Given the current housing crisis in the UK, it’s useful to look back to the great decade of housing around 50 years ago.
In the book “A Decade of British Housing 1963-1973” the period is reviewed, lessons are learnt and the future of housing is debated.
At that stage only 6% of housing stock was made up of the output of the new voluntary housing groups (now called housing associations or RSLs) and by the end of the period architects were starting to look at a numbers of issues including reducing car use, shared surfaces, the end of fossil fuels, prefabrication, off-site timber frame construction and lack of land – so in many ways very little has changed!
The big opportunity that we are currently exploring is really about putting right some of those mistakes made 50 years ago.
When estates like Green Man Lane in Ealing were built they were the great hope for the future: optimistic 1960s living, with all the facilities you needed – shops, GP surgeries, nurseries, and a post office.
But a mixture of bad design, bad management and poor construction meant that many of these estates had a limited lifespan. At the time they met a need – slums were cleared away and bright airy new flats in the sky were the solution!
They in turn now offer a new solution. Estate regeneration allows us to take a fresh look at these places. Sometimes they need total demolition, with a complex plan for “decanting” residents, buying out or doing deals with leaseholders.
And sometimes all or part of the estate can be refurbished. Good buildings should be restored and re-used, despite their problems. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens in East London is iconic and should be cherished. Look at the wonderful Park Hill in Sheffield saved by Tom Bloxham’s Urban Splash.
The result, if it works, can be high quality high-density urban living with multi-tenure housing serving diverse communities.
When working with residents on an estate I always tell them that my hope is that, when complete, their estate effectively disappears and is replaced instead by streets, squares and courtyards that are part of the city and part of the community.
I think we’re getting this right but we need to sort the issues around densification – we need schools, surgeries, shops, workplaces within easy reach, or ideally within these developments.
But the architecture has to be the best possible too – and that’s where “tenure-blind” architecture comes in to its own. If you need to sell flats and houses then the whole development must be good. No more affordable housing in the worst part of the site!
We are producing good affordable housing and we are providing some of the greenest housing in the UK, with better space standards than many private developers, though we still build some of the smallest flats in Europe.
We looked at this issue of density over two decades ago at Butlers Wharf. It’s now a new city quarter with houses, flats, shops, restaurants, offices, a nursery and a museum. It set new standards for urban living.
And now we are doing it again at a similar scale in Ealing, Walthamstow and other sites around London.
These developments, when they are large enough and have a critical mass, can change our city for the better, and we can show that we have learned from history and can make places that work!
Paul Zara, Director, Conran & Partners
Read more about our work on regenerating London’s housing estates here: www.conranandpartners.com