New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Simon Henley

Tuesday 08 November 2022

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hi, Simon. How are you doing?
 
Simon Henley  
I'm well, thank you, yeah, good. Wet, but well!
 
David Taylor  
Yes, everything's wet at the moment. I wanted to talk to you about your recent wins. And chief amongst those being the Neave Brown Award that you picked up from the RIBA for your Hackney scheme. In the context of the client of that scheme winning an award as well for that project, I wanted to ask you, firstly, what went through your head when you found out you'd won? What were your emotions? But also, generally, what awards mean to businesses like yours; practices like yours? Are they a boon to winning further work, for example?
 
Simon Henley  
Well, on the first question, it was wonderful to win the Neave Brown Award and whether it associates our work, in a way with his work and the fact that he won the Royal Gold Medal late, and people reevaluated and acknowledged the contribution that he had made, and he and others have made under Sydney Cook's time, at Camden; all hugely important. And I guess it puts the work of ours and others of this generation temporally in a wider context where, you know, it's judged more rigorously, than perhaps work is judged, day to day, I guess, in our value system. And the fact that it acknowledges affordable housing... well, firstly it acknowledges housing, but also more specifically, the quality of affordable housing. Once again, we are a generation architects who realize that that is one of the most important things architects can do. So, to get the credit for that, get the acknowledgement of that is really wonderful. Humbling.
 
David Taylor  
And I suppose it acknowledges the importance of the typology - the sector -the importance of affordable housing to London as well, by so doing, right?
 
Simon Henley  
Yeah, absolutely. And I think the politics of making and delivering affordable housing. In a way, this last decade has been...there's a whole string of very good schemes, but the economics of doing it and the policy context in which it's done means that perhaps we're actually at the time where it's going to get harder again. So: good to remind people that we need to invest in it. There's huge pressure to value-engineer projects; there's huge pressures to procure projects in ways which are going to be challenging. And therefore, the long-term value of what gets built - it doesn't matter how many regulations, how many policies and how much sustainable ambition is thrown at projects, the reality is in a way always being eroded. So, we need to fight really hard for the very, very best durable, socially valuable, housing.
 
David Taylor  
It sounds like you're slightly pessimistic about the upcoming years, particularly in this sector. Would that be a good characterization?
 
Simon Henley  
I think there's a lag between when there's been the sweet spot - the policy context has been good, economic context has been good. And certainly, for us, now, this acknowledgement comes at a point where I think the whole industry, let's say, of building housing is going to be put under huge pressure and scrutinized for what might be perceived to be value for money, and in the process devalued. And that obviously is going to affect not only people's experience of living in these buildings, but their long-term capacity to kind of endure. If that makes some sense.
 
David Taylor  
It does. And to the second part of my question, does the act of winning an award result in a spurt of interest and clients? Or does it, as I was reading somewhere recently, conversely puts you into a different realm, and people that might have approached you suddenly might think you're either too busy or you have put your prices up, for example?
 
Simon Henley  
I think in the context of the Neave Brown Award, it's too early to tell. It only happened a couple of weeks ago.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. But generally?
 
Simon Henley  
Has it helped? Yeah, I think, on balance, it helps. Ours is kind of a modest practice. And it's been that way for 25 years. So, we're not necessarily looking to grow, so to speak. You want to be a stable, thoughtful, professional practice. And yes, you do rely on reasonably ambitious clients to get to make a building. The architect can get the project a certain distance, but you do need the ambition of the client.
 
David Taylor  
Which brings us to the client in this particular case in the Hackney scheme, the Benyon Estate. They also won the RIBA's Client of the Year title, for this. What makes a good client for you in this area, and in all areas that you work in?
 
Simon Henley  
Well, in this context, slightly, slightly more complex. The client really was Thornsett and the Benyon estate. Thornsett the developer and Benyon Estate the landowner, but it's a little bit more complicated that, as well (laughs). And there was also the Trustees of the school or Governors of the school. And in the background, the ESFA [Education and Skills Funding Agency], although I think they played the most modest, least influential part, but they were technically part of the client. The Education and Skills Funding authority is effectively the wing of the education department that procures and funds schools? But back to your question, remind me, what was the question?
 
David Taylor  
What makes a good client? Generally?
 
Simon Henley  
Yeah, well, a good client, probably right now, the most important thing a good client can do is see the project through, with one architect.
 
David Taylor  
 Yeah. 
 
