Architecture and the Kindness Economy – learning from Mary Portas

“Architecture is not just about what we build – but how we live.”

We have been captured by Mary Portas’ work on the Kindness Economy. This new value system requires businesses to understand the fundamental role they play for the wellbeing of people and the wider fabric of our society. At the heart of this approach is the need to balance commerce with social progress. We also see the need to balance our architectural and design business with the environment. In this post, we reflect on what we have learned about the Kindness Economy that resonates with our work at RISE Design Studio.

Mary Portas ii

Our shifting relationship with buildings

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we are realising just how much buildings influence every part of our lives. After spending more time in our homes and immediate neighbourhoods than ever before, we have become more aware of how we interact with the buildings we inhabit and how nature is reflected both internally and externally within and close to our homes.

In her recent podcast with Amanda Levete CBE, Mary Portas suggests we are going through a radical shift in our relationships with buildings. Architects are therefore at the forefront of designing our world post-pandemic. Buildings are the greatest expression of the idea of community and we need to understand who we are building for, particularly as different communities have different values, which need to be reflected in the architecture that surrounds them.

Lead by example

There is growing concern that volume housing is often built cheaply, with a focus on maximum profit for the developer, rather than on achieving maximum impact for the people who live there. As architects, we need to understand who we are building for and tailor designs accordingly. Different communities need different buildings, and housing should be designed around shared values not the value of a project or the resulting profit.

In an era of spending more time living and working in the home, it seems conceptually inappropriate that the design is in many cases driven by profit for someone who is not rooted in, or connected with, that community. This raises questions about how to encourage a shift in approach – Mary Portas would argue that this can be done by leading by example and showcasing successful projects for others to take inspiration from.

Between office and home

What will change as many of us start to return to the office? It is perhaps hard to predict but within the Kindness Economy there lies potential to re-imagine the office as a family home. Small companies may move from warehouses into townhouses, creating a homely office or a neighbourhood co-working space. It will be important for companies to have conversations with their staff about the future, to achieve a more positive work/life balance.

Attracting people back to the office will also require more thought about what kind of spaces people want and whether they want to work in those spaces. There is an opportunity to design buildings from which everyone has access to some outdoor space, nurturing the connection between inside and outside, and the local environment that we have all got to know so well when our movement was restricted.

Nurture community and connection

Although we live in an increasingly digital world, we are arguably more disconnected than ever before. Enforced remoteness and distance has negatively affected the culture and connectedness of our lives. As we re-emerge, we need places to meet, to learn new skills, and to feel a sense of culture around us. As we look to new ways of living and working, social interaction will be very important. How can people be put at the heart of buildings?

As many town centre properties lie empty, there is now an opportunity to begin a transformation but this will need risk-taking, innovation and creativity. Mary Portas points out the immediate opportunity to re-purpose these buildings without extensive demolition, in a way that exploits the characteristics that make a building so difficult to convert – a large central atrium, perhaps, or large indoor spaces with no natural light.

While challenging, these are exciting opportunities for architects – perhaps we can convert old department stores into spaces that are home to community functions and activities that will help to bring us all together again? Perhaps they could become places where people can grow food, making use of the latest technology in hydroponic farming? People’s concepts of a shop have changed and there is growing agreement that we need to re-purpose and re-vision these properties to create spaces and activities to bring people together.

You can visit one of Mary’s Living and Giving Shops across the UK.

 

New build in the countryside – dream or possibility?

 

As the world tries to move on from the Covid pandemic, there is anecdotal evidence that we are increasingly seeking life outside the city. Building a new home in the countryside and becoming a rural dweller may seem like a impossible dream but it is becoming an increasing reality for some. One reason is that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) allows new, isolated homes to built in rural areas, if they are of exceptionally high quality of design. We explain the rules below.

RISE Design Studio - new build in the countryside

The right house in the right place

Current NPPF policy recognises that new housing can be very homogenous – the ‘cookie cutter’ developments that have been all too common across the country. This has led to a push to improve the design quality of new housing, particularly in terms of environment considerations.

In the new NPPF, paragraph 79 encourages local authorities not to approve new developments on unbuilt land in the countryside. However, there are some important exceptions to this rule. These include where a house is designed to exceptionally high quality, helping to “raise standards of design more generally in rural areas”. In addition, a house would have to “significantly enhance its immediate setting, and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area”.

No single route to success

The requirement for “truly outstanding or innovative” design means that there is no ‘right’ type of house that would receive planning permission. Instead, there is the need to focus on the individuality of a project and be aware that it is likely to be a long and intensive process.

It is clear that the sustainable design elements of the new build are key. Using natural, local materials can help the property to ‘take root’ in its local context. Equally important is how the property would positively impact the site, complementing and enhancing the existing landscape. Planning committees are more likely to approve houses which ‘belong’ in a landscape and use sustainable building technologies that are unique to the site.

Chances of success?

