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By createstreets, Jun 16 2017 03:00AM

Here is an article we pubished in the Estates Gazette on 10 May.

HEALTH AND WELLBEING: Are you in heaven or are you in hell? Are towers good for you?

Frothy coffees. Funky spaces. Great neighbours. Green roofs. Walking to everything. Watching the sun go down from your exclusive eyrie. To read the PR patter of a hundred sales brochures right now is to realise that high-rise heaven is round the corner and up the lift-shaft. We have learnt, proclaim sleek developers and confident architects, from the mistakes of the past. This time people will be happy and the windows will clean themselves.

Are they right? Some market signals are hopeful. There is a market for top end residential flats high in towers. In modern, high-end, well-managed London developments with a reliable lift, each floor is typically worth 1.5% more. Some robust sociological studies show that middle income or wealthy residents can be very satisfied with their homes as long as the blocks are well managed. And recent city-wide data shows that crime, particularly burglary, can now be lower in high-rise buildings compared to other housing. With more prosperous residents, controlled access, more expensive management and street locations, high-rises can be very safe places to live.

However, take the long view and the data is more disturbing. What is the evidence of the experience of living in high-rise or large blocks on wellbeing and correlated factors such as children’s progress, physical activity and social interconnectivity levels? Clearly people can be happy in towers and miserable in houses and vice versa. However, our study, Heart in the Right Street, has reviewed 85 peer-reviewed academic studies which contrasted socio-economically comparable groups living in high and low-rise accommodation. Sixty-seven (79%) found that high-rise residence was negatively associated with some aspect of wellbeing. Nine (11%) found no association either way. And nine (11%) found a positive association between high-rise residency and wellbeing. Living in large high-rise buildings is less popular for most, associated with higher levels of stress and mental depression (particularly for women in families), is normally inimical to effective child-rearing and seems to be normally associated with lower levels of social capital. Nor does very recent research suggest this is changing. One very recent study (though imperfectly controlled) found that Vancouver high-rise residents were less likely than those living in detached homes to know their neighbours’ names, to have done them a favour, to trust them or to believe that their wallet would be returned if lost locally.

Why is this? Three reasons stand out. Firstly, it often seems to be much harder to bring up children in large blocks of flats. Children go outside less when they live in high-rises. They spend more time playing alone or in restricted play. This is not without consequences. One controlled study, compared mothers of under fives in the Newcastle estate of Cruddas Park. Some 62% of mothers living on the sixth floor or above reported difficulties with the ‘play, health [or] personality’ of their children; 53% of mothers in high-rise below the sixth-floor reported issues. However only 3% of mothers in houses reported issues.

Secondly, when the internal scale of a large building matches their external scale, towers can “atomise” and dehumanise by taking away from residents control over who they will meet as they travel between their flat and the public realm. The can increase withdrawal and anonymity and decrease friendships. Residents may meet more people but they will know fewer of them. Research suggests that “the richest social environments are those in which we feel free to edge closer together or move apart as we wish”. However, living in large buildings can undermines these bonds of social interdependence. And society needs these bonds. Professor Robert Gifford has cited a very wide range of controlled studies that make this point emphatically. In one study, those with garden flats had three times as many friends in the building as those on high floors. In another study residents of low-rise buildings had 50% more local friends than residents of high-rise buildings.

Thirdly, bigger more complex buildings cost much more to manage. A 2012 Cambridge study found that service charges rose as densities increased. One very experienced architect concluded that “it is inevitable that tall buildings have much higher management costs”. This seems to be particularly the case as high-rise buildings age. Service charges in the Barbican Centre’s Shakespeare Tower are £8,000 a year. This is fine if residents or owners can afford it. But if they can’t, the communal area can become pretty unpleasant. This was what happened following the last high-rise boom. What is the long-term outlook for luxury towers in a post-Brexit outer London?

Flats in ultra-high density buildings have their place in the modern city. The platonic ideal of the high-rise resident will usually be a male, prosperous, childless, second-home owner. Towers can work. But they are clearly, statistically, not for everyone. Sip carefully because the coffee isn’t as frothy as it seems.

By createstreets, Jun 9 2017 07:22AM

What does the hung parliament and a likely minority Conservative Government propped up by the DUP mean for housing delivery and for architecture ?

It’s very hard to be certain (that’s rather the problem with weak governments) but here are a few observations.

Firstly, whatever happens they’ll be a new housing minister. Gavin Barwell lost his Croydon Central seat on Thursday night. They’ll be many from across the housing sector and political spectrum who regret that. He was widely seen as getting on top of his brief and being impressively pragmatic and hard working.

Secondly, look at the seats that the Conservative lost last night and they were very largely in cities or towns - a whole slice of London seats and others such as Canterbury, Ipswich, Peterborough, Bath, Bedford, Cardiff North. In contrast the seats they gained were mainly rural and in Scotland. The seats of their likely partners, the DUP, are also mainly rural. So the contrast between the mainly urban, metropolitan architectural and housing profession and those of the (admittedly barely) governing parties could barely be sharper. With the AJ poll showing 64% of architects voting Labour, the difference of geography and mindset between the profession and the government has probably never been greater. Rural and suburban government. An urban profession? A challenge for the incoming president of RIBA.

