Not an architect or planner, just somebody who cares about housing and the housed

This blog was started in February 2010 as a direct result of this article in the Evening Standard on Thursday 9th July 2009 highlighting the intention of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham to rid the borough of council estates and their residents.

In the four years since they have gone some way towards this and have certainly done little to reassure the worried that their intentions are otherwise.

Until 1986 London had the GLC which administered the London boroughs on behalf of all Londoners and whose policies ensured through cross subsidy that no borough became excessively rich or poor.

Since its abolition Tower Hamlets and Newham have declined (even North Kensington), while boroughs like Wandsworth have not only become wealthier but have been able to implement policies that are divisive and favour only the better off.


My background is technical. I became a radio officer in the Merchant Navy during the 80s & 90s then moved to IT when GMDSS took my profession away. Became self-employed in the noughties doing IT contracts with the most rewarding work as civilian support for the RAF.

Following a long term interest in public housing I started looking for an ex-Local Authority flat to buy near London in 2008, but having studied hundreds of floor plans for both old and new flats became disenchanted with the poor quality of design in the private sector, and disenchanted with the condition of the estates on which the local authority flats were located.

This led to my visiting housing estates and other C20th buildings with the eponymous society, the photographs and day trips being written up in the blog you are reading.

I am motivated by anger and dismay. The dismay I feel whilst being an unwilling witness to the destruction of the Welfare State under whose aegis I grew up, and anger at the residualisation of council housing as a direct result of Right to Buy, the greatest evil perpetrated on public housing in this country since the Luftwaffe flew over and bombed our cities. In my view.

12 Responses to “Author”

  1. andrew westcott Says:

    Great site. Anyone trying to prevent 'slums for tomorrow today' needs support.
    Where can I register for your site
    Andrew

  2. Robin Says:

    Great site. I am an architect and agree with 99% of your views, as I would like to imagine most architects would (possibly even some of the authors of the monstrosities you feature here). Here are some other architects you may find interesting, who have produced considered, inventive, sustainable and humane housing projects at varies scales…

    http://www.rhmarchitects.com
    http://www.stephentaylorarchitects.co.uk
    http://www.wwmarchitects.co.uk
    http://www.hhbr.co.uk
    http://www.shedkm.co.uk

    The last practice above, Shed KM, has produced one of the more successful single aspect projects I can think of off the top of my head – MOHO for Urban Splash. Although a favourite of developers wanting to maximise their returns, they can occasionally work well when handled sensitively by a good architect. Factors which are key to their success being shallow plan depth, good daylighting, provision for natural cross-ventilation, access to outside space. (Disclaimer: I am not involved with any of the above practices!)

  3. Single Aspect Says:

    Many thanks for writing to my blog.

    You have the honour of being the first architect to have written to my blog and for that I thank you. I have had a comment from an architectural assistant and a person responsible for housing regeneration (Andrew Westcott) and a couple of residents but that’s it to date.

    Thank you for confirming that my instincts are correct. I am trying to visit housing and write from the point of view on an informed future owner or tenant and how they would look at their new home and what they would say about it given the chance. In that I would appear to be succeeding. As to preventing the construction of these blessed things I am so far failing miserably but then I have no influence.

    Thank you too for pointing out a single aspect project for me to look at, no doubt it is worthy and admirable but I’m not going to change my instinctive point of view which is that are suitable only for short stays and student life.

    What kind of dwelling is it that requires forced ventilation at all? If a building is well designed then in my view air should be able to flow from one side to the other quite naturally by opening windows on different sides of the dwelling.

    Lastly many thanks again for writing at all. As I have said elsewhere I am longing to have a discussion with an architect and this is a good start.

