New London Architecture

Wellbeing and space standards

Tuesday 05 October 2021

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Rory Olcayto

Writer and Critic
Pollard Thomas Edwards

Phil Coffey

Director
Coffey Architects

Olaide Oboh

Director
First Base

Rory Olcayto​, Writer and Critic, Pollard Thomas Edwards

The question of space standards in commercial to residential conversions raises bigger questions about what we want our cities to be. In essence, it asks how we want the space in our cities to be used; it asks, what are cities for? 

If our high streets and town centres see their building stock converted into homes, so that residences dominate the townscape at the expense of public and commercial architecture, cities will be utterly changed. And not necessarily for the better. Buildings where people once congregated, whether to work or to shop, but essentially to be with others, will effectively become private space. 

As Simon Jenkins has pointed out in a recent article, a building need only be vacant for three months before it can be greenlit for conversion to housing. That means something like one in seven shops in the current covid-ravaged high street landscape is eligible for conversion. 

The sense of disorientation would be huge. The impact on mental health arising from these changes, is barely being discussed. Buildings, and their uses, ground us, help us understand where we live – changing their function, and effectively closing off access to them, will change the very nature of the places we consider ‘local’.

Another wellbeing issue we need to consider is the notion if how much space we think is enough. Driven by London’s forever rising land values, architectural design culture has, for the past couple of decades, has got a bit too excited by the prospect of designing smaller homes, legitimising this largely negative idea in the process. ‘How small can you go’ has become a ‘thing’ – leading to companies like Pocket Living (a developer that hires great architects to make stylish, highly functional – but very small – homes). The end results have landed RIBA awards. But the flipside of this ‘small can be great’ culture, are tiny ‘office to resi’ homes in in totally inappropriate buildings.

Whether designed by great architects or not ‘going small’  is an unwelcome distraction. We need to support legislated space standards that specify generosity. Indeed one such example, a 14sqm ‘double studio’ for two people, caused such an outcry last year that the government was forced to rewrite its planning legislation to ensure at minimum, 37m² of floorspace for a single occupier is provided in line with the Nationally Described Space Standard.

However, underlying the development of these just-plain-wrong conversions is a wider issue to do with re-use: put simply, as an industry, we just have to get better at retrofit. Retrofit is the new paradigm for design, whether we like it or not. It’s beyond debate. We just have start using our existing stock more readily and start using it well. We need to think about energy efficiency, quality, about well-made spaces. We need a better handle on how to use colour and texture appropriately. We need to consider light and arcadian rhythms (as Phil Coffey has noted) and create dual aspect homes that people want to live in. 

Phil Coffey, Director, Coffey Architects

Architecture is in and of itself a vehicle for wellbeing, it is the enclosures that we spend approximately 90% of our lives in and at some degree, either separates us or connects us to the natural environment. 

Over the last 18 months we have all collectively become much more conscious of the places we inhabit and how architecture affects our physical and mental health. Enrique Miralles, architect of the Scottish Parliament once said 'In the end…we would all rather be outside'. Perhaps the best role architecture can now play is to reconnect us with nature, reconnect us to our natural rhythms and the passing of the sun.

To create our future cities we must reconsider the importance of passive solar design, the thickness of elevations, the distance between buildings, their orientation, how materials suck and reflect light and how our buildings use energy to provide comfort. In essence refocus our efforts on the lived experience in the light that architecture captures to reduce our carbon footprint and make our lives healthier. 

It can be said that those who are more aware of their environment, care more for it. Architecture and the study of enclosure now has a wonderful opportunity to link our reinvigorated need for healthy buildings and the urgent need to tackle climate change to make a real difference in people’s everyday lives.

Olaide Oboh​, Director of Partnerships, ​First Base

Healthy communities are fundamental to creating places where people can succeed and thrive. It cannot be right to deliver, for example, a £500m development and have no positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the communities around the site. And after the past 18 months, this couldn’t be more important.
 
That is why the role that the delivery team plays in encouraging healthy communities needs to better articulated, needs to live outside of s106 agreements and needs to be communicated to the community.
 
The delivery team should focus on three key roles:
  • Identifying
  • Empowering
  • Building partnerships
 
We need to understand the barriers? What impacts on the health and wellbeing of local people? Is it access to health services? Is it physical and mental health? What issues are commonplace? Are these lifestyle or societal? Identifying the barriers helps us to better understand and address these meaningfully.
 
We need to work to empower people  by working together to discuss short, medium and long term solutions to the issues identified. By providing training, data and support networks to local communities, we can ensure that local people are empowered to take ownership, to advocate for change and to make organisations accountable to deliver. 
 
It is not possible for the delivery team to solve all the issues themselves. But they have a vital role in building partnerships and corralling agencies together to find workable solutions to the challenges. Can we work with the NHS to deliver healthy eating workshops for parents? Can we partner with a local agency to promote talking therapies? Can we design the buildings to ensure that everyone has access to green space?
 
Healthy communities result in healthy places, which contribute to real long-lasting regeneration. We all have a responsibility to work together to make this a reality.
 

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Rory Olcayto

Writer and Critic
Pollard Thomas Edwards

Phil Coffey

Director
Coffey Architects

Olaide Oboh

Director
First Base


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