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Archive for the ‘Affordable Housing’ Category

It’s now 13 years since I wrote that infamous article about mass housing in the Independent and coined the phrase “The Wimpeyfication and Barratification of Britain”. My tirade about how ill conceived some of Britain’s housing developments were taken up by Newsnight. My new found voice about urban design was given an airing and my views somewhat supported by Jeremy Paxman.

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Peter Johnson, the then Chairman of Wimpey Homes (now Taylor Wimpey) agreed with some of my comments and we ended up leading the vision on a 750 plus homes development on a long term unused brownfield site in Dunston, a largely unloved, but brilliantly located part of Gateshead.

In the 24 month design period before work started, and during land reclamation period, Gerardine and I immersed ourselves in urban design and toured the world looking at great and not so great examples. The inspiration we found in northern Europe and the Nordic countries, the urban designers Klas Tham (Western Harbour Malmo) and Jan Gehl (Copenhagen) we met, and the “human” developments like Vauban in Freiberg and Almere in the Netherlands that inspired us to put landscape, play and homezone streets ahead of architecture proved to be a stimulating education.

Our own experience of where we grew up in affordable housing in Lancashire and the experience of the team that was assembled to deliver the Staiths with us. Mark and Jane Massey from IDP, the Glen Kemp team (who had worked on Byker), Tanya Garland and the team from CoolBlue, Gordon Mungall from Arups, a Gateshead Council planning department who really showed a sense of ownership and a truly enlightened team from Wimpey North East, proved to be a “dream team”.

Those early years were full of debate and arguments over “secured by design”, “homezones”, communal barbeques, the table tennis tables in the streets, “shared pocket parks”, cycle routes and restrictions on car ownership. We really were questioning accepted practice and Gerardine and I were also being questioned by many architects and planners as to our suitability for the project. “Q…What could a couple of fashion designers know about housing ? A…We have bloomin’ well lived in them for 4 decades each and we care about the quality of life!”

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But we stuck to our guns and fought like we have fought so many times in the past. The Staiths South Bank got off to a great start; people queued to buy the first homes. The Arts Council came and researched the residents and produced the affirming “The Power of The Barbeque” showing how the generosity of the landscape was a key to the good feeling that the “pioneering” new residents were experiencing.

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The Staiths went on to win many awards, is visited by international groups and has continued to be in demand in terms of sales right the way through the housing downturn.

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We completed the design a couple of years ago now and are not on site that often. However at the end of April 2013 Gerardine and I were passing through Newcastle and popped in to the site. We left happy. To their credit Taylor Wimpey have kept up the standards set in phase 1.

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The Staiths is maturing wonderfully and judging by the amount of residents who came out to say how much they were enjoying living there and the emails that positive that keep coming in, the development is certainly a liveable one. 

Is this our greatest achievement in our 30 odd years as designers? It could just well be.

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When I am giving talks and lectures, in the questions at the end of the session, I am often asked what is the greatest attribute of a designer and a creative mind. I know that for me and my design partner Gerardine, it has been common sense.

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When I am giving talks and lectures, in the questions at the end of the session, I am often asked what is the greatest attribute of a designer and a creative mind. I know that for me and my design partner Gerardine, it has been common sense.

When asked what is my greatest achievement and design I always seem to come up with moments in the design process that revolve around common sense decisions. At HemingwayDesign we believe that design is for the common good and that design thinking can help to solve most challenges that society faces with a core philosophy of aiming to “improve things that matter in life”. It is the process of “design thinking” where we employ our human nature to use common sense.

In 2001 when we first started to design housing estates I remember a meeting where the eureka moment about common sense came to the fore.

When I wrote the infamous article in the Independent about how most mass market housing in the UK was uninspiring and not fit for purpose, the housebuilder Wimpey, approached us to put our design skills where our mouths were. This led to us being given the chance to design a 780 unit housing development: The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead. We had no experience of designing affordable housing but we had many years of being brought up and living in low cost housing.

Looking back to our own childhoods some of our best memories revolved around “playing out”. Gerardine is one of 5 sisters brought up is a “two up two down” workers cottage in Padiham, Lancashire. Hers was a home where the small back yard opened onto the “rec”, a grassed recreation space that provided the venue for play and parties. From the “rec” it was a few yards to the allotment where Gerardine learnt how to grow veg and flowers, and developed a knowledge and passion for plants that has really helped the landscape side of her career as well as giving her a healthy and rewarding hobby. From the house I was born in Morecambe, to Queens Park Flats in Blackburn with its wonderful landscape and sports facilities to our home on a new estate in Blackburn, I always had space to kick a football and mark out a mini cricket strip. Sport has since been a constant companion and source of relaxation for me as well as allowing me to share and further develop the passion with my four children who have all gained confidence and friends through their sporting activities. Sport has helped them stay fit and healthy and they have learnt so much about striving to win and learning to lose graciously and about the importance of “team” through sport. Through having outside space where they could build dens and just “lose themselves” they have all grown up to be creative and active.

