For a Socialist Architecture 2. Part 2. Environmental Practices

This presentation follows on from Part 1, that looked at the environmental principles of a socialist architecture.

In our first presentation in this series we talked about the agents of a socialist architecture: those who pay for it, those who inhabit it, those who use it, those who design it, those who build it, those who argue, lobby and legislate for it, those who manage and maintain it, those who refurbish it, those who dismantle it, those who reconfigure it; these are all agents of a socialist architecture. Architecture is not produced by architects alone. This is important to understand architecture in the expanded field in which we’re trying to situate it.

1. Alternative cycles of production, consumption and waste

We then went on to discuss the urban development cycle and how the various agents of a socialist architecture can engage with that process. This diagram (above) shows the development cycle from an environmental perspective. A socialist architecture practicing principles of de-growth needs to be one that reduces production and minimises waste. We can’t talk of a ‘sustainable’ architecture without addressing the environmental and social costs of its materials, their extraction, transportation, manufacture, construction, maintenance, demolition, disposal or recycling. What we’re showing here are two alternative but overlapping cycles of production, consumption and waste. On the left is the capitalist cycle of extraction, manufacture, construction, demolition and disposal, with the red representing the extent of the energy used and the waste produced in order to produce architecture within this cycle.

However, there are moments in every building’s life where a decision has to be made whether to demolish it, and begin the cycle of production again, or whether to refurbish. More often than not, in a capitalist economy, which relies on the production of the always new commodity, the decision is to demolish. Financially, for both the developer and the architect, there is far more incentive to demolish and redevelop. Since an architect’s fees are arrived at as a percentage of the overall cost of the project, redevelopment is far more profitable for redevelopment than for refurbishment. The capitalist cycle of production is predicated on an endless growth that only the rapidly arriving finiteness of the world’s resources has brought into question.

In contrast to which, a socialist architecture follows an alternative cycle of production. Rather than demolish a building, we can refurbish, improve, maintain and re-use it. Rather than repeating the cycle of extraction, manufacture, construction, demolition and disposal, the repeatable moments in a socialist architecture have significantly less impact on the environment than the cycle of capitalist architecture, and are therefore represented in this diagram in green.

2. Environmental practices of a socialist architecture

From these basic principles we can begin to formulate some of the environmental practices of a socialist architecture:

  • A socialist architecture must ensure minimal environmental impact and carbon cost across the whole life-cycle: its use and maintenance as well as its construction and reuse.
  • A socialist architecture must never displace existing communities, residential or others.
  • A socialist architecture must enact and promote the principles and practices of economic de-growth.
  • A socialist architecture must encourage low-impact and healthy living, and increase environmental, social and political engagement and awareness.
  • A socialist architecture must take refurbishment of the existing built environment as its default option.

All development must:

  • Have neighbourhood and/or existing resident consent, leadership or participation in the entire development process (procurement, design, construction and management);
  • Employ maximum passive ventilation and renewable energy strategies (orientation, material, construction);
  • Use low environmental impact materials (recycled and locally sourced, with low embodied carbon);
  • Use sustainable drainage, infrastructure and waste recycling, resulting in less production, consumption and waste.
  • Create minimal disruption to local communities and eco-systems, and increase bio-diversity;
  • Anticipate and mitigate the potential effects of future climate change on the proposed development and its environment;
  • Encourage low impact living (sharing amenities, walking, cycling and use of public transport rather than driving) and use of local employment and production.

All of these practices can be implemented within the limitations of an architect’s brief; and both councillors and community members can lobby and agitate for these to be adopted as a condition of a development being given planning permission by the local authority. The most important, however, and one of the key principles of a socialist architecture, socially, environmentally and — as we will look at in our next presentation — economically, is refurbishment. In practice, as we have said above, refurbishment must be taken as the default option in any development project, and above all in estate regeneration schemes. From an environmental perspective, refurbishment has the following benefits over the current orthodoxy under capitalism of demolition and redevelopment:

  • Refurbishment has the minimum impact environmentally, as well as financially and socially, on existing residents and local communities.
  • Refurbishment enables the continuation of existing communities structurally displaced by demolition, as well as the maintenance of existing eco-systems otherwise destroyed by redevelopment.
  • Refurbishment improves the internal environment and residents’ living conditions, health and well-being.
  • Refurbishment reduces energy use, therefore financial costs and fuel poverty, as well as the environmental costs of production.
  • Refurbishment retains embodied carbon in existing buildings.
  • Refurbishment minimises dust particles and other demolition-related air, water and noise pollutants.
  • Refurbishment minimises waste production, removal and containment.
  • Refurbishment is cheaper than demolition and rebuilding, so allows for funds to be reallocated according to the principles of a socialist architecture.