It is worth noting that the number of applications and the corresponding success rates are both quite low – a study found only 66 approvals between 2012 and 2018 (this was a 58% success rate, compared to an 88% success rate across all residential applications). Each case tends to have it own unique circumstances and the rules may be applied differently in different local authority areas. Engaging the local authority and any local communities or stakeholders early on in the project is very important. This will help to ensure that those making the final decisions about the build are confident in the quality, suitability and acceptability of the design and location.

We considered a lot of these aspects in the design of our Clogher Forest Village project.

Passivhaus residential architecture: learning from Goldsmith Street

 

The Goldsmith Street council housing scheme in Norwich is a gem of contemporary architecture, a precedent for the direction architecture should take as it wades through the challenges presented by today’s world. More than just a pleasant place to live, the scheme stands up to housing difficulties, faces dilemmas about inequality, and all the while tackles environmental concerns reaching Passivhaus standards.

Photo by Tim Crocker

Sustainability, equality, dignity, character, ecological and social consciousness, and the much-sought-after-but-rarely-achieved Passivhaus standard… we are all compelled by these terms and, in an ideal world, would like to implement them in our homes and our designs.

The truth, however, is that a very small percentage of new builds are willing to raise their standards to meet environmental and social demands, and that most home-owners and developers who do want to respond to these concerns are often deterred by the cost increase or the toll it takes on aesthetic aspirations. Indeed, for many years it seemed that too much had to be given up, that quality design and Passivhaus were a luxury… But then Mikhail Riches designed the Goldsmith Street housing scheme, and the Norwich City Council decided to build it.

Goldsmith Street is not remarkable just because it has achieved Passivhaus for social housing, it is remarkable because it is living proof that budget, design, and environment are not the irreconcilable points of a triangle we thought they were (read an earlier post we wrote on sustainable architecture principles).

This seemingly futile event has had a big impact on British architecture; council houses are constantly being commissioned and built, but few of them manage to have an impact, let alone a game-changing impact, on the way we see the future of architecture. And this is a future that is important to think about: as big cities like London face evermore pressing housing crisis and the effects of the damage to the environment start to be felt globally, it is crucial to identify a direction for architecture that addresses these issues.

The fact that Mikhail Riches’ design has received so many awards is a hopeful sign. To date, it has been bestowed with the RIBA East Award 2019, the RIBA East Client of the Year 2019 for Norwich City Council, the RIBA East Sustainability Award 2019, the RIBA National Award 2019, the Neave Brown Award for Housing 2019 and the RIBA Stirling Prize 2019… and there are probably more to come!

The scheme deserves each and every one of these prizes because of its relevance and uniqueness. For being innovative using humble forms, for proving that it is worth taking on a challenge such as is council housing, for having the courage to stick with its priorities, for designing with the people that will become occupiers in mind, for caring about the details, for not being afraid of using the traditional British street as a precedent, for understanding the difference between fashionable and good… and for inspiring other architects, like us, to strive to meet the same architectural and ethical standards.

You can read more about the Goldsmith Street design on the RIBA website.

Image © Tim Crocker

Rammed earth walls: natural and sustainable living

 

‘Rammed earth’ is a technique for constructing foundations, floors and walls from natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel. With the lowest enviromental impact of all building techniques currently used in the commercial construction industry, rammed earth is receiving growing attention and becoming more and more popular with architects, builders and clients alike. In this short post, we tell you a little more about the technique.

Rammed earth walls RISE Design Studio architect west london

Mixing it up

Rammed earth walls are made by ‘ramming’ a mixture of materials into place between flat, temporary panels called ‘formwork’. The panels are normally made of wood or plywood and they are clamped around the earth to make sure it doesn’t bulge when compressed. The materials rammed into the formwork generally include gravel, sand, silt and a small amount of clay.  An additive like lime, cement of asphalt is often added to make it extra strong.

The mixture is compressed inside the formwork by a mechanical ram and compacted to approximately 50% of its original height. The compression takes place in stages, usually in depths of 10cm to 25cm, and this is repeated until the top of the formwork is reached. This is the part of the process that results in the beautiful layers sometimes seen in rammed earth walls.

After the wall has been completed, the formwork is removed and a surface texture can be applied, e.g. by wire brushing or carving. The wall is normally too hard to work on after about one hour. As the walls dry and harden (ideally in warm weather), the compression strength of the rammed earth increases to a maximum of 4.3MPa (620 psi). This is less than concrete but sufficiently strong for domestic buildings.

Environmentally-friendly

Cured rammed earth has a high thermal mass. This means that it absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, which reduces heating and cooling costs. Environmental impacts are also kept low if the amount of processing of rammed earth materials is kept to a minimum (i.e. artificial additives) and material is sourced locally where possible. Most of the energy used in the construction of rammed earth is in quarrying the raw material and transporting it to the site.

Healthy home

The composition of rammed earth allows it to absorb and release humidity from the inside of a building. This improves air quality, particularly for people who suffer from asthma. Rammed earth is also inorganic, which means that it won’t decay and does not support the growth of mould.

