The time is right for new models of housing

Mark Parsons

It feels like the time is right, at least in Sheffield, for new models of housing, and living in the city in ways that have maybe not been considered in masterplans and existing strategies. Three factors are combining to make this the case.

Firstly, the economic downturn of recent years has led to numerous buildings and sites in the city centre which had been emptied in anticipation of demolition and redevelopment, remaining empty, with at best window dressing to give an impression of activity.

Secondly, there is an urgent need for more housing nationally – homeless charity Shelter recently quoted demand to be in the region of 250,000 new homes a year and, in addition to this actual affordability is crucial – with a recent Guardian article quoting homes costing ‘almost nine times local salaries, and those who will never be able to afford to buy or rent privately are on council house waiting lists with more than 20,000 other people’.

Thirdly, and finally, there is an increasing interest in both custom-build and alternatives to speculative housing provision, and models of housing with a greater element of the shared, such as co-housing are gaining popularity, especially amongst older people. Sheffield City Council was recently successful in its bid to become one 11 vanguard councils to receive funding to develop a strategy for housing provision that may include new models of land transfer, housing provision and procurement. The majority of UK custom-build examples focus on new-build, either on ‘greenfield’ or ‘brownfield’ sites however, whereas in continental Europe, where living in cities is more common, many examples of creative re-use and retrofit exist.

When considering sites for housing, and in particular in relation to our cities, this often comes down to zoning and masterplanning. The processes of commissioning, development and implementation of masterplans are lengthy, and by the time these are put into place the social, political and economic climate may have changed. Could shorter term models of housing, allow both local authorities and those interested in living in different ways, to see how these might work in practice by testing both housing types, and housing locations in the shorter term?

Why should the availability and design of housing be 

dictated primarily by large developers and ‘the market’?

Organisations such as Sheffield’s Common People are already doing this in the sphere of business start-ups, allowing young organisations to test ideas and bring life to underused areas of the city, the Union Street Co-working Space being just one example. Housing could also form part of this rich mix of new ideas and life in the city. ‘Meanwhile’ need not mean precarious, and the creative, short term use of existing buildings does not require significant investment.

More of us are asking why the availability and, just as importantly, the design of housing should be dictated primarily by large developers, their profits and ‘the market’? The variety of non-domestic buildings in the centre of our cities offers huge opportunities, architecturally, with larger, or unusual spaces.

Commercial buildings are often suited to conversion and more flexible use due to larger wall- free areas and the structural capacity of floors. A greater connection to others, proximity to shops and services, and an opportunity for reduced car usage are all additional benefits of living in the city, as is proximity to workplaces. All of these have financial and often health benefits, as recent studies on the effects of loneliness have pointed out. Businesses also benefit from increased footfall and a local customer base, and city centres become lively and well-used at all times. There is an opportunity for family dwellings, live-work spaces, housing for the elderly and combinations of dwellings of varying sizes and typologies in our regional cities.

There is also the huge challenge in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, with the construction and operation of buildings contributing to the widely quoted figure of almost 50% of carbon dioxide emissions. While stricter regulation is delivering more energy efficient new homes, there are significant savings to be made by retrofitting our existing building stock, reducing both the energy required in the demolition of existing stock, and in the construction of the new.

In terms of the legibility and character of our cities, this adaptation of the existing allows layers of history to remain visible, and, although not always of architectural significance, our commercial or industrial buildings are part of the story of city centres, and their wholescale removal and replacement (that often forms part of rather broad-brush local government strategies) can rob us of this rich collage of buildings.

Studio Polpo were commissioned by Common People to assist in the change of use of a city centre commercial building into a shared space for living and working, and the documentation of this process formed the starting point of our ‘Common Rooms’ study. A key driver of this study, and the manner of its distribution, has been to put information and research that may otherwise often stay within academia or local government into the public realm. The Common Rooms project has the twin aims of demystifying certain processes and allowing anyone to engage with them; and acting as a call to action and engagement, a starting point for a conversation or further actions by others.

The design and prototyping of a secondary glazing system (often the most cost effective way of reducing heat loss, and thus energy use in buildings, without permanently altering the building fabric) as part of this project, has, for example, already generated interest from a number of organisations who see this kind of open source solution as a way of making temporary uses both more comfortable and affordable.

We hope that Common Rooms might be a step towards encouraging people in Sheffield and beyond to positively influence their city centre, to create a variety of lively and positive models for inhabiting and enlivening the many empty and unloved buildings found there. Interesting examples exist in other UK cities, from the more informal live-work spaces of Hackney Wick documented by Ash Sakula and Anthony Brown (who also investigates the growing trend of property guardians), to longer-term full retrofit of a disused office block forming part of the Ashley Vale Action Group’s custom build scheme in Bristol.

  • The Common Rooms document will be issued in the coming weeks, for details see the Studio Polpo website.

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Mark Parsons

Mark Parsons

Mark Parsons is a director at Studio Polpo and also teaches at the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield.

1 Comment

  • Sceptic

    ‘Why should the availability and design of housing be dictated primarily by large developers and ‘the market’?’. Well, the basic reason is because there is no mechanism to capture for community benefit the full value uplift created by an award of planning permission for housing. This leads to a the most socially unproductive part of the whole system, the land/building owner, reaping the majority of the benefit (even if the land is in public ownership public authorities need a return – market rental models are perhaps a way forward). As a result costs to entry are high, major developers are not incentivised to build and the public does not get the housing it needs. Land reform on the German model is needed. All else is blather or at least a niche concern.

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