3. Regeneration of the Grand Parc Bordeaux

Let’s look at some examples of these practices, beginning with one not taken from the work of ASH. This is the Grand Parc in Bordeaux. Built in the early 1960s, the three social housing blocks, now owned by a private company, contain 530 dwellings. Between 2014 and 2017 they underwent a renovation and refurbishment scheme (below) designed by Frédéric Druot Architecture, Lacaton & Vassal Architectes and Christophe Hutin Architecture. This included the addition of 3.8 metre-deep winter gardens and open-air balconies to each apartment. These were built from pre-cast slabs and columns were hoisted into place by cranes to form a freestanding structure. In addition, new lifts were installed, access halls and bathrooms were refurbished, and thermal curtains were added to the windows.

Grand Parc Bordeaux

Crucially, since the Agence nationale pour la renovation urbaine programme is targeted at the displacing the banlieusards through demolition and so-called ‘social mixing’, residents of the Grand Parc remained in their homes during the work, which took a mere 12-16 days per apartment. The renovation of the 530 units cost 27.2 million euros, which comes to less than 52,000 per apartment; but rents, which are indexed to income, have remained the same as before the refurbishment, with the apartments only available to workers earning the minimum income or lower. As a practice of refurbishment, this accords with the primary principle of Lacaton, Vassal, Druot, which they expressed in their manifesto Plus:

‘Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, re-use!’

Extraordinarily — for us — this refurbishment scheme won the 2019 Mies van der Rohe Award, which recognises the best European buildings completed in the past two years. And interestingly, this was the successive time that a housing regeneration scheme had won the biennial award. In 2017 the award went to NL Architects for its renovation of the 1960s DeFlat Kleiburg housing complex on the outskirts of Amsterdam, which it completed in association with XVW Architectuur. However, a member of ASH who grew up on the estate told us that the tenants of the social housing block had been evicted from their homes long before the regeneration scheme was implemented, which was for the benefit of the new home-owing residents. Once again, this demonstrates the importance of not separating the environmental dimension of architecture from its social and economic context. In contrast to the European Union Award, in the UK this year the 2019 Stirling Prize is an object lesson in championing the thermal performance of estate regeneration redevelopments that have evicted former council tenants from their demolished homes, privatised the new housing stock through commercial vehicles, and cross-subsidised the reduced social-rent housing it has re-provided with a massive increase of high-cost market-sale properties on the same or other developments sites.

4. Regeneration of the Central Hill Estate

My next example is drawn from our own work on the Central Hill estate (below), which we looked at in Part 1 in relation to the environmental costs of demolition measured by both embodied carbon and carbon emissions. An estate of 476 homes condemned to demolition and redevelopment by Lambeth council, between 2015 and 2017 ASH produced design alternatives up to feasibility study stage, as well as having our proposals costed by Robert Martell and Partners, a quantity surveyor who offers their services to us at a reduced rate. This was to retain and refurbish all the existing homes up to the Decent Homes Standard, includes external insulation, green roofs, overhaul of ventilation and services, new doors and windows to address to address incidences of mould and cold bridging. We also proposed the improvement of communal facilities, the re-use and re-purpose of existing unused buildings on the estate; to reinstate ‘green fingered’ walkways pulled down by the council as part of the managed decline of the estate, retain all existing trees, and retain and increase the biodiversity of the estate as a ‘green corridor’ for wildlife between local parks.

ASH design proposals for Central Hill estateIn addition, we proposed designs for the extension of the stepped maisonettes onto existing under-used terraces. This would increase the size of the existing bedrooms on the upper floor (indicated in blue in the diagram below), and add one additional bedroom to existing lower floor (indicated in yellow). This demonstrated that these homes had not come to the end of their life, but could be renovated, extended and improved. As part of our strategy for increasing the housing capacity on the estate without demolition we also proposed new homes (indicated in pink) and gardens to be installed on the roofs of the low-rise maisonettes. These would be lightweight, pre-fabricated timber constructions craned onto site, thereby minimising noise, dust, construction time and disruption to residents.

Central Hill maisonettes

In total, and with the agreement of the residents of central Hill estate, we were able to potentially increase the housing capacity on the estate not only through roof extensions but also by infill housing up to 52 per cent. Crucially, without the huge financial costs of demolition, compensation for leaseholders and replacement of the existing homes, we were financially able to make at least half the 242 new homes for social rent.

