Sustainable Estates: ASH Presentation at the Centre for Alternative Technology (Part 2)

Part 2 of ASH’s presentation at the conference on Housing Justice, held at the Centre for Alternative Technology as part of the Small is Beautiful festival in Machynlleth, Wales, 8-11 June, 2017.

‘Economics’, meaning the management of a community’s resources, including those of the household, and ‘ecology’, the study of the relationships between organisms and their physical environment, are both derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning ‘household’. Rather than worship at the altar of regeneration, where communities are sacrificed to the demands of profit, we need to realign our understanding of economics with the notion of sustainability – at the centre of which is the household. Sustainability is the interrelationship of the economy, our communities and the environment.

Contrary to what we are constantly told, housing estates are neither inherently flawed in their design and construction, nor come to the end of their natural lifespan. Rather, through the process of managed decline, estates such as Central Hill in Crystal Palace have been deliberately run down by the local authority, in this case Lambeth Labour council. The resulting state of disrepair is then cited by those same authorities to support their argument that there is no alternative to demolition and redevelopment. The subsequent demonisation of council housing by the media as places of crime and anti-social behavior leads to the wider cultural acceptance of the estate demolition programme by the general public.

Your Central Hill Estate

Above left is a photograph tweeted by the local ward councillor and former Lambeth Cabinet Member for Housing, claiming that mould is one of the reasons Central Hill estate must be demolished. While to the right is a photograph tweeted by PRP, Lambeth’s chosen architectural practice, accompanied with the question: ‘Would you walk down this alleyway?’ In response to this concerted campaign of denigration, here is ASH’s alternative narrative confronting the propaganda of estate demolition with an alternate narrative of estate living:

These last two slides were taken on Central Hill estate at a yearly event ASH organises called Open Garden Estates, which a dozen estates across London hosted last year. Open Garden Estates is designed to challenge the negative propaganda around council estates by inviting the public to visit, walk around and meet the resident communities. It’s also an opportunity for residents to organise and promote their campaigns of resistance to demolition, as well as make contact with other estate communities facing the same threat to their homes.

Case Study 1: Central Hill Estate

To explore what a sustainable future for our housing estates might look like, ASH has spent the last two years working with residents on estates, investigating the social, economic and environmental consequences of estate regeneration, and proposing design alternatives to demolition. Ultimately, we propose ways of improving the homes, landscape and community facilities on the existing estate by providing options for building additional housing on the land without demolishing a single home or evicting a single resident. The plans we produce are put forward by the residents as part of their campaigns to save their homes. We call this model ‘Resistance by Design’.

Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace, south London, was designed by Ted Hollamby and Rosemary Stjernstedt in the 1960s around the existing trees and steep landscape. It is made up of pedestrian ‘ways’ off which pairs of stacked maisonettes are arranged across the hillside, with every home having a view of London to the north, and a courtyard to the south. The estate was therefore designed in relationship both to the landscape and to the environment. The estate, which achieves a high density of housing unusual for such a low-rise estate, is very popular with the residents, who enjoy the variety of private and outdoor spaces. Central Hill contains 472 homes, ranging from 1-bedroom studios to 6-bedroom houses, all of which have been condemned for demolition by Lambeth Labour council. In opposition to this decision, ASH’s proposal retains and refurbishes all the existing homes, keeps as many of the existing trees as possible, while making necessary improvements to the landscape and community facilities, all paid for by the rent or sale of a proportion of the new homes.

ASH’s proposal identifies the potential for between 200 and 240 new homes on Central Hill estate, roughly 40 per cent of the existing estate. In the aerial view above, infill housing (in yellow) is built on unused and derelict sites. Roof extensions (in pink) consist of one or two additional lightweight, pre-fabricated floors on top of some of the existing flats. These are situated around the edges of the estate, where their additional heights will not obscure residents’ views. Any issues that residents may have with the layout or the design of the estate can also be addressed through refurbishment and other design interventions.

The chimneys of the long-abandoned boiler house in the north-eastern corner of the estate are retained, providing a new entry to the estate that celebrates the past as well as looking to the future. The existing concrete structure could be sustainably refurbished to accommodate low-cost workspace on the ground floors, and a new building above could provide up to 28 wheelchair-accessible flats without any negative impact on the neighbouring buildings.

New housing around the edge of the estate is designed to provide up to 50 new homes, improving access into the estate from the main road up to Crystal Palace. A relatively traditional terrace of houses along the road will formally link the estate into the surrounding street pattern.

