Social housing is often regarded as the architectural afterthought of governments tackling home shortages. But four innovative new developments, from London to Tokyo, are showing how good design and collaborative ideas can enhance the lives of more than just the privileged few.
The problems facing the global social-housing sector are vast. In many urban centres land has run out. The pots of money available to governments in even the most affluent societies are so measly that keeping on top of demand seems impossible, let alone planning for the future. The emphasis on home ownership, which spread rapidly in the 1990s, saw much of the world’s social-housing stock being sold off, essentially squeezing the sector to a pulp in the process. But there is a future for social housing. Brazil is committed to improving its favelas – in some cases entirely redeveloping sites such as Jardim Edite in São Paulo; a set of good-looking blocks that replaced a slum – despite many of those areas now being prime real estate. Staying in South America, Chilean architectural firm Elemental has won awards for its half-built homes that leave the rest up to residents to adapt to their specific needs.
There is no shortage of other creative, participatory and sustainable examples of good practice; a wide range of people doing great things. Over the following pages we profile four innovative projects in the sector. Architecture may not be the answer to the global crisis but it’s a start. The problem remains, how can these pioneering projects be scaled up to make any noticeable difference? We shall wait and see.
In a rough-and-ready corner of east London’s Bethnal Green, residents are moving into an exemplary piece of architecture. Designed by Pitman Tozer, The Colt, a development of 67 smart, peaceful homes that are surrounded by industrial apartments, scrapyards and railway arches, has a noisy raised train line as its direct neighbour.
The practice’s solution to the noise problem was to triple-glaze some units and to add “winter gardens” to others. These enclosed, glazed balconies are such good sound buffers that the passing trains are reduced to a gentle purr.
This stylish 21st-century take on the traditional mansion block was made possible by Peabody, a visionary organisation which has been commissioning, building and maintaining most of London’s best social housing for more than 150 years. As such, The Colt is a perfect example of what Peabody has learnt to pull off so effectively: good quality, well-designed housing combining affordable rents, shared ownership, market rent and private sale under one roof.
Peabody is a master of its game but then it has had some time to perfect its methodology. It was set up in 1862 by the American George Peabody, who combined his roles of banker, diplomat and philanthropist with social visionary after making England his adopted home. He said that he wanted to “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy in this great metropolis”. So even in his earliest schemes, residents benefited from separate laundry rooms and areas for children to play – unexpected novelties in the 19th century.
With the start of the slum clearances in 1875, Peabody’s portfolio swelled and properties became increasingly well-equipped over the years that followed. By 1910, residents of its Bethnal Green estate were treated to self-contained homes boasting their own toilets, and flats in the Cleverly Estate, Shepherd’s Bush, in 1928 were each fitted with a bathroom. Today, more than 70,000 people are housed in approximately 27,000 Peabody homes in the capital. With 35 projects ongoing, it is committed to building 1,000 homes a year – this new project in Bethnal Green being just one of them. Some will be funded by a grant from the Greater London Authority (gla), plus Peabody recently raised a £350m (€425m) bond that will help them develop homes for market rent and private sale, which in turn will cross-subsidise homes for social rent.
The Colt’s mixed tenure is typical of social housing developments now in the UK. “Until 2011, housing associations got 50 per cent of the cost of affordable homes from the government, then it fell to 20 per cent,” says development director Claire Bennie.
Peabody’s continued reputation for well-designed schemes is down to its commitment to quality and good architecture. The company is currently working with a roster of innovative studios such as cf Møller, Orms, Niall McLaughlin, Haworth Tompkins, HawkinsBrown, BuckleyGrayYeoman and AHMM.
None of these architects is expected to differentiate between quality for the affordable and private-sale properties in their schemes. “We would hope there would be no difference in the external appearance of affordable and private homes,” says Bennie. “We’re looking after our affordable homes for the next 150 years, so it’s crucial that they’re really well made and not cheap and cheerful.”
This attitude is in sharp contrast to some shared-ownership schemes, as new tenant Kevin Brady, a theatrical agent, discovered. “Most shared-ownership schemes are very similar and are like student housing: flimsy doors and laminate flooring.” But his apartment in The Colt “looks great,” he says. “It’s not generic architecture, someone’s put heart and soul into it.”
To help achieve this, Peabody retains its architects right up to the end of the technical design, so that the original details “don’t get watered down,” says Bennie. “It’s an architect’s nightmare that your baby, that you have carefully negotiated through planning, gets horribly treated by the process of construction,” says Luke Tozer of The Colt’s architects Pitman Tozer.
Pitman Tozer is soon to make a repeat appearance with Peabody, having been selected for its Small Projects Panel. Bennie has picked six less-established practices from more than 300 competition entries, to work on schemes of 20 units or fewer. “It’s all about nurturing up-and-coming talent because they get locked out of so many procurement processes,” she says. These architects will continue the Peabody tradition of designing schemes that make a high-value area. “If the building is classy, you’ve made a great piece of London,” says Bennie. If only all property developers had such lofty aspirations.
