London tall buildings must try harder on design quality

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Developers proposing tall buildings in London must concentrate much harder on design quality if they are to enhance a denser capital.

That was one of the key take-aways from a think tank -  High rise living – the future of residential towers in London’, held at Perkins & Will’s White Chapel Building last week.

NLA chairman Peter Murray kicked off proceedings with some reflections on what the draft London Plan had to say about this topic – notably that tall buildings should have a ‘top, middle and bottom’, reflecting perhaps a return to Vancouver-like ‘podium-thinking’; that more design reviews should be held, prior to planning applications, and that tall buildings should be of an ‘exemplary’ standard – something London sometimes falls short of. Towers should also be wayfinding symbols, according to the plan, and they may figure in a city which will be planned more using 3d and VR technologies, added Murray – although how this will be paid for is not yet spelt out.

John East, Strategic Director for Growth and Homes, LB Barking and Dagenham, said his authority is relatively ‘neutral’ on towers, B&D having approved several in Barking Town Centre. The borough does have a 3D model through VuCity – ‘I’m not sure you can properly plan for towers without having access to a 3D model’. But whether values support them, particularly in east London where the real need is for affordable housing, is questionable, East said. Tall buildings are expensive, and in places where values are low, what suffers of course, is design quality, he added. In any case, have we achieved what previous plans and intentions had set out, looking back 10-15 years? ‘My argument would be probably not’, said East. How many of those towers had won design awards? How many made the Stirling Prize shortlist? An awful lot of towers had sprung up whose initial CGIs were great but whose build quality was ‘pretty mediocre’. The only two of merit East could mention were Neo Bankside and The Shard, and the public’s lack of support for them as a building type was a direct result of quality issues and ‘dumbed down’ projects through the implementation of policy. ‘I think we have got to think completely differently about design quality’, he said. ‘What we’ve had in the last 10-15 years is a process which hasn’t worked.’

Millharbour is the densest place in the