  4. Robin Says:

    MOHO actually doesn’t rely on forced ventilation and it deals admirably with most if not all of the qualititive issues you raise elsewhere. That said, I was not really setting out to defend that development or indeed single aspect housing in general. More often than not single aspect housing is very poor and I think there should be a presumption against it unless the quality is exceptional, as is the case with the planning policy of many local authorities. I think that more important than typology is a range of other issues – generous space standards, appropriate density, human scale, good build quality, adequate daylighting. The developments you rightly target, e.g. Wood’s House, cynically ignore all of these.

  5. Single Aspect Says:

    This is a bit like asking a vegetarian whether they prefer their steak medium or rare. I strive to be objective but I really have no opinion on SA dwellings other than that they are unfit for human habitation for long term occupation (beyond student or hotel use). Now I respect the fact that you don’t think that but I’d sooner be discussing a return to high quality public housing such as a lot of what came out of the LCC during the 1950s notwithstanding the Modernist mistakes. Or what to do about places like Woods House where neither Westminster Council nor the developers will pay retrospectively to install badly needed A/C which should have been installed during construction.

  6. Robin Says:

    You have come across some really poor schemes which are probably indicative of the general standard of contemporary housing development. As you have seen, the common deficiencies in space standards, design and quality are exacerbated in very high density urban schemes to the point where it is difficult to imagine living decently in them. I think it is only fair to name and shame them but equally people need to see that there are decent alternatives out there and it would be good to see some of them getting attention on your blog. Admittedly they are in the minority and will be harder to track down.

    The majority of volume house builders are basically amoral. If people are willing to buy something then they will build it. Issues of quality don’t enter into the equation beyond where they impact on the developer’s ability to gain statutory consents, secure a sale and get past their 10 year NHBC liability period.

    Ultimately I think the solutions need to be led by legislation – land allocations, minimum and maximum density levels, dwelling space standards, daylighting standards, improved build quality and design life (many people would be shocked to hear the short design life of some building components and systems favoured by spec developers). I fear however that the current government don’t have the stomach or interest to pursue issues which will be unpopular with large sections of the construction industry and may not have broad public support.

    Public engagement and pressure (via public debate and consumer behaviour) also have a role to play. For a start it would be good to see people boycotting the worst schemes. Maybe someone could start a campaign?

    I haven’t touched on the role of the architect. They are usually the first to be blamed when things go wrong and although this is sometimes justified I believe the reality is usually less clear cut. Many ‘design’ decisions are made before an architect or designer picks up a pen – location, construction budget, density, space standards. The commercial case is everything. Often the odds are stacked against a good outcome regardless of the quality of design but it doesn’t help that developers commonly view non-commercial architects, many of whom are driven primarily by a passion for good design, as a commercial liability. There are however many instances where design quality can and does make a meaningful difference. In such instances it is imperative that good designers are involved. Legislators, planning authorities and the buying and voting public can help bring pressure to bear in this regard.

  7. Single Aspect Says:

    When I said I have come across them at random I meant it. Let me give you one example. I came across the details of an artist who lives by the river in Essex with a view of an estuary. I pulled up Google earth and looked at the likely contenders. I think there must have been a clue in the text because it was Wivenhoe and I noticed a disused shipyard. It was labelled Cook’s Shipyard on Google Earth so I typed Cook’s Shipyard into Google. The result was a Taylor Wimpey scheme with some poor floor plans and velux instead of dormer windows in the pitched roof.

    Another example was when I was after historical detail about my Father’s old college in Barking. I wasn’t even looking for housing, I was looking for the history of the college, and lo and behold the former South East Essex technical college was being redeveloped into flats. Single aspect flats. So I went there as a prospective purchaser, a cash purchaser. Academy Central.

    So you can see that I am not deliberately targeting bad schemes. The two above are entirely random Essex housing developments by volume house builders that I came across for utterly different reasons. Therefore they are a reasonable example of what is currently being built as housing.

    It could reasonably be argued that in pursuing and highlighting the schemes of A2Dominion that I am biased and bound to find poor quality housing, and indeed I have, but again you can see that there are two sides to this in that I have looked at both the private and subsidised sectors.

