When creating homes you have to put people first, then work on the buildings and spaces. Placemaking simply doesn’t work unless you start with a vision for the community
Our starting point for what makes good housing has to be the residents. The people who are actually going to live on each development. That might sound obvious but it doesn’t always happen.
Good housing starts with recognising that every house is someone’s home. It’s the place where you return at the end of each day, the place where you might have a family, where you find a community and feel like you belong.
That means on every site you have to put people first - before you work on the streets and the buildings. You have to start with a vision for the community.
Next, you plan for the things that really matter to residents: good shops and somewhere to play, knowing your neighbours, feeling safe, and being able to influence what goes on. That’s what I mean by placemaking.
If you put all these elements together, that’s when you start to create value and build somewhere that’s sustainable.
In terms of the product, you need to get a few key elements absolutely right - room size, specification, storage and aspect. We are building homes, after all, not units. And all these homes should be tenure-blind in terms of the architecture, quality of materials and access to essential amenities.
That doesn’t mean that every entrance and lobby should be identical or that every block of apartments has to fully integrate private residents and affordable tenants. Generally, the affordable tenants don’t want to incur the higher service charge applied to private apartments. But exactly the same expectation of quality in terms of finish should apply to all the homes that we build.
You have to care about the choice of brick, the trees, the signage, the benches and the bin store. These things matter. Placemaking is a craft. It’s not a production line
If you visit One Tower Bridge, for example, I defy you to spot the affordable. This is a prime development site, sat between the traditional warehouse look of Shad Thames and the contemporary lines of More London.
The affordable housing comes in traditional brick-clad buildings using a soft yellow London stock. It’s a simple, elegant design that will stand the test of time. It stands confidently beside the private homes. Combined with proper investment in great public realm, they have turned an old coach park into somewhere that is beautiful and lively.
In respect of planning, we should guard against a one-size-fits-all approach. In my experience, problems can arise when you apply a rigid set of planning rules without sufficient flexibility. We have to manage costs intelligently, balancing the need for affordability, and not being too regulatory helps us to achieve this.
Does every apartment really need two balconies, for instance? And if we could build 50% more homes in a block of 100 by reducing the drawing rooms from 12ft to 11ft and making the bedrooms 10ft wide, isn’t that worth considering? It gives us additionality and affordability - two things the market wants above all else right now.
What we do need is a real passion for development. You have to work incredibly hard at the detail. You have to care about the choice of brick, the trees, the signage, the benches and the bin store. These things matter. Placemaking is a craft. It’s not a production line.
You also have to listen and to learn. Most customers don’t need complicated technology, for example. They don’t want six different ways of turning on the lights or the music. They want ease and simplicity.
Stepping back, I do believe the quality of development has got much better over the last 10 years. You can argue about the merits of tall buildings or modern methods of construction but the industry is thinking about placemaking and place-keeping in a much more sophisticated way today.
That applies to density as well. In reality, it’s just a calculation undertaken when the design is complete that expresses how many homes are to be accommodated in relation to the size of the site. It’s the quality that matters.
If you get it right, density allows you to create more value and funds investment in facilities and amenities for the community. At Woodberry Down in Hackney, Berkeley is replacing 1,890 flats with 5,500 homes. And it’s this additionality that generates the revenue to pay for the commercial, the public realm, the youth projects, jobs programmes and all the other things that make a place thrive.
So what makes good housing? Fundamentally, I think it starts with four basic ideas.
At its heart, housing is about people. You have to put people first, then work on the streets and the buildings.
Second, it’s about creating a community. A place with an identity, where people feel like they belong.
Then comes the landscape and the space between buildings, combined with simple, elegant architecture. Great public realm is what makes places feel sociable and safe.
And above all, it’s about having a real passion for development - an eye for detail, an ability to collaborate, and genuine respect for the people from all walks of life who will live in each home that we build.
Tony Pidgley CBE is chairman of the Berkeley Group. This article is adapted from his presentation for Ecobuild 2016