When we sat and talked about what was important about home we quickly discovered that we had never bought a house but had always bought a place. It had always been the location that came before the actual property itself. We had always considered if the locale in terms of connectivity, amenities and ambience were suitable for our lifestyle and aspirations, was suitable. After determining the suitability of the locale, we would then look for a property. When we got talking to friends and family it was clear and obvious that this was the case for just about everyone. We started to find out that this philosophy of “placemaking”, where the place came before the architecture was delivered .It was common sense, and human nature to understand that your home had to be in a place where you could survive. For our ancestors there would have been no point having a nice dry cave if it wasn’t in reach of food sources and water. So despite pressure from Wimpey to show them the houses we were designing our common sense told us to change the order of doing things. After all I had been writing about housing estates being built in soulless environments in places they should never have been built.

From then on in, the process of identifying existing practices that flew squarely in the face of common sense became de rigueur.

We drew on our own experience of an active outdoors childhood and the joy that we were having with our children through being fortunate to be able to afford a large garden to make the bold statement of designing the play and recreation spaces before designing the houses. This nearly got us kicked off the project , Wimpey hadn’t heard anything like it. One of the first things at The Staiths we wanted to do was to build play areas that were challenging, creative and far more exciting than a few chickens on springs and a “health and safety” approved climbing frame. We showed the council play officer an example of an exciting play area that we had come across in a wonderful development in Freiberg, Germany, made simply from old trees that were left in their natural state for kids to balance on and a generous helping of sand. We wanted play areas to encourage “free range kids”. I remember the council saying that they loved our concept of “free range kids” but couldn’t countenance a play area with sand all over the ground. This wasn’t about the danger of dogs and cats soiling the sand but another very strange reason was given. The council play officer proceeded to say that “Babies will crawl around the sand and eat it”. “But that isn’t a problem”, I replied. “We can replace it; sand is only £1.99 a bag at the local DIY store”. I then proceeded to search on the web for “Child eats sand and dies”. Try it – it’s not something that throws up any obvious returns, but common sense had already told me that.

We had a much more worrying run in with the local Police, who have a say in planning permission based on their “Secured by Design” initiative (www.securedbydesign.com). We had the idea to deliver “home zones” (streets designed for pedestrians, children playing and cyclists). Rather than build driveways, we planned to put the parking around the side of homes, along the gable ends. In doing this, we believed the streets would become more animated, the community would pass each other more in the streets and it would be inherently safer and friendlier. The police didn’t agree saying that the cars would get broken into. I said that I was more interested in my kids safety than that of the contents of my car, to which the policeman replied “but you have got that wrong, once they have broken into your car they will be back to assault your kids “. This sounded preposterous to me and I also had a hunch that modern technology, such as central locking and micro chips in car music systems that rendered them useless when removed, must have had an impact on car crime numbers.

I was bang on. By simply checking on the Home Offices Crime Statistics website I was able to show how dramatic the decreases in car crime had been.

We had turned accepted thinking on its head and that opened up an avenue for real change. The physical design process was easy. We were using common sense.

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There are a few tonnes of hot air being let off on the subject of the severe housing crisis that we are in. However, a little science would go a long way. What is needed is a thorough appraisal of where we can build and what existing properties can be brought back to life or re imagined as residential properties. London needs mapping in terms of:

The densities of micro areas of the city compared to the access to open space, leisure, education, health and transport to create a accurate picture of what extra population these areas can take to ensure that they remain liveable and not overburdened and under resourced. Only then can we accurately look at where to extend, build on, infill, re-build and assign change of use.

Secondly we need to know how many empty spaces there are above shops, how many empty offices, retail spaces, industrial buildings could provide places for intrepid homesteaders to colonise. Once we know the extent of this opportunity we need legislation that allows change of use without the current prevarication.

Thirdly and perhaps more controversially we need to look at where we should be extending what is considered as London. Particularly east along the Thames there are well connected areas towards Dartford and Purfleet that apart from the excellent transport links, on the whole, don’t feel like they belong to the vibrancy of London and its suburbs. A sea of pylons, scrap metal yards and foul looking faceless housing estates and offices don’t make for happy desirable places. We have a history of building new suburban excellence, from Hampstead Garden Suburb to all the hubs along the Metropolitan line. We can do that again.

