New London Architecture

The 21st Century Architects Department

Friday 04 September 2020

Pat Hayes

Pat Hayes

Managing Director, Be First

One only has to flick through a copy of Pevsner’s architectural guides for any British county to be struck by the number of great buildings from days gone by that were designed by Council architects departments. Indeed, in the post war years, City Architects and their practices were among the stars of the profession and were as close to household names as architects can be in Britain.

As with so much else, Mrs Thatcher and her Government put an end to Councils building things. As a graduate trainee in the Technical Services department of a London Council in the mid-1980s I distinctly recall the Borough Architect, who had been relegated the role of departmental admin head, sat morosely smoking in his office the majority of the day.

For the next 35 years a few mainly ageing architects have lingered on in Council employment, but their roles have been limited to refurbishment work, the odd public toilet or small-scale school extension. 

Where Councils have built either homes or other buildings, the obsession with cost-led tendering has meant design and build have been the norm, with either estates departments or external consultants taking on the client role. 

The accepted orthodoxy that the private sector knew best, and that bid price was everything has led to vast sums of money wasted on fees and contract variations. Councils are neither managing nor controlling their contractors, and consultants are managing consultants.

This transfer of control to contractors, and the fact that Councils no longer even have the capacity to be an expert client has also led to a lot of, to be frank, unimaginative and poor-quality buildings. This is evidenced in a great deal of the schools and social care facilities that have been built over the past twenty years, with cheap brick and primary coloured cladding being the vernacular of far too many public buildings.

In Barking & Dagenham we like to do things differently. Here we look to the future but with an eye to the past, much like the Councils of inter and post-war Britain we are building houses at scale for working people to live in. Our aim being to once again, make publicly owned housing a tenure of choice, not just last resort.

To do this we have to get the design right and create not just great homes, but great places. We cannot rely solely on design and build and leave everything to the contractors, we need great architects and to be able to client and guide them effectively.

For us, the greatest challenge is producing good buildings at a price which allows us to rent them at levels ordinary Londoners can afford. This means pursuing an elusive holy grail of high-quality specification, efficient layout, low build cost and good appearance. Knowing when to spend money and when to economise, how to maximise simplicity of build and ease of maintenance being key to us.

Plans for a greener Gascoigne estate
When Be First started out on this journey a couple of years ago, we procured a framework of experienced tier 1 contractors and through design competitions and other means a number of highly talented architect practices, ranging from small and young to larger and more established studios.

What we soon discovered however is that without detailed expert guidance from the client side, the architects were struggling to produce designs which could be contained within our budgets. Unhelpfully, the contractor’s response was to butcher the design quality and ask to appoint their own architects.

Our response has been to build up our own design capacity, allowing us to produce feasibility studies, initial designs and more robust briefs in-house which can then be handed over to external architects to turn into detailed design. Our design team are then able to interface with the contractors to oversee the creation of an affordable building, taking on the design guardian and critical friend role, a challenge we’ve previously faced when relying on external consultants. This oversight from Stage 0 to delivery will provide a golden thread of design development and management.

Additionally, we’re also developing our ability to carry out all our own preliminary viability and site assessment work. This will enable us to respond quicker and save a significant amount of money in fees, as well as the need to procure consultants every time we want to consider a new site and assess its potential.

Being embedded in the borough, the design team knows the place and its residents intimately and will bring this knowledge to all our projects. This will be achieved through early stage design work, site briefs and placemaking and urban design initiatives.

The growth in our in-house design capacity does not come at the expense of working with external architects. We relish working with small or large, domestic and international practices that share our values, especially in relation to innovative design, sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint and delivering social value. We have a strong architectural framework which we procure all our projects from. Increasing our in-house design capacity will only strengthen our ability to nurture and support the development of the smaller practices on the framework.

During a recent packed virtual event at the NLA, we launched our design guidance that sets out the way we work, our ambitions and specific guidance for our new build developments. The guidance is a suite of documents that covers design, construction and public realm principles. They are the culmination of a year-long collaboration with our design and technical teams, contractors and supply chain and set out how we will achieve high quality and economic design to deliver affordable homes at scale.

In times past you would generally find the borough’s architect department staffed by older white men, but at Be First I am pleased to say that this is not the case. Our design team is diverse, and much like the wider organisation we strive to include a mix of individuals from a variety of backgrounds and will continue to do so as the team grows. Helping us create better buildings and meet the challenges of the 21stcentury. 

As we build out 500 homes a year for the foreseeable future we will be doing so knowing that our in house design team, our 21stcentury take on the ‘Architects Department’, have the expertise to squeeze value out of our consultants and contractors (in the nicest possible way of course) and ensure that great design is embodied at every single stage of the journey.

 

 

 



Pat Hayes

Pat Hayes

Managing Director, Be First


London Boroughs

#NLALondonBoroughs


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