New London Architecture

Delivering affordable – quality – housing

Thursday 14 January 2021

A group of housing specialists presented their thoughts on how we can deliver more – and better – affordable housing this week against a backdrop of Covid-19 highlighting the sector’s crucial contribution to the city, perhaps more than ever before.

This was ‘Delivering Affordable Housing’, which included best practice examples being built across London and which was kicked off by Prisca Thielmann of Maccreanor Lavington. Thielmann showed a number of projects at different scales and delivered through different models, including Dujardin Mews in Enfield, designed with Karakusevic Carson Architects. With an immediate context of a local school on a long, rectangular piece of ‘left over land’, the scheme delivered more units than was in the council brief, along with a new playground and school drop-off area. ‘We were working to a tight budget, but we took great care to identify some special moments to add something interesting and of a scale that residents can easily engage with’, Thielmann said.

Swan Housing Group project director Neil Baron said his company, which has a secured pipeline of 8000 homes, 15 per cent of which will be affordable, had also delivered more units at Blackwall Reach near Canary Wharf, tripling the number without grant. ‘What we're trying to do here is create a place where people actually want to be for its own sake’, he said, ‘rather than a place where people want to be because it's convenient to get somewhere else’. The success of the housing was not just about the numbers, said Baron, or indeed the layouts inside the schemes, but about placemaking taken ‘in its purest sense’; creating places where people want to live, work and play. The project includes public squares, public art, a community hub, a replacement school, mosque, commercial units and local housing office. Swan is continuing to up its capacity to build this project and others by building a new factory to deliver steel framed housing alongside its one focusing on cross laminated timber schemes.

Blackwall Reach Mill Green CGI
BeFirst managing director Pat Hayes provided an update from Barking and Dagenham and the delivery vehicle he fronts, set up to ‘drive regeneration’ across the borough and towards creating ‘genuinely affordable’ housing. ‘Our mission is to deliver housing that ordinary working Londoners can afford to live in, but really good quality housing’, said Hayes. ‘One of the problems that we've created over the last 20 years is the creation of lots of fairly poor quality – both subsidised housing and market sale – in that rush for numbers. We want to deliver at pace, but we also want to deliver quality’. Hayes suggested the mission was in part ‘back to the future’ in terms of ‘municipality’ and being confident in pushing and ‘disrupting’ the market to deliver quality at pace, learning from the past ‘both in the way that you treat people but also the way you design it’.

Finally, Levitt Bernstein’s Jo McCafferty said she had been heartened by the industry having upped its game on the quality question, certainly with regard to local authorities. ‘The conversation really seems to have shifted very significantly over the last couple of years’, she said. But challenges remain, including on bringing communities along during Covid, despite receiving a 93% positive ballot recently on one project in Tower Hamlets. ‘But we are seeing a real stretch in resource across planning teams’, she said. ‘The government really needs to support that with funding. That is the real challenge’.

Discussion around the topic included questions over to what degree 80% of already expensive prices in an inflated London market can be seen as ‘affordable’, with a reported need to pay more attention to rental prices and affordability of housing for tube drivers or nurses, for example. Another issue raised was concerning measurement of the wellbeing of residents through post-occupancy studies, one of which Swan is conducting at Blackwall Reach at the moment but which has already shown positive reactions to the winter gardens element of the project. ‘You really need to learn from them and listen to what people are saying about what’s important to them’, said Baron.
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