Light-weight pre-fabricated roof extensions will respond sensitively to the qualities of the existing architecture, estate layout and landscape. At our request, Arups, the engineers for the original estate, provided some preliminary desktop analysis of the existing building structures, and established that it is quite possible to install one or two stories on top of many of the existing buildings. The flat roofs on the remaining homes would have new green roofs.

ASH commissioned Model Environments, a firm of environmental engineers, to produce a report estimating how much embodied carbon is locked into the buildings of Central Hill estate as well as the emissions associated with the energy required for their demolition. They concluded that ‘demolishing a housing estate of some 450 homes will exact a high carbon price on the environment and detracts greatly from London Borough of Lambeth’s contribution to tackling climate change. This report shows that a conservative estimate for the embodied carbon of Central Hill estate would be around 7000 tonnes of CO2 e. Those are similar emissions to those from heating 600 detached homes for a year using electric heating, or the emissions savings made by the London Mayor’s RE:NEW retro-fitting scheme in a year and a quarter.’

ASH also commissioned quantity surveyors Robert Martell and Partners to cost our proposals, who calculated that the construction of 242 new homes and the proposed community facilities, plus the refurbishment of the existing homes and landscape, would amount to around £75 million. If we assume a similar construction cost of around £250,000 per home, the notional cost of rebuilding the 472 existing homes Lambeth council wants to demolish comes to nearly £120 million. That’s before a single new home has been built. And this doesn’t take account of the highly complex site conditions which necessitated one of the most expensive estate projects of its time when originally built, or the significant costs of demolition, which as far back as 2003 the government estimated at £50,000 per home.

Case Study 2: West Kensington & Gibbs Green Estates

There is a direct relationship between who writes the briefs, who designs the master-plans, and the future of our estates. ASH believes the most sustainable approach to the future of our estates is addressed by those who live there and have a direct stake in its future. The brief written by residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in west London made explicit the social, economic and environmental conditions they wished to see in the design for their estate. This placed sustainability at the heart of their People’s Plan.

Residents from West Ken and Gibbs Green have been fighting for 8 years against the demolition of their homes by developer Capco, which has included the estates within their £1.2 billion Earls Court development. In September 2015, ASH was approached by the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes – a Community Land Trust set up by the residents – to produce a feasibility study for additional homes and community facilities, as well as refurbishment and improvements to the existing homes and landscape. This feasibility study is the basis of the residents’ current application for the Right to Transfer the estates from Hammersmith and Fulham Labour council into their own ownership and management.

West Kensington and Gibbs Green are two neighbouring estates of around 760 homes for around 2000 residents. Architecturally, they are composed of a diverse range of building types, from 4-bedroom family houses with gardens to medium-rise, 2-storey maisonettes around communal courtyards and 1- and 2-bed flats in 10-12-storey towers.

One of the first things ASH did was to organise walks around the estate led by the residents, inviting them to show how they used the estate and tell us about the area.

During these walks we were invited inside residents’ homes to get an understanding of each of the typical layouts and how they worked. It was also an opportunity to hear the residents talk about what their homes and the estate meant to them. This revealed one of the key issues at the heart of the current problem: namely, that these are people’s homes that are being destroyed – not simply units for sale or investment, not just commodities to be exchanged, but well-loved places of use, experience and memory.

Over the following months ASH conducted six design workshops that were attended by around 200 residents in total. These allowed us to get to know the residents and to hear what they wanted to see happen to the estate, with the first event specifically discussing what ‘home’ means for them. As we progressed, these workshops allowed us to use a diverse range of media to draw and test ideas with the residents. We also communicated issues like planning and other constraints, as well as our own design ideas, so that residents could get an understanding of the process and a true picture of the options available to them.

ASH took all the information obtained during the course of these workshops and located the comments on a large map. This map grew in size and detail as our knowledge increased and the project unfolded, with green indicating things residents liked about the estate, red for things they didn’t like, and blue for opportunities and solutions.

We also asked residents to draw their routes through the estate, onto which we overlaid views and access boundaries and finally a map, which located all the places which the residents and ASH had identified as locations for improvements, infill or roof extensions.

In response to the residents’ needs and wishes, which we had gathered over the course of around 3 months of workshops, ASH produced specific designs for each identified site, then exhibited these at an event attended by over 60 residents, who were responsible for both presenting and commenting upon the proposals.

ASH’s final design proposes around 250-330 new homes for the estate – an increase of around 40 per cent on the existing homes. These proposals include roof extensions (indicated in pink) and infill housing (shown in yellow), whose interventions were also able to address concerns residents had with the layout of the existing estate.