Thirdly, whatever your politics, the whole problem with hung parliaments and minority governments is that they are not very good at getting things done. The smallest number of disgruntled backbenchers can stop a policy in its tracks. And this government is going to have some fairly major diplomatic challenges as well. Most commentators think that the Housing White Paper had quite a lot of good suggestions in it. I fear those that not all of those are as likely to be delivered now as they were before Thursday, particularly any which scare Conservative backbenchers in shires and suburbs.

A final thought. Architects who are looking for areas of likely public sector investment in infrastructure and schools in the years to come. Think about opening an office in Belfast.

By createstreets, Apr 25 2017 01:12PM

Joseph Jutras, founder of the Institution of Traditional Architecture in the Netherlands, writes:

It is a good question and it can be tempting to answer in financial terms. Beauty is good for the local economy, especially when considering property values and tourism. For example, compare tourism in Paris to Brasilia. Or two small cities in Belgium: Bruges and Liège. There is no question that beauty brings in the money. Or perhaps one can go the wellness route and talk about patient recovery times and levels of crime. Or sustainability. Beautiful buildings are maintained. Ugly buildings are demolished and new ones built in their place. However, these approaches are functional, intellectual arguments; and if we are honest with ourselves, they are erected to justify a far more basic truth. We should build beautiful simply because we like it. Beauty brings us pleasure, and that should be enough.

Granted, there is a spectrum of how sensitive people are to beauty. On one end of the spectrum someone might thrive living in a concrete box. On the other end, someone might crumble living in the same environment. Sadly, many do crumble and the social effects are devastating: addiction, depression, suicide, abuse. Naturally beauty isn’t the panacea that will fix all these issues, but it’s clear that beauty alleviates them while a concrete box exacerbates them. For those that can thrive living in a concrete box, let me pose some parallel questions.

Why go to a good movie? Why not just pay the money, sit in the seat for a couple of hours, and watch drivel? You are doing the same thing, and spending the same amount of money and time either way.

Or, why look for meaningful work? Why not just find a job, any job really? If the pay and hours are roughly the same, does it matter if the work is meaningful or if you like your colleagues?

Why eat good food? Isn’t the point of eating just to get calories in your body so you can work, so you can earn money so you can go to movies and buy food so you can eat so you can work…

Aristotle observed that we do many things for the sake of something else. As Julian Baggini writes:

“We eat to live, work to pay the mortgage, study to pass exams and so on. But unless at least one thing is done for its own sake, there is no point in doing anything. Not everything can be a means to an end: there must be ends which are valuable in their own right. So if living must at some stage be valuable in itself if it is to be worthwhile, why not here and now?”

Here’s the trick: with the right attitude many things, even common activities, can be viewed as valuable in their own right. Take eating and exercise for example. Viewed as a means to an end, eating is performed to ingest calories and exercise to burn these calories. However, eating and exercise can be much more than this. Enjoying the ritual of a nice meal and the taste of good food makes life better. Some people run to stay fit and it becomes a chore. Others run for the joy of it and it makes life better – and as a bonus, they still stay fit.

We can look at buildings through the same lens. In their basic sense buildings provide shelter and security. But they can and should be so much more. Beautiful buildings make life better simply because we like beauty. It creates a fuller experience and enhances the simple joy of being alive. As a bonus we get all the good stuff associated with beautiful buildings like financial gain, sustainability, and wellbeing.

So watch good movies, find meaningful work, jog without the headphones, the heartrate monitor, and the GPS watch, eat good food, use the good china, and… for our town planners, architects, and developers; build beautiful! It’s not hedonism (at least not in the current use of the word), it’s humanism.


By createstreets, Mar 15 2017 03:03PM

In the early 1990s, Washington DC was not just the capital, but also the murder capital, of the United States. Despite this, I found it a surprisingly enjoyable place to live, when I spent the year out before my diploma there, working for the eminent classical architect Allan Greenberg.

I lived in a neighbourhood called Mount Pleasant, which is on the edge of the prosperous North West quarter between 16th Street and North Creek Park. Though pretty, it was quite a violent area which had experienced riots the year before. I was completely oblivious to this when signing the tenancy agreement on a charming 1920s Queen Anne-style terraced house, which I shared with two strangers, but never felt any danger. My housemates and I used to play an improvised version of fives in a nearby parking lot, which I wouldn't have considered had I felt threatened.

The same Neo-Queen Anne terrace houses continue down the road in Adams Morgan, a district much like London's Camden Town. Some were painted bright colours and a few had vast murals across their facades. It is a place with bars and restaurants from all over the world, reflecting the diverse ethnic population. I remember going to lots of Ethiopian restaurants and Club Heaven and Hell, a nightclub in a scruffy terraced house, with only a half-hearted attempt to convert it into its new function.

My route to work took me south-west from Adams Morgan to Dupont Circle, a traffic island where Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues dive underground, making the junction relatively free of traffic. Dupont Circle is in effect a small urban park, with a Beaux Arts fountain in the middle and chess tables around the edge. Overlooking the circle is the Patterson Mansion, a glorious Italianate house designed by Stanford White in 1903, and sole relic of the extravagant residences of earlier eras. Dupont Circle has the Bohemian charm of Adams Morgan while being slightly more upmarket. It made a pleasant place to spend my lunch breaks.