Simon Henley  
I mean, any scenario that involves delivery architects, executive architects, things like that, which seems to be, perhaps it's always been around, but it's something we're encountering more, inherently causes all sorts of issues. Obviously, it's going to affect the quality of the building, full stop. So, I would say, if I was asking a client to be a good client, that would be one thing. Just see it through, with one architect!
 
David Taylor  
But, I mean, presumably, you need things like 'chemistry', as well, between you? You need to get on, right, as well?
 
Simon Henley  
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, a good client is an engaged client, an intelligent client, probably prepared to take an element of risk in terms of planning. If you did everything by the book, then everything would look the same. So, you know, good buildings are generally unusual in some way, shape, or form. And that unusualness again, requires the commitment of a client. So yeah, the best clients, are the ones who are challenging. They're engaged in the design process, and they challenge us. And it's a really good discourse, a really good dialogue.
 
David Taylor  
Before I ask you about what's next, just one last question on the Hackney project - do you go back? Do you pass, and see the kids at the school, and hear them laughing and singing and having a good time? What do you do with buildings that you've completed? How do you visit them?
 
Simon Henley  
(laughs) Well, of course, one of the things you have to do in a way is let them go! (laughs) You know, they have a life of their own. But having said that, one of the real privileges of finishing a building is returning to the building. And, of course, some of that is, is actually talking to the people who use the building in terms of getting some post-occupancy feedback. But also, just the mechanics of showing people the building, whether it's people writing about the building or whether it's awards juries, or whether it's other prospective clients - every time that gives you an opportunity to see the school in use. And this year, we've seen the school a lot (laughs) And it's a joy. It's also just up the road. So I often find myself going via the school; the perfect time to arrive, of course, is about four o'clock in the afternoon, when all the kids come out and the parents are sat on the bench waiting for the kids and that side of it really comes to life.
 
David Taylor  
And that makes you proud, presumably? 
 
Simon Henley  
Yeah. Well, the school is doing so much more. Of course, it's there to educate the kids and for them to learn. But essentially, it's social infrastructure. It is part of building community. It's helping them make friends, whether it's the kids or the parents. You see that playing out in real time, and real space.
 
David Taylor  
So lastly, I notice Piano Works has got planning, a bit up the road. Could you tell our readers about that project and anything else that's got your interest in terms of upcoming schemes?
 
Simon Henley  
Well, I guess there's a mixture of projects on site at the moment. There's a scheme for NHG [Notting Hill Genesis] originally commissioned by Land Securities, which will become 100% affordable housing, right in Westminster, near Victoria, near Buckingham Palace, and so that's on site. It is a refurbishment, with some small additions, of late 19th century housing. We've got an office building on the south bank on site on Barge Street, and we are just embarking on the construction of a scheme in Tower Hamlets. And then, yes, we've got a number of schemes in the LLDC, one of which is on site, also student housing in two phases. So there's a mix of housing projects, office projects, refurbishments.
 
David Taylor  
 And Piano Works. What's that all about?
 
Simon Henley  
 So Piano Works is a student housing scheme. Well, it's a mixed use scheme, but with a base of student housing, and then workspace for artists. And forms with Stour Space, which is the first phase of that project. It's a whole urban block, basically, of new housing and workspace for UAL students and graduates, including incubator spaces and space for other arts organizations. It will be trying to be in the spirit of the area, but Fish Island is going through huge changes and almost all of the original current artists are being replaced by housing of one sort or another. But what we are really trying to do is maintain a ground floor and a number of standalone buildings, for artists and arts communities.

David Taylor
Great. Well, I look forward to that winning all the awards as well. And you wallowing in delight... (laughs)  
...and multiple extra projects coming through the door. So, thanks for your time, Simon. It's been good to talk and catch up!
 
Simon Henley  
Thanks David!


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



Recent

Five minutes with... Nicky Gavron

News

Five minutes with... Nicky Gavron

David Taylor catches up with New Londoner of the Year Nicky Gavron for a quick reaction following a standing ovation to...

New London Awards 2022 - Winners announced

News

New London Awards 2022 - Winners announced

Awards were presented across 14 different categories and special prizes, including the New Londoner of the Year, People’...

Retrofitting: keys to success

News

Retrofitting: keys to success

Deepki, sponsors of the Retrofit category at the New London Awards conclude that data, collaboration and embracing the c...

Stay in touch

Upgrade your plan

Choose the right membership for your business

Billing type:
All prices exclude VAT
View options for Personal membership