Monocle comment: Peabody’s model of seamlessly incorporating many forms of tenure in each development is exemplary, helping create quality homes for a range of residents.
Spain’s history of social housing kicked off in the booming 1970s when thousands of workers began flocking to its new industrial centres. The authorities realised that the construction of housing would determine the pace of the nation’s economic transformation and homes became embedded in the Spanish constitution as a fundamental right. Even low-income workers were encouraged to snap up government-subsidised properties.
Decades later, a debilitating construction bubble has given pause for thought and encouraged – or forced – regional governments to focus on the creation of smaller developments. Many architectural studios are rising to the design challenge, not least on the Balearic island of Mallorca. “We were drawn to social housing because it was less about selling real estate and more about the architecture’s social legacy,” says Juan Miguel Tizón, who together with Pep Ripoll owns Palma-based firm RipollTizon.
The pair’s development in Sa Pobla – a small village in the north of the island – has placed interaction between residents at the top of its agenda. The aim has been to put the “social” back into social housing and there’s a dash of good looks too. The 19 dwellings surround a central plaza with a series of passages and walkways ensuring residents can criss-cross easily in the development. The new tenants range from farmers from nearby potato fields to immigrant workers and local retirees. Economic disadvantage is the common denominator but cheap rents and smarter use of light with solar heating for water afford them a greater possibility of financial stability.
While the high cost of land has tempered the scale of social housing developments on the island, Tizón believes that this has had a positive effect on each building’s functionality. “Bigger developments often rely on more repetition. The smaller the edifice, the easier it is to encourage more social interaction,” he says.
Back in the island’s capital, Palma, the duo has been guided by a very different urban context. An increase in urban density has seen the Pere Garau neighbourhood gradually evolve from single blocks of family units into more condensed, collective housing. In place of three rundown buildings, a more compact structure of 18 apartments (with space for two shop-fronts below) was erected last year. Outside, the pristine white façade is perforated by a series of compact balconies. They are unevenly dispersed, hinting at the idiosyncrasies on the inside. Much like Sa Pobla, the design encourages the creation of unique interiors. “It’s important that tenants don’t feel like a simple statistic,” says Tizón. “People value particularity.”
“We wanted to create versatile spaces and it’s been interesting to see how each tenant has put their own personal stamp on their living quarters,” says Tizón. “It’s important that they see this as their home rather than just temporary accommodation.”
Monocle comment: Spain has a rich history of interesting social housing architecture; RipollTizon remains committed to developing this heritage and elevating the reputation of the sector in the process.
For a small country, New Zealand has some grown-up problems. House prices are up 20 per cent year-on-year in Auckland and show no sign of stopping. Meanwhile in post-earthquake Christchurch, a housing crisis has been caused by the loss of tens of thousands of homes that are yet to be replaced. Both cities have run out of land and nationwide, house building virtually stopped during the global economic downturn. If New Zealand is to solve its housing crisis, it has to find new and more efficient ways of building.
Enter Auckland architecture practice Strachan Group Architects (sga), whose recent work for VisionWest, a housing trust in a poor area of suburban west Auckland, is pioneering new techniques in house building. Overseen by principal Dave Strachan, the social housing project was developed with students at the Unitec Institute of Technology, where Strachan teaches and runs a programme called Studio 19. Together they have designed and built three small houses, ranging from two bedrooms (60 sq m) to four (104 sq m). They’re spare yet elegant with simple plywood interiors and board-and-batten outsides. The monopitch roofs, big windows and large decks are a vernacular with a long tradition in New Zealand, where the form is known as the “elegant shed”. Sophisticated sheds, though.
Strachan and his students have used hard-wearing materials that don’t need much work – you won’t find plasterboard here. They’re heavily insulated, designed for all-day sun in winter and generous eaves provide shade in summer.
Most importantly, they were largely built off-site in pieces and then clipped together in a couple of days. The result is faster, cheaper and better performing – the floors, for instance, are built from wood with a composite concrete overlay which stores heat during the day in winter. “The traditional method of building, with rafters and purlins and all that stuff, is way more expensive,” says Strachan. “So we’ve got a double hit. We’ve got a high-performing home but it’s also cheaper to build.”
Strachan is both an architect and a builder – he graduated in the 1970s and ran a practice through the 1980s and 1990s, before developing an interest in energy efficiency, realising that his work had much wider applications than just high-end bespoke homes. Social housing in New Zealand has traditionally been cheap but not well-designed. “We keep thinking what about those other people? We don’t see any evidence of them having any design input, at all,” says Strachan. “We bring all that modularity of prefab, plus the understanding of rain and sun and wind and try to use that in our design.”
Monocle comment: There are no quick-fix solutions to New Zealand’s housing crisis but prefab, modular homes will certainly play their part in the process, especially houses that have less impact on the environment.