A mile or so south of Dupont Circle you come to the Mall, the sacred heart of both American government and the city itself, and an architectural statement of power in the manner of Versailles. The Mall is a vast park centred on the Washington Monument. The White House and the Jefferson Memorial terminate the north-south axis, while the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial mark the ends of the much longer east-west axis. A huge perfectly rectangular lake runs down the middle and the Potomac River cuts into the south side, making the Jefferson Memorial seem like an island. Meanwhile the north side is lined with massive classical temples, housing various museums and government institutions.

Recently, watching the opening credits of 'House of Cards', I was reminded of the sheer beauty of Washington's classical monuments, sitting within a relatively modest low-rise urban setting. The juxtaposition is most clearly seen on 16th Street, where a full-size replica of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is surrounded by an edgy urban environment more suitable for a Quentin Tarantino film. It is an unlikely location for one of the seven wonders of the world, but works in its own way. I remain intrigued by the surreal combination of small-town America with the crushing grandeur of classical temples to political power.

Although Washington has its problems, it displays many of the qualities of good urbanism. Restrictions on building heights mean that the Capitol, unlike St Paul's, is not dwarfed by skyscrapers, and the urban grain creates a backdrop against which the classical monuments can shine. I believe that a good city should be densely populated without resorting to skyscrapers, and this was my approach for the Royal Mail site at London's Mount Pleasant, where we achieved a similar density to a high-rise proposal using mediumrise mansion blocks on a network of streets. Seeing all the towers being built in our capital, I feel that it is unfortunate that London does not have the same legislation as Washington. It would make a better city.

Francis Terry is an architect and the founder and director of Francis Terry and Associates. He has worked with Create Streets on numerous projects including Mount Pleasant, Create Boulevards and Little Oval.

By createstreets, Feb 28 2017 09:56PM

Ruaidhri Tulloch is an architect and former SPAB scholar. He works in the Paris region in the social and rental housing sector. He writes (click here for the full article):

There are plenty of differences in building regulations and planning between the UK and France. The certainties in the codified French planning system make it relatively simple for a small developer to identify a potential building site and evaluate if a viable project can be produced there. This is particularly important on small plots, the kind that make a gap in the street.

These unused gap sites are everywhere particularly in the British townscape. There are mini markets, one story retailers, fast food outlets, detached houses in streets that should be denser, endless outside car parks and plenty of unusable 'green' space. In French this type of potential infill site is evocatively called une dent creuse, a missing tooth.

In France a developer is able to know from day one what the planning system will let him build. This means he can put together realistic financial plans from the outset. Risk is taken out of putting a project together. A small developer does his financial analysis and buys the plot. Normally though he prefers to sign a contract with the property owner promising to buy in a few months once he has planning permission. That's better for cash flow and there are of course some minor risks in the French system.

Now the little street plots we talked about are still economically tricky to develop even without planning risk. The car park, detached house or retail unit already there has worth. A developer has to demolish and rebuild and yet still increase the worth in sales or as a rental landlord. He's going to have to put together a tidy little project with as many flats as possible.

Building regulations are another hurdle that the developer has to deal with. Again, in France the system is easier for the small developer trying to build 10 or 20 flats. Fire safety requirements are less demanding in France at this scale, perhaps because ladder rescue is not totally discounted as in the UK.

Another interesting difference is found in the rules for basement car parks. In an outer London borough or provincial town centre, the target clients for selling these flats are maybe first time buyers. The developer is going to need to include parking in his project. In France unlike the UK, basement car parks under small groups of flats are commonplace, why is that?

Again the UK system is phenomenally more demanding on small developments. Ventilation requirements for single level basement car parks in France are almost 1/10th those demanded by the UK building regulations1. However that is only if the developer is hoping to put together an economical small project with natural ventilation only. If he is planning a large multi-level car park, like he might build under a fancy new tower block, he's better off in the UK, where requirements for ventilation machinery actually appear more lenient.

Cities were traditionally built building by building, plot by plot. They generally evolved as their population increased again by re-building plot by plot. Providing covered horse stabling or car parking has always been part of this way of doing things.

Economies of scale work against mid and small sized development projects. A healthy planning and regulatory system should take care not to compound this problem with more bias against small development. This is sadly the case in the UK today. Small and medium size developers, the ones that can only work at this smaller scale, are key to a healthy competitive house building sector.

In France it is easier to develop the small humdrum 'gap' sites in neighbourhoods where people want to live. Furthermore, because the French planning system is form-code based, planners and local councillors are by default pro-actively involved in development. To return to the dental analogy, we could say France’s planning system and simpler regulations make it easier to replace missing teeth, create kissable streets and put the smile back in neglected neighbourhoods.

"Hey, while I am in the chair dentist, I kind of regret those high-rise fangs I had put in last year, could you remove them?"

"That's tricky. More painful to pull them out than put them in."

"But they hurt and make me look evil..."

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