Empty offices + housing shortage = office to resi conversions. It must have sounded like a simple enough sum to government ministers when they announced a temporarily relaxation in planning rules to allow commercial buildings to be changed into homes. As usual, the devil is in the detail. The strength of opposition to the policy certainly took them by surprise, and the version finally brought in from May 2013 is heavily watered down. But 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. I investigated the opportunities for the RICS magazine, Modus.
Housing is always a key battleground in cities, where planners face a constant struggle to provide enough good quality, affordable homes within the constraints of local economics. Squaring this equation with the complexity and expense of staging the Olympics is one of the greatest challenges host cities face – and it’s what’s most likely to determine whether their residents feel it was money well spent in the long term. There are notorious failures such as Athens, where the accommodation built for the 2004 Games has become a crumbling, semi-deserted sink estate. But even where regeneration is considered to have been successful, in cities such as Barcelona and Sydney, there are often significant compromises on affordability and sustainability. I investigated how London’s Olympic delivery team are trying to keep their promises in this piece for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
Stand by for a new housing buzzword: “custom build” is the government’s latest solution for restarting the UK’s failed housing market, and fulfilling its pledge to turn Britain into “a nation of homebuilders”. It’s like self-build but without the difficult bits – homeowners are more likely to be choosing from a set of pre-approved designs than creating their dream home, and they can leave the whole thing to an “enabling developer” if they’d prefer not to get their hands dirty. I investigated its chances of becoming the new mainstream in this piece for Construction Manager. Even though councils must now assess demand for custom build and set aside sites to cater for it, and there’s no shortage of contractors gearing up to serve a potentially enormous untapped market, the stumbling block remains the cost of the land – no amount of choice will deliver much-needed family homes while the only people who can afford to do it are equity-rich empty-nesters.
A floating swimming pool off the shore of New York is the kind of idea that would usually sink without trace, so to speak, at a time like this. But it’s just one of the weird and wonderful projects set to go ahead thanks to thousands of dollars pledged by internet users around the world. This is crowdfunding, where those with a much-cherished idea but no money seek many small donations online. Websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and ArtistShare are now a major source of arts funding – Kickstarter alone will distribute more than the US’ National Endowment for the Arts this year. Now an online platform that helps artists find a wider audience is being adopted for the very real world of public space, to pay for projects including a community centre in Wales, an underground park (NY again), a footbridge in the centre of Rotterdam and a rooftop aquaponic farm in King’s Cross. In this piece for Modus magazine, I asked how well the model translates – and whether crowdfunding could ever replace government funding for community projects.
In the UK, self-build has always been the preserve of a courageous minority, accounting for around 10% of homes. Now the government wants to make it a genuine option for many more people, following the example of countries such as Germany and Sweden where self-builders are responsible for more than 60% of all new homes. A year on from my article for Construction Manager on the government’s self-build housing strategy, I assessed how it’s doing for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. And given that self-builders’ two biggest concerns are still – and likely to remain – land and money, I found that surveyors are well placed to offer them advice.
On a Wednesday afternoon in early August, Julie Fadden was walking around the streets of Speke and Garston with her staff, talking to her tenants and resolving issues on her estates. The chief executive of South Liverpool Housing was doing what she does on the first Wednesday afternoon of every month – even though her father had died early that morning. This is an extreme example of what sets the chief executive in a housing organisation apart from their staff, but it does shed some light on why the chief executives in Inside Housing’s salary survey are paid so much more than their employees. I spoke to them to find out how they earn their six-figure salaries.
Leo Miller’s flash of inspiration came when he nearly burnt down his student house. For Isaac Teece, it was the realisation that if he found changing a light bulb difficult at 21, it was going to be considerably harder in 50 years’ time. They’re the winners of a competition which challenged industrial design students at Northumbria University to come up with ‘inclusive designs’ that would enable elderly or disabled people to live independently. It might seem odd that experiences of life in a student house should influence the design of extra care schemes, but that was the point – the competition’s organisers wanted products that anyone would be happy to have in their homes, and that wouldn’t give them “that sinking feeling that you’re entering older people’s housing”. In this article for Inside Housing, I found out what they came up with.
The government told social landlords to bring 3000 empty properties back into use and gave them a £100m fund to do it. Even so, The Willows in Llangolen was not the most obvious place to start. This Grade II-listed mansion had been derelict for 30 years before Denbighshire Council bought it for £1 and then spent £429,000 refurbishing it. It was just after the builders took the roof off that empty homes officer Wendy Dearden wondered if her pet project was such a good idea after all: ‘Someone put their foot on one of the walls and the whole wall, three storeys down, wobbled.’ But a year, and much shoring up of those walls later, The Willows has been converted into three unique, two-bedroom flats right in the city centre – social housing gold dust. I found out how, in this piece for Inside Housing’s construction special.
A journey into unknown territory … an impossible target … and an estates department determined to go down fighting … Alright, so it’s not exactly Andy McNab, but the challenge facing the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is still pretty dramatic. Over the next four years, the MoD’s new estates division must save £1.2bn from property disposals, direct estate costs, energy and water bills and staff numbers. This means it must cut an organisation with a headcount of more than 7,000 down to just 2,000 people, rationalise a property portfolio worth about £20bn, and reinvent itself from the ground up, with new business processes, IT infrastructure and operating procedures. I spoke to the heads of the DIO to find out how they’re going to do it – and the rest of the construction industry to assess their chances of success.
Admit it: you would secretly love to build your own home. But even though many people will have probably considered it at some time or another, very few of us will ever take the plunge. This is the Grand Designs paradox: the ubiquity of property programmes on TV encourages us all to dream of designing the perfect home, while simultaneously presenting a hellish vision of construction nightmares and financial ruin that ensures only the bravest will ever attempt it. But that could all change if housing minister Grant Shapps achieves his ambition to make self-build a more realistic option. In this article for Construction Manager magazine, I assessed his chances of transforming the UK into a nation of housebuilders.