Once we have this scientifically researched picture of where the hundreds of thousands of homes that we need can and should be located then we need to do the harder bit. Fund it . The most obvious way has to be to look at the billions that are held in local authority pension funds, pension funds that are often invested in equities overseas and often in equities that do not benefit Londoners. If some more of these billions were invested in council housing, and by gosh is council housing and shared ownership needed right now, then we would be putting money into all our futures and ameliorating the current difficulties that the pension fund generation have put young generations in. Give councils and housing associations access to funds and help them unlock their own assets, and they will build as fast as you like because their goal is also more homes. They will not starve the market like commercial house builders have been known to do. Surely its worth losing a couple of percentage points in terms of pension fund yields to ensure that one of the most important contributors to peoples well being, housing, is invested in?

If we can crack this one with Local Authority Pension funds we could find private pension funds and institutional investors flocking to invest in housing. Currently in the UK only 1% of institutional investment goes into residential. For many of our near European neighbors its 15%. In the UK we invest 3.5% of GDP in new housing in Germany its 6%.

It is shameful that we put housing so low down our priorities. Surely it’s time to realise that housing is so much more important than hedge funds.

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Leigh Park, near Havant, in Hampshire  has a terrible reputation. The website chavtowns.co.uk starts off

“Once the largest council estate in Europe, Leigh Park has a long tradition of chavness and could well be the origin of all Chavs upon this Earth. (were there any evidence that anyone’s moved out since 1959)”

I don’t like the term “Chav” and the website goes on and becomes much nastier.

Leigh Park is the result of re housing families from the WW11 bombing of Portsmouth. 27,500 people live there and the reputation would have you believe that all 27,000 are out setting fire to vagrants on benches as happened a few years ago.

My 14 year old was playing a match against a local Leigh Park team and during his pre match training / warm up I went on a run to explore Leigh Park. Yes the shopping parades are tad bleak in parts, and there is far too much litter, but there has clearly been significant investment in community facilities and there is no excuse for kids to be bored, with  great  facilities, play areas and wonderful wooded areas with streams to play in and den building opportunities a plenty. Yet the youth of Leigh Park have a terrible reputation amongst those that don’t live there.

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Anyhow I came back from my run, thinking that Leigh Park’s reputation as a “hell hole” was not deserved at all. Yes the 50s, 60s and 70s flats and  houses are mostly unattractive (with lots of grim pebbledash), but it certainly wasn’t threatening nor did it feel like it needed raising to the ground as so many people from outside the area often comment it should be!

However the football match clouded my view. In 19 years of watching my kids play football I have never seen anything like it. If some of the local kids’ foul language on the pitch wasn’t enough then the latent violence exuded from the parents and the blatant cheating from the local referee and linesman (who cheered and clenched their fists when their team scored!) was very sad indeed. At times it felt like watching another species. All human decency and morals seemed to have been replaced by aggression, nastiness and a reveling in getting one over “the opposition” at all costs. It seemed sub human behaviour and left me numb and sad and wondering if there was any hope. What had made these these people become so disenfranchised? Whether it’s the equality gap, or just a breakdown in human values, as a society we had better sort it out!

I am not going to elaborate other than to say that I left thinking it may not matter how much money is invested by a council and support agencies in a deprived area, if the parents lead by bad example, the kids are likely to grow into equally nasty people.

Sad sad Sunday indeed.

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There are a number of historical social housing estates, built philanthropically that I have had the pleasure to visit, Lever’s (as in soap) Port Sunlight, Joseph Rowntree’s (as in sweets) New Earswick Estate in York and Bournville (as in chocolate) in Birmingham.

All are wonderfully liveable estates that have stood the test of time, been well maintained and are without doubt desirable.

They show how it is possible to do “social housing” and to avoid the pitfalls that result in vast sums being spent on regeneration. Housing providers and planners need to regularly visit these precedents to remind themselves to stop delivering the dross that has become commonplace over the past few decades.

It was heartening to hear that Kraft (the new American owners of Cadbury) have understood Cadbury’s heritage an decided to make its “global chocolate centre” at its historical home, Bournville.

Great decision and I am sure that the Cadbury employees are going to enjoy working in this environment that the founders of the brand left as a wonderful housing legacy…

For more information on Bournville click here
And here are some pics…

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In 1982 after an “experiment” of living in London, Mrs H and myself came across an old, unmodernized 3 bed Victorian terraced house in Wembley for sale at £22,500. We were close to the 10 per cent deposit needed to get a mortgage and with some help from our parents and grandparents we cobbled together enough and then sold some of the furniture that was being left to pay the conveyance fees.

Like many young couples owning a property was something that we felt was a must. We saw home ownership as a way to “stop wasting money” on renting, as a cheaper alternative to renting, and as a way to enjoy a bit creative home improvement. (more…)

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It’s been about 4 years since I last visited Poundbury, and in those 4 years I seem to be reading and hearing fewer criticisms of “Prince Charles housing estate”. However it is still held up by many in the housing industry as being pastiche at its worst.

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