Refurbishments to the existing blocks included winter gardens and roof extensions to the tower blocks, roof gardens to the existing lower maisonettes, as well as improved insulation, ventilation and passive renewable energy strategies. In addition to a renovated playground, ASH proposed new single-storey housing for elderly and disabled residents, or those who are downsizing due to the bedroom-tax – among other reasons – or in need of supported accommodation. This should in turn free up the larger homes for families that are currently living in overcrowded accommodation elsewhere on the estate. We also proposed converting some of the currently underused garages into workshops, providing income for the estate, as well as low-cost workspaces for residents, also improving the social qualities of this outdoor space. And a new infill block adjacent to an existing tower would provide a new community space on the ground floor, which could open onto Franklin Square for community events.

ASH’s proposals have been costed and a viability assessment produced, and we are confident that the rent or sale of a number of the 250-330 new homes would enable all the remaining homes to be refurbished and all the proposed improvements to the landscape to be paid for. ASH’s model of our design proposals now remains with the residents, who use it to describe the project to visitors – in the photograph above to Green Party candidate for London Mayor, Siân Berry, who as a member of the Greater London Authority has been very supportive of the project.

Case Study 3: Patmore Estate

Adding additional homes to estates, which as these two proposals demonstrate allows an estate to grow in size in a more sustainable way than full demolition and redevelopment, is clearly a long-term project. However, it’s important that the short-term conditions of life on an estate are also addressed and improved where necessary. Severe under-investment, poor management and managed decline all contribute to an increased negative perception of estates both among the residents and in the wider area, facilitating the arguments for their demolition.

To address these issues on the Patmore Estate in Wandsworth, south-west London, ASH is working with the residents to come up with proposals for the refurbishment, re-use and re-appropriation of existing but under-used spaces around the estate. In doing so we hope to come up with a vision for the future of Patmore that helps put it proudly back on the map as the historical heart of the area.

The Patmore Estate is a council estate of around 860 homes owned by Wandswoth Conservative council and managed by the Patmore Cooperative. It currently sits in the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea Opportunity Area, the largest development site in London and, sitting across the Thames from Pimlico, on some of the most valuable land in the world.

Having returned an overwhelmingly positive response to a resident survey a few years ago, the estate is not immediately threatened with demolition. But given its location 100 yards or so from Battersea power station, which is being redeveloped into luxury properties, the estate is in a very vulnerable position. Despite Wandsworth council’s false claims to the contrary, most of the homes are still waiting for the upgrade of their kitchens and bathrooms to the Decent Homes Standard, the roofs are leaking, and all the estate’s community halls have been closed down or privatised over a number of years, depriving the community of both facilities and self-esteem. All of which begs the question: whose opportunity is the opportunity area serving?

Patmore estate is composed of 28 buildings of 3-6 stories arranged around well-designed and maintained courtyards containing children’s playgrounds and landscaped communal gardens. The buildings fall into 11 building types, ranging from terraces of maisonettes to larger L shaped blocks, and are distinguished by their use of materials and balconies.

We started by doing a survey of the existing buildings, meeting residents who showed us around their homes and hearing what they liked about living there as well as the things they thought could be improved. For each building type we identified both refurbishment issues that need to be addressed and heritage architectural elements to be celebrated. The checkerboard balconies are a strong motif that is repeated across the whole estate, and the entrance canopies are a unique and eclectic use of stone and steel.

It became clear that on top of the need for refurbishment of the existing buildings, there was also a need to address a more strategic and infrastructural lack of communal facilities, which currently prevents the estate residents from making the most of the estate, and in particular from coming together collectively. The removal of such facilities is a common tactic used by local authorities to shut communities down in preparation for the demolition of their homes. During the course of our meetings with the residents, residents have identified a whole range of communal activities and facilities they would like to see reinstated or which they are keen to initiate on the estate.

These spaces are already serviced, so could accommodate cooking facilities for the local food bank (which currently distributes on the street); provide a place where people could teach, learn, cook and eat; workshop facilities, dog grooming, recycling, children’s after school clubs, and simply meeting rooms for hire or events. These potential DIY spaces generally extend out from the front of the buildings, around the side in some cases and into the communal gardens, providing excellent opportunities for children to be play overseen, or areas for other outdoor activities. We believe that – more than the production of a report that will make the argument for proper investment in Patmore estate – it is through residents taking control of the future of their homes that the resistance to their demolition and the social cleansing of the community from the area will be most effective.

Over the past few years ASH has explored a number of different strategies for creating possible futures for our social and council housing in this country, and fought for it to be acknowledged as part of a sustainable city that people can afford and want to live in. Collectively, we must continue to argue that it is the sustainability of their communities that is critical to our cities, and that architecture is always political.

Architects for Social Housing

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