New design philosophy needed to create sustainable communities

Whenever a conference is held to discuss delivering sustainable communities, the usual suspects of Poundbury andBedZED are generally trotted out as exemplars and there is much hand wringing about why these sort of projects can't be delivered on a wider basis.

However, the tone of the latest meeting of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Design and Innovation was rather different. To little disagreement, Poundbury was characterised as offering nothing for future development by Professor Peter Smith, formerly RIBA's vice president for sustainable development. He said sustainable communities needed to take into account the CO2 reduction demands of the energy white paper, but Poundbury's energy efficient specifications were not what they should be. Although planning minister Keith Hill cited Poundbury as an example of a project where design codes have been used successfully, many at the meeting believed that the neat and tidy "roses over the door" aesthetic is regressive and unsuitable for future communities except in specific historic settings. More contentiously, there was some rare criticism of BedZED. Although its energy efficient measures were praised, Chris Williamson, a partner of architects Weston Williamson, was backed by Nick Johnson, development director of Urban Splash, in suggesting the "twee", "hippy commune" architecture of Bedzed and other demonstration projects did little for the marketing or wider appeal of sustainable developments.

Instead the meeting explored how the design of sustainable communities could be made contemporary, less likely to decay, give wider lifestyle choice and, importantly, be marketed in a way that would attract substantial interest from financiers.

The importance of consumer choice was repeatedly emphasised, both in terms of offering more attractive higher density housing and design solutions which would be flexible enough to enable estates to adapt rather than decay or fall out of fashion. Some innovative solutions were put forward.

David Marks, director of Marks Barfield Architects, acknowledged that tower blocks in the UK have been associated with run down, dangerous estates, which have not stood the test of time. But he argued that experience from Hong Kong and New York showed that where they have been well maintained and designed with high quality amenities, they are a popular choice. By contrast, British versions were a failure, as shown by CABE's survey two years ago which showed 84% of people did not want to live in them.

"Tower blocks have a terrible image," he said. " People think of them as derelict blocks. The real issue is to address perceptions."

Marks said changing peoples' perceptions was vital to accommodate the predicted growth of urban populations, and that tall buildings had a significant contribution to make. He has calculated that his

Skyhouse design could house twice as many people (250 dwellings per hectare) as four storey developments while providing the same amenities in twice as much open space.

It would overcome criticisms that towers, in Britain at least, tend to be isolated developments, characterised by poor public realm. Accommodation would be built on top of "podiums" which have education, retail and community facilities on the ground floor, so linking the buildings to the surrounding area. The design of the tower with three petal-shaped blocks would allow wind to circulate so preventing public realm from becoming windswept and barren. Wind turbines would provide enough energy to heat and light communal areas, keeping the maintenance charge down and providing funds for the upkeep of Skyhouses' parkland setting.He is currently seeking sites in Lambeth, Newham and Southwark to test whether a new generation of towers would be attractive enough for significant numbers to live there out of choice.

Plan of Central Oakridge

Image supplied by HTA Architects

A more radical solution to providing increased choice and ensuring estates do not fall derelict was provided by Ben Derbyshire, chairman of HTA Architects. His vision characterised in his company's Oakridge Central scheme in Basingstoke, built for housing association Sentinel, is that new construction techniques will prevent housing becoming run down. The development, which has been chosen by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as a demonstration project for the sustainable communities plan, consists of two storey houses arranged in perimeter blocks, with three storey town houses and flats along main streets and at landmark locations, built at 40-60 dph. It is seeking to establish a more legible, integrated, mixed use, traffic-calmed place. In addition to new homes, the project will provide a community centre, church, pub and shops focused around a "high street" and central square to serve the wider neighbourhood.

Housing at Oakridge Central

Image supplied by HTA Architects

However, Derbyshire said the real innovation had been in construction methods. The units are built with a lightweight steel frame, pre-fabricated off site with the ground floors clad in brick and the upper floors in render, interspersed with cedar cladding. Apart from the basic box with plumbing and wiring, Derbyshire said most components come out of a flat pack and can be chosen and changed depending on people's choice and requirements.

"The dream is a building constantly renewed or altered by occupants according to their needs," so that the estate will never need refurbishing, he said. "We see the future of housing as a mass customisable consumer good, not something bought for investment purpose."

While these projects offer possible solutions to some of the challenges in the government's communities plan, Urban Splash's Nick Johnson warned that a more constructive dialogue with City financiers rather than design innovation will be the most important factor in realising government policies. Speaking as director of a company which is unusual in placing high quality design at the of its commercial strategy, he was frustrated that he was continually giving presentations to rooms of architects rather than investors as well.

"Design is important but if you don't engage the fund managers in the City it's an uphill battle," he said. "Funders and designers don't speak the same language. Architects are seen as the ponytail brigade, and different to suits. What's needed is about commonality of language so when people say 'I want a nice street', funders can see another quarter per cent in the yield."

While Urban Splash had demonstrated that investment in mixed use development and quality design can pay commercially, Johnson said similar effort had to be put into building a case for environmentally sustainable buildings. In some respects he said the sustainability agenda was already becoming viable. For example, Urban Splash has installed combined heat and power technology for the first time at its Budenburg Haus scheme in Altrincham. Devising new ways of billing customers rather than installing meters had made the technology no more expensive than conventional systems. Previously, though, CHP installation had been stalled by the prohibitive £1,000 cost of meters.

In other respects, though, the incentives for energy efficiency have not been found. With a payback time of at least 30 years, there is no commercial incentive to install the photovoltaic technology.

"We make more money by working with good architects, but the question is whether the same thing can be done with sustainable development," Johnson said.

Report by James Dark, January 2004