Obviously, since none of this fitted their plans to maximise the value of the land on which Central Hill estate is built, Lambeth council rejected our proposals outright, claiming without proof that they were financially unviable. But with the help of Robert Martell, we’ve estimated our proposals would cost in the region of £97 million. That’s around a sixth of the cost of the council’s demolition and redevelopment scheme, and payable back over only 25 years rather than 60. And from the environmental perspective, the environmental costs of refurbishment, infill development and light-weight timber roof extensions are a fraction that of demolition and redevelopment at the vastly increased densities required to fund such a project.

6. Regeneration of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates

As another example, between 2015 and 2016 ASH developed design proposals for new homes and improvement of existing homes and amenities on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in West Kensington. This included the refurbishment of all 760 existing dwellings with external insulation, green roofs, overhaul of ventilation and services, new doors and windows. In addition, we proposed a new community hall and children’s play spaces, community allotments, tree-planting initiatives, sustainable urban drainage, and the conversion of unused garages into workshops for the local community.

ASH design proposals for West Kensington estate

To address housing need in the borough, we proposed the addition of roof extensions, new lifts, balconies and — inspired by Druot, Lacaton and Vassal — winter gardens to existing housing blocks (above). This would increase the size of the 1-bedroom flats significantly, adding an extra 10-12 square metres to each home, as well as improving the thermal performance of the flats. Together with infill housing on land to which the residents had given their consent for new development, residents agreed to an additional 360 new dwellings on the estate, a 47 per cent increase without a single home having been demolished.

Finally, we proposed new single-storey supported housing to free up the many under-occupied homes on the estate, often lived in by grandparents whose children had moved out, and whose energy bills, as a consequence, were unnecessarily large. This would in turn house larger families on the estate living in over-crowded homes. As always, the redistribution of resources provided the very simple solution to what councils had depicted to residents as an intractable problem justifying the demolition of their homes.

7. Regeneration of the Patmore Co-operative Housing Estate

My final example is the Patmore Co-operative housing estate in Wandsworth, which lies to the immediate south of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment that we looked at in Part 1 of this presentation. As we said, this is under threat of demolition by the council precisely because the surrounding development of extremely high-cost residential property has driven up the land values in the neighbourhood, precisely as it was meant to do. At the request of the co-operative, ASH has developed a different vision of the estate’s future than demolition and redevelopment as investment opportunities for offshore companies (below).

ASH_PAT_AXO_2019_02 copy

This vision begins with the refurbishment of all 860 dwellings, which have so far been excluded from the funding to do so by Wandsworth council. But our proposals also include the re-use of disused laundry rooms as community facilities or ‘DIY stores’ at not-for-profit rates for residents. At the suggestion of residents, these include recycling spaces, a workshop library, an after-school club or a social club. As part of this re-use we encouraged the development of partnerships between local food banks, the adjacent Covent Garden Market and food-growing initiatives on the estate.

We have also proposed a new pedestrian and cycle-friendly public realm, new low-energy lighting throughout the estate, and low-maintenance, porous, flood-resilient landscapes to increase bio-diversity and wildlife. The Patmore estate, like the Battersea Power Station development, is built on a flood-plain that was formerly marsh land. As a consequence, under the guidelines for the Opportunity Area all new developments must have green roofs to offset the effects of floodwater. However, the environment is a radical leveller in who and what it affects, and rainwater doesn’t stop falling at the edge of gated communities. ASH is therefore arguing that for the green architecture on the new developments to function as designed the Patmore estate should also be retrofitted with green roofs on the housing blocks. Again, rather than reducing the environmental dimension of architecture to a slice of the capitalist financial pie, it must be situated within the totality of the relations that compose the whole of the built environment.

With regard to this last practice, I’d like to add these two further principles of a socialist architecture, which were suggested to us by the landscape architect, Daniel Roehr, who co-presented with us on our workshop on the environmental dimension of a socialist architecture. These were further articulated by Daniel in his subsequent article on ‘Vancouver’s Housing Crisis: A Collaborative Opportunity for Planners and Architects’:

  • Given the increase in the incidents of flash-flooding consequent upon global climate change, storm-water management of future sites must be addressed by planners and designers at the beginning of developing a site, not as an afterthought once the housing design has been approved.
  • To this end, the master-planning of housing developments should be designed by architects and landscape architects in collaboration with planners at the beginning of a project. Designers should not be reduced to consultants who are only brought into the development process after developers and planners have decided the use of a piece of land.