Back to our roots

More than 30% of the world’s population uses earth as a building material, hence this technique is not new. Properly constructed rammed earth can also last for thousands of years, demonstrated by the many ancient structures built using this technique which are still standing around the world.

It has received growing attention in recent years as the construction industry and its customers have a growing sense of the need for environmentally friendly and sustainable building practices. Not only does the technique offer opportunities for carbon-neutral building projects, the technique can be employed in a wide range of climatic conditions and for developing housing that would otherwise be constrained due to expensive construction techniques.

It is a technique that we have been exploring at RISE Design Studio, particularly in our drive to use local, sustainably-sourced building materials.

Build your own home

 

Tens of thousands of people in the UK have built their own home. It can cost a lot of money, take a lot of time to plan and manage, and require a lot more attention to detail than when buying an existing property, but many find that it is worth it to ensure they live in a home that suits their requirements and tastes. In this post, we tell you a bit about what is involved in building your own home so that you can decide whether or not it is for you.

New build architect london

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Self-build properties now account for nearly ten per cent of all private new-build homes in the UK each year. While ‘self-build’ may conjure images of statement ‘Grand Designs’ properties, most tend to have relatively modest designs. This helps the design to receive planning permission and receive funding from mortgage lenders. Mortgages tend to be ‘interest only’, with the borrower paying interest when money is drawn down at the completion of each stage of the build.

A larger deposit than that for buying an existing home is usually required, and additional early costs include buying the building plot, funding planning applications, as well as employing an architect, project manager and a builder. It is ideal to source the architect and construction team via word of mouth, preferably from others who have gone through the self-build process.

Institutional support and finding a plot

As a rule of thumb, building your own home costs £1,500-£2,000 per square metre, although any changes to the original design and spefication during the construction phase can increase these values. Although initial costs are higher than for buying an existing home, there are tax advantages to building a new home rather than extending your current (or an existing) property: new self-builds qualify for rebates on VAT, for example, with the self-builder able to claim back most of the VAT paid on materials. Although VAT cannot be reclaimed on professionals’ fees, nor on household appliances, the average VAT reclaim for one-off schemes is about £13,200.

The Housing Strategy for England (2011) set out the expectation that the number of self-built properties in England would double, with 100,000 to be completed by 2021. In 2016, several legal measures have facilitated more self and custom builds by placing a duty on councils to allocate land for this purpose. Despite this legislation (the Housing and Planning Act), access to land in London remains an issue, as does gaining planning permission and accessing the required funding.

Demolish and redevelop

While there may be few plots with planning permission available, estate agents tend to know about properties that are suitable for demolition and redevelopment. This is likely to be more expensive than buying land with planning permission (i.e. the value of the building is included and there are also demolition costs), but it tends to be easier to get planning permission via this route.

The most important aspect of a self-build project is staying on budget. This requires a project team that estimates the cost of the build accurately and keeps to this quote. A good project manager is crucial in this regard. If you would like to discuss a new self-build project with us, please get in touch.

How much does it cost to build a house?

 

We’re often asked how much it costs to build a house. This is a difficult question to answer: every new build has its own requirements and new build costs depend on a range of factors. In reality, it is possible to have an accurate estimate of the price when all of the drawings and work schedules have been completed. However, there are a number of variables and issues that you can take into account to gain a sense of price before then. We’ve outlined these below.

New build london architect

Location and design

Construction costs vary depending on the location of the site in the country. Central London will be a lot more expensive than elsewhere. For a new build home designed by an architect in London or the South East, current minimum construction costs tend to be in the region of £1,750 per square metre, with land acquisition and professional fees on top of this. Where other issues apply (and we’ll come to these next), this figure is likely to increase to a minimum of £2,000 per square metre.

The design of the property can also have an impact on the cost. It is important to use an architect who has a track record of designing houses that are within your budget (see examples on our Projects page). Where the highest quality finishes are required, the cost per square metre may rise to £4,000 (and more).

Factors that increase costs

It is likely that several other factors will apply to the project which will lead to higher costs. Examples include: party walls; difficult site access; specialist foundation requirements; non-standard forms of construction (e.g. cross-laminated timber); large areas of glazing rather than walls; and high spec kitchens and bathrooms.

There are a number of fees that will also need to be taken into account:

– Purchase costs (price of the sale, solicitor’s fees, survey, Stamp Duty Land Tax);
– Finance costs (relating to any borrowing and associated interest rates); and
– Consultant costs (these will also vary depending on the size and nature of the project – architect, structural engineer, inspectors, etc.).

Factors that decrease costs

There are a number of tax benefits for new build houses which can offset some of the above costs. Stamp duty is calculated on the value of the land only, which is typically less than the value of the land with an existing home on it. Community Infrastructure Levies can be considerable (especially in London) but new self-build properties are usually exempt from this (in line with certain residency terms). VAT is also not payable on the construction costs of a new build house and, assuming the house will be the principle private residence, Capital Gains Tax is not payable if you make a profit at the point of sale.

If you are interested in exploring the cost of a new build project with RISE Design Studio, please get in touch.