• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Leverage

Flora

Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects. Cambridge's first co-housing community.

Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects. Cambridge's first co-housing community.

Architect and historian, Flora Samuel is internationally respected for her work uniting the principles of social impact with the built environment. We practically leapt for joy when she agreed to share her thoughts on 'building back better' in a post-COVID world.

As the UK government struggles with the second wave of Coronavirus local and city authorities are developing plans for recovery.  These are set to dominate the agenda for several years and practices are starting to shed staff while second guessing how to position themselves for the new situation. Plans and strategies to address Climate Change, inequality and good growth will now have to be looked at through the lens of COVID 19. During this time, we have also experienced remarkable, hopeful stories that speak of an emergent paradigm of collaboration, care and social value. It is really important to keep these fresh in our memories as we co-create the new normal.

Without wishing to descend into hyperbolae it feels like we really are on a knife edge between ‘building back better’ and a future too grim to contemplate. As part of a larger project by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence on the impact of COVID, I’ve been interviewing policy makers, local authorities, providers of social housing, charities and developers to find out what they believe will be the key issues and opportunities for homes and neighbourhoods going forward. The report can be read here but I’ve summarised a few points below:

  • The pandemic offers an opportunity to build back better both for resilience and to address the Climate Change Emergency which has not been forgotten.

  • Planning policy and local authorities that focuses on wellbeing and placemaking are more resilient to events such as the pandemic. Similarly, organisations with flexible working arrangements with staff that regularly work from home have been more resilient.

  • Resilience starts with the home, its design and its context. Flexible space is needed in all homes as they increasingly become places of work. All homes should have access to balconies, daylight and broadband.

  • There is need for a statutory requirement to mandate adequate levels of green and amenity space based on metrics.

     

  • Community spaces need to be protected and enhanced. They play a major role in volunteering efforts and in reducing social isolation. These could be expanded to include a healthcare role (for example for the homeless).

  • The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink density and the way people move around their neighbourhoods. Travel and health need to be seen as an integrated agenda.

  • The centralisation of services needs to be reconsidered, with better dispersion of jobs across the UK, including rural areas, facilitated by digital communication.

     

  • The use of local services and materials needs to be encouraged at every level, especially public procurement and in the choreography of our high streets. This includes local construction companies who need support and investment (including the development of safer off-site construction) as they are best positioned to deliver new homes to their communities.

  • New administrative groupings are needed in government and local authorities to ensure a joined up strategy across the health, social care and planning agendas.

  • Advanced budgetary planning is needed for emergencies enabling national governments and local authorities to act responsibly and efficiently without concerns about who will pay. After years of austerity there is not enough fat in the system to cover such emergencies.

  • Changes to the planning system to accelerate economic growth have been shown not to work. Planning is too important to be done hastily. Given the likelihood of a recession great care needs to be taken with the use of scant resources.

Paintworks, Bristol by Verve Properties. The regeneration of a mixed use district with community at its heart.

Paintworks, Bristol by Verve Properties. The regeneration of a mixed use district with community at its heart.

It is worth noting that each of the countries in the UK has a very different planning system. Over the last few years Wales has been busy putting together ‘place based’ policy that puts the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations’ at its core. Community resilience is so central to Welsh Government thinking that their documents keep their relevance even in the current pandemic situation.   In contrast to this the English government is, as a knee jerk reaction, consulting on streamlining the planning system to kick start economic growth. Yet many of the people I interviewed observed that this had been tried after the financial crash of 2008 and hadn’t worked. Planning is way too important to be done in haste although as Hal Pawson at the University of New South Wales has observed, if the Australian government wants to stimulate the economy this should be done through accelerating the delivery of social and affordable housing. Unfortunately it seems like the national government is looking to the private sector to do the investing

I’ve also been bringing together some of the research, stories and initiatives that have taken place during the pandemic in terms of the built environment, in particular housing and neighbourhoods. So much fascinating ephemera has emerged which may feel like a distant memory very soon. Clever practices are capturing the positive impact of their architecture during this time, see for example Stride Treglown’s interviews with residents at Paintworks Bristol. Others are undertaking Post Occupation Evaluation (POE) housing projects to develop evidence of the benefits of good design for residents during the pandemic.

The Social Value Toolkit for Architecture, published in July by the RIBA, offers a set of useful post occupancy evaluation (POE) questions for architects who want to chart the social value of their projects. The SVT is being further tested by developers such as TOWN on their CoHousing scheme Marmalade Lane in Cambridge and by researchers such as Mhairi McVicar at Cardiff University who is using it to chart the impact of the Grangetown Pavilion, a community hub developed in close collaboration with locals. It is going to be interesting when we start to gather comparators. In Australia, I am developing a funding bid with colleagues at the University of South Australia to develop a version building on the Social Impact Measurement Australia     and the Australian Social Value Bank which focuses on the and not on the wellbeing, and other, contributions of the built environment rather than the current focus on the delivery of services.

Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects

Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects

Crucially we need solutions that can connect what communities want with ‘the designer’s pen’.

POE is so important, not only for practice learning, but also to be able to use evidence from past projects when pitching for work.  It can also be used in the development of research specialisms –there is likely to be quite a bit of funding coming through for research on the impact of COVID for some time. Our recently published special edition of Architectural Design on Social Value in Architecture offers a range of methods for capturing social value as well as a critique (see for example Taylor and Hinds Krakani Lumi project in Tasmania).

How homes might change has been subject to much speculation. See for example Kirsty Volz’s observations on open plan living on the Parlour website.  ‘There are lots of ideas about the future, but as usual less evidence’  writes Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects who has initiated a Mass Observation project asking people to capture the view from their windows during lock down. Another example of a practice based survey, this time on the impacts of home working, is by Ben Channon at Assael Architecture.  Not only are these practices gathering really important data, they are rightfully consolidating their place as research leaders in the field.

It is possible to upload your own examples of the way in which the built environment has been adapted for COVID 19 on the Tactical Space website. This is interesting because it seems to be a collaboration between built environment professionals and digital designers. I am very pleased to see a lot more evidence of architects working with web and App designers as the creation of online tools and services has to be central to architects ‘earning while sleeping’ in the future.

Others have focused in on the way in which the profession itself has been adapting to its new circumstances. In response to a barrage of questions from architectural clients on how best to work at a distance PropTech startup Weaver, has undertaken a survey of 190 UK architects on the ‘remote studio’ and has revealed that ‘hyper-accelerated digital transformation is leading to unexpected design innovations, cost efficiencies, and more collaborative relationships with clients’.

Crucially we need solutions that can connect what communities want with ‘the designer’s pen’, a kind of on-going, non-stop community feedback loop. This is our aspiration with the research project Community Consultation for Quality of Life (currently under consideration by funders). Digital mapping is also at the heart of our collaboration with Stantec on the Building Better Places Toolkit that seeks to build social value into the world of land acquisition, the origin of most of the problems with the built environment, in my experience.

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