In conclusion, all these case studies are specific and unique to each place and legislative and policy context. The practices we have derived from them are intended to explore and suggest how a socialist architecture might find common principles in order to address global problems that have a common cause but which must be solved with a diverse range of local solutions.

8. Solutions to the Climate Emergency

Extinction rebellion

One of ASH’s working principles is that the wrong solution to a problem is not ‘better than nothing’, as we are inevitably told by those proposing it; it is, in practice, worse than nothing. Not only does it consume funding, energy, time, political will and other resources that could and should be put towards the right solution, but the wrong solution deceives the public into believing that the correct solution has been found. How long did it take the public — and not just housing campaigners — to learn that ‘affordable housing’ was a euphemism for demolishing social housing and replacing it with a hodge-podge of shared ownership scams, rent-to-buy products and higher rents with reduced rights? And even after 20 years of demolition, social cleansing and privatisation, politicians from all political parties are still able to argue that estate ‘regeneration’ is the answer to our crisis of housing affordability. Imagine what could have been achieved with the vast sums of public money thrown at subsidising affordable housing and market-sale properties at the point of both production and consumption. Enough, surely, to have refurbished every estate in England and Wales up to the Decent Homes Standard. Enough, perhaps, to have built however many new homes for social rent for which there is such overwhelming housing need. Instead, the enormous profits made by developers, builders and housing associations have been publicly funded with Help to Buy, Right to Buy, Buy to Let, Affordable Housing subsidies and the privatisation of swathes of council-owned land in the UK. So how do they get away with it?

The answer to that question is: the same way the propagandists of Neo-liberalism have got away with ten years of fiscal austerity that has cut public spending and workers’ wages while overseeing the exponential rise in the wealth of the richest. Or the same way we have committed to a never-ending War on Terror that has made the British people the legitimate target of terrorists for generations to come. They did it by declaring a ‘crisis’. Whether it’s the security crisis kicked off by the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001; or the sub-prime mortgage crisis in which 6 million people lost their houses in the USA alone; or the subsequent financial crisis in which UK banks were bailed out by the British taxpayer to the sum of £850 billion; or the housing crisis that ensued as global capital looked for a secure commodity in which to invest its profits: the discourse of crisis, of declarations of emergency, are always employed to push through increasingly repressive measures against the very people it is claiming to save while increasing the power and profits of the institutions and corporations nominated to impose them. We’re seeing the same thing happening right now with the increased surveillance, stop-and-search powers and punitive measures granted to the police and law courts in response to the ‘crisis’ of knife crime in the capital, while leaving the economic and social causes of that crime untouched.

So why should we expect anything different from the environmental crisis? Over the past year we’ve seen the rise of Extinction Rebellion, whose calls to declare a ‘Climate Emergency’ have been adopted by Parliament if not yet by Government, by the Greater London Authority, by councils across London, and by architects across the UK. Of the more than 600 architectural practices that have signed up to the recent manifesto, UK Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, many of the largest and most influential companies continue to promote, implement and financially profit from the estate demolition programme, including many of the founding signatories:

  • Adam Khan (Tower Court and Marian Court)
  • Alison Brooks (South Kilburn and South Acton estates)
  • Allies and Morrison (Heygate, Gascoigne, Acton Gardens and West Hendon estates)
  • David Chipperfield (Colville estate)
  • dRMM (Heygate estate)
  • Hawkins\Brown (Agar Grove, Bridge House, Aylesbury and Alton estates)
  • Haworth Tompkins (Robin Hood Gardens estate)
  • HTA Design (Ferrier, South Acton, Waltham Forest, Kender, Aylesbury, Ebury Bridge, Ravensbury, New Avenue and Clapham Park estates)
  • Levitt Bernstein (Aylesbury, Eastfields, Winstanley, York Road and Rayners Lane estates)
  • Maccreanor Lavington (Heygate and Alma estates)
  • Mae (Knight’s Walk and Aylesbury estates)
  • Metropolitan Workshop (Leopold and Robin Hood Gardens estates)
  • Mikhail Riches (Goldsmith Street)
  • Pollard Thomas Edwards (Lefevre Walk, Packington, Alma, Thames View East and South Lambeth estates)
  • PRP (Crossways, Myatts Field North, Mardyke, Haggerston, Kingsland, Portobello Square and Central Hill estates)
  • Studio Egret West (Ferrier and Love Lane estates)

