Glenn Howells - Achieving Excellent Ordinary Housing is one of our most important challenges
How to achieve 'excellent ordinary housing' was the challenge facing Cities and communities according to Glenn Howells, one of Birmingham's most renowned architects, at the Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO last week.
"How we create an environment where people can live together and have their own space whilst also being part of a wider community poses a particular set of challenges," said Glenn.
Community as a notion was not as strong in the UK as in other countries, such as Italy or Ireland, for example. In these places the bond between a person and a place was so strong that many sought to return in later years simply to be 'home' once more.
"If housing is about the excellent ordinary then it is one of the most important challenges we have," he said adding, "housing development in the UK has taken on too much of a commodity approach."
Glenn commented on the lessons that he had taken away from his recent experience in developing and building The Triangle in Swindon with Kevin McCloud.
With self-deprecating humour he said it had been too important a project to hand over to an architect, adding that they had enjoyed a close working relationship with a landscape architect to create a 'community', not simply lots of housing.
Secondly, they'd focussed on developing sustainable housing through low-tech solutions. "Triple glazing means that you fry in summer. We built the houses from hemp which sequesters carbon in its construction. We used heat pumps and recycled water."
Thirdly the cost had been no different to other mainstream housing development coming in at £85 per square foot. "We spent a lot of time on the detail," added Glenn. "It's now been built with just 40 families living in the homes, although around 2000 applied for them."
There were three 'big ideas' in their approach - creating 'excellent ordinary housing', finding ways to create individual and collective spaces and equally finding ways of mixing cars with diversity.
"Cars have been the biggest challenge and white vans. We have tried to screen off cars with the aim of creating an urban design that's great to walk around."
In reviewing the history of residential design Glenn noted that Bourneville Village, developed in 1900 had been an 'astonishing' piece of work, 'with all sorts of clues for the 21st century'.
"We are often taken to Sweden and Holland but there is so much right here closer to home. Bourneville has been very innovative around its Community Interest Company with residents offered opportunities in their gardening club.
"It has great buildings and a great public realm with a programme enabling people to operate in a friendly way and encouraging the idea of sharing.
"It's important to 'authorise' people to have a go. Shared allotments or gardening clubs have been a great success.
"Some developers are too focussed on separation and privacy rather than coming together and one consequence has been a lack of belonging."
Beverley Nielsen is Director of Employer Engagement at Birmingham City University