    I would be only too delighted to highlight some good housing schemes, for example here in Cambridge we have Accordia, which I have yet to visit, but it isn’t schemes like that that will lead to the drive for better housing standards and so inevitably it is the bad examples that I concentrate on. Also it tends to be those with the money and therefore the choice who get to live in the good ones and avoid the poor ones because they can vote with their wallet. This does not apply to those looking for a shared ownership scheme who can only afford 25% of the price with no deposit. There were council houses once for people in that position, where are they now?

    Boris Johnson in London is attempting to pilot such legislation by publishing a series of documents for consultation the latest begin the interim London Housing Design Guide, which although London based I suspect he would like to see more widely taken up. He has made it a feature of his campaign for Mayor both before and during his tenure that he wants the Parker Morris standards back and other standards introduced but has in my view watered some of them down by making them discretionary but that’s another story. He still thinks it’s ok to have 37sqm one person flats in London, sadly.

    Boycotting the worst schemes? If only they could. When you have Westminster Council putting former council tenants in a block like Woods House and classifying it as adequate council housing then you have a problem of some magnitude. I could not believe it when I was told by a tenant there that they were a council tenant and that the Eastern side of Woods House (by the railway) is council housing. This is how badly standards have slipped that far from employing their own architects to design high quality council housing, a local authority is now prepared to house council tenants in the worst of private developer rabbit hutches and even then fail to ensure that they are fit for …. if you get my drift.

    On occasion there are refuseniks. Hayley Barret, a lady on the one of the blogs, said she and her boyfriend were about to complete on a flat in Woods House but pulled out at the last moment because the service charges went up but was then immensely relieved to hear what they had been spared in terms of the quality of life. It doesn’t bode well that they were actually going to move in though does it? Despite having visited the place.

    I can see what the architect is up against. I am sure all private architects want a wealthy client with a 4 acre plot on a hillside with a view, and a free hand to boot. Not a backyard in a city on a budget, and I have met a would be architect working for Barrat many years ago doing carbon copy house plans for an estate. I made the mistake of asking if she was ARIBA, she wasn’t, I hadn’t meant to embarrass her but my Father was and I had thought naively that all architects were qualified but of course not necessarily.

    So I think the best thing one can do at present is to support Boris in what he is attempting to do in reintroducing legislation that his Tory predecessors repealed, and where possible shaming him into making the discretionary mandatory in order that developers are not let off the hook, and then hoping the document can be rolled out across the country. We’ll see.

  8. Robin Says:

    It is a common mechanism for local authorities to meet their obligation to provide affordable housing by requiring private developers to build a percentage of affordable units. In the better schemes they are distributed through a development and you should not know which is which but it is not surprising that some developers might try to use this to offload compromised flats which may otherwise be difficult to sell. The best chance of implementing meaningful change is through legislation. It remains to be seen how the London Housing Design Guide will perform. It has been suggested that future local plan revisions may make it mandatory for private as well as social / subsidised housing which, if it happens, would at least be a step in te right direction.

  9. Diamond Says:

    One bedroom flats in many estates in south east London that were built in the sixties are quite nice, spacious and pleasant… however I understand how you feel about new builds where everything is smaller, very cramped.

  10. Carolyn Smith Says:

    Just wanted to say thank you so much for your recommendation of my Trial by Space piece on the Guardian website. You have a fascinating site here, a great resource. With best regards, Carolyn

  11. Bernard Crofton Says:

    You seem to have reposted some of my comments in the guardian (http://singleaspect.org.uk/?p=5563)

    I have 2 things to say:
    1 Is there no way you can correct my typing? I do them in haste for the moment, not a “collected works”.
    2 I made an anecdotal comment again today which might chime with some of your readers: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2013/nov/16/architecture-housing#comment-28933440

  12. Single Aspect Says:

    Test comment.

Leave a Reply