Centre, in print, PDF and, all-new for summer 2016, web.

Cover of Concrete Quarterly Summer 2016

This is Concrete magazine – Secrets of a long life

My company Wordmule has just produced a second issue of This is Concrete, the bespoke 24-page magazine we created for The Concrete Centre last year to tie in with their activities at the Ecobuild exhibition. Their themes were pretty diverse this year, from how to design buildings to last in a changing climate and create high-performance housing for people of all ages, to the thorny issue of accurately calculating the embodied carbon of building products. So we pulled it all together under a “sustainability for life” theme, with a special cover illustration by our very talented designer Nick Watts. Details of The Concrete Centre’s activities at Ecobuild were contained in a pull-out section, to extend the magazine’s shelf life beyond the event itself. Which fits in quite neatly with the theme, come to think of it.

Cover of This is Concrete 2016

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff – Skylines magazine

In October, my regular client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff sponsored a host room at the annual conference of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats in New York. I went along, listened in on two days of presentations and then turned it into a 72-page magazine, to be distributed to the company’s clients and partners worldwide. The overall theme of Skylines is the renaissance of tall buildings. There’s an unprecedented high-rise boom, but the new generation of towers will be very different from those that preceded them – not only in their giant scale but in the kind of spaces they offer, both in the sky and on the ground. Skylines explores what this looks like, from the perspective of designers, developers and city planners around the world.

WSP PB_Skylines cover

Inside Housing – CIH Manchester 2015 supplement

Inside Housing is the most widely read magazine for the UK social housing sector. I edited a 36-page supplement to tie in with the biggest event in the housing calendar, the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in Manchester. As social landlords waited anxiously to find out their fate under the new Conservative government, the supplement took an in-depth look at the apparently unstoppable shift of power from Westminster to the regions, and whether councils could ever reprise their role as major housebuilders.

The magazine also included four “sponsored chapters” – bespoke editorial produced in association with a sponsor on a particular topic. The overarching theme inevitably became “doing more with less”, as ever-deeper spending cuts force those providing public services to make some difficult choices.

Inside Housing_CIH special_June 2015

 

“There’s no way you can incentivise the national house builders to have a social conscience”

Last time Britain faced a housing crisis on this scale, it was local authorities that built our way out of it. The days when council building departments threw up gargantuan estates may be long gone, but there has been a quiet renaissance over the last three years as they deliver a small but growing proportion of new homes. Whether this is a scalable part of a long-term solution or just a blip in the continuing decline of council stock will depend on the policies of the new government – and it’s already clear that it’s not going to be easy. I interviewed a man who’s really hoping it’s the former: Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federation of ALMOs – the arm’s length management organisations that are responsible for most of this housebuilding. The article appeared in Inside Housing magazine, in a supplement which I also edited.

This is Concrete magazine

My company Wordmule has produced Concrete Quarterly on behalf of the Concrete Centre for several years now. For spring 2015, they also wanted a completely new 24-page magazine to tie in with the Ecobuild event, bringing together all of the sustainability themes from their three-day seminar programme – and planned, written and designed in six weeks flat. The result is This is Concrete.

This is Concrete 2015

Old habits die hard

There’s nothing brutal about the spring edition of Concrete Quarterly, which my company Wordmule produces for the Concrete Centre. Concrete is at its cosiest in a south London family home, its most sensitive on a heritage restoration in King’s Cross, and its most finely detailed in a concert hall in the Norwegian Arctic, which has 674 unique facade panels of sparkling white concrete.

Nothing brutal, that is, until you get to Lasting Impression on page 19, when architect Simon Allford of AHMM chooses his all-time favourite concrete structures: Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction and disused World War II pillboxes.

“We can’t yet say that using five curved shapes and two angular ones gives you this level of productivity, but I like to think we’ll be there in five years”

To the uninitiated, “health, wellbeing and productivity” might sound like an alternate title for the “mind, body, spirit” section of Waterstones. Don’t be fooled: it’s an emphatically evidence-based discipline, with a watertight business case that makes low-energy construction look practically New Age in comparison. There’s a growing body of evidence to show that buildings have a far more subtle impact on their occupants than previously thought – hospital patients with views of nature heal more quickly, office workers with a window seat sleep an average of 46 minutes longer per night and doubling the supply of outdoor air to an office reduces short-term sick leave by 35%.

Companies spend far more on salaries than anything else, so it’s easy to see why some of the property sector’s most influential clients seized have thrown their weight behind a landmark report from the World Green Building Council announcing wellbeing as the next big thing in sustainable building.  Wellbeing is a much more attractive message than the abstinence typically preached by the green movement, and unlike climate change, it’s something that individual organisations can actually do something about. In this feature for Building, I investigated how the wellbeing movement could affect the way buildings are designed and valued, and how exactly you can measure such a nebulous concept in the first place.