That’s just on the estate redevelopment schemes we’re aware of, and doesn’t include the deposit boxes for money laundering being designed along the Thames by such corporate architects as Foster + Partners, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects. The only major estate-demolishing architectural practice notable by its absence from this list is Karakusevic Carson (Claredale, King’s Crescent, Bacton, Colville, Alma, Nightingale, Fenwick, St. Raphael, Joyce Avenue and Snell’s Park estates). Quite apart from the tens of thousands of residents socially cleansed from their homes by these and other schemes, it beggars belief that this catalogue of architectural practices colluding in the estate demolition programme are now trying to pass themselves off as defenders of our environment. Or rather, it would be if it wasn’t so glaringly apparent that this collective call for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the ‘behaviour’ of UK architects is a cynical example of ‘green-washing’.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the only mention in this manifesto about the environmental cost of demolition is watered down with the same get-out clause used on the 2017 Architects Code to ‘advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources . . . where appropriate.’ Although now declaring their intent to ‘upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build’, this is immediately qualified by the tacked-on caveat: ‘whenever there is a viable choice’. In this context, ‘viable’ means ‘financially viable’, which means after the developer has taken their 20-25 per cent profit according to a viability assessment produced by them that is not available for public scrutiny under the get-out clause of ‘commercial confidentiality’. Once again, therefore, the environment is being subordinated to the profit margins of developers and investors, in which it represents a slice of expenditure in capitalism’s pie.

All this accords with Extinction Rebellion’s trenchant refusal to identify capitalism as the primary cause of our environmental situation. Despite the fact that, by its own admission, half of carbon dioxide emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750 have been released since 1988, Extinction Rebellion has instead found a new culprit in the fashionable term ‘anthropocene’, which attributes the globe’s recent and rapidly increasing species extinction and climate change to the humanist, anthropological and a-historical abstraction called ‘man’. But then the leadership of Extinction Rebellion is composed of directors of non-governmental organisations and lobbyists for multinational energy companies, whose promotion of a ‘Green New Deal’ for capitalism — carefully erased of any reference to socialism — has been readily adopted by the Labour Party. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the architects of ‘green architecture’, employed by the same political party to demolish around 190 council estates in London alone and replace them with supposedly ‘carbon-neutral’ properties for investment by global capital, find common ground with this recourse to that old chimera of liberals that many point to but few have seen: capitalism with a human face.

One of the more cynical examples of the building industry capitalising on the ‘climate emergency’ is councils and other registered providers of social housing quoting the lower thermal performance of post-war estates when compared to new-build housing in order to justify demolishing the former, while ignoring the carbon cost of demolition. This is exactly what the Cambridge Housing Society is doing to push through its plans to redevelop the Montreal Square estate, and Leeds City council is doing with the council homes on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close; yet neither housing association nor local authority has produced an impact assessment of the huge environmental costs of demolishing, removing, disposing of and replacing these perfectly serviceable homes.

In contrast to this manipulative discourse of ‘crisis’ that seeks to retain and strengthen capitalism’s iron grip on the world, ASH proposes policies and practices of a socialist architecture that intervene in, oppose and propose alternatives to the capitalist cycle of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. It is within this economic cycle — which from an environmental perspective is the unsustainable cycle of extraction, construction, demolition and disposal — that the development process is entrenched by current housing legislation, policy and funding. Confronted with the ruinous and catastrophic consequences of this cycle — which began with the industrial revolution but continues to increase exponentially with the hegemony of global capitalism — promotions of a ‘green industrial revolution’ and the implementation of ‘green architecture’ are little more than window dressing to more false solutions in the service of expanded markets, corporate competition and the increasingly militarised struggle for dwindling natural resources.

Rather than declarations of ‘climate emergency’ that serve to push through new capitalisations on the environmental crisis on a wave of orchestrated public feeling that silences public scrutiny under the newly imposed orthodoxies of climate activism, what we need is to remove all housing provision from the capitalist cycle of production. Within this cycle, the environment is accorded no more than a slice of the financial pie that is spent on the false solutions of so-called ‘green architecture’, in the same way that the social dimension of architecture is discharged by a portion of funding spent on the equally false solution of so-called ‘affordable housing’. But the environmental dimension of architecture, like its social, economic and political dimension, is not a component of a whole that is always, in current practice, subordinated to the profit margins of landlords, developers and investors. Rather, each dimension constitutes that whole — which today is that of an inhabitable planet. As we said at the beginning of this presentation: however much capitalism tries to separate them into portions of a financial viability assessment, in our social practice, in our economic growth, in our political policies, and in the environmental consequences these will have for us, they are indivisible. The answers to the planet’s climate change and species extinction cannot be separated from the social, economic and political system that is causing them. Any proposed solution that does not clearly identify global capitalism as their cause is the wrong solution.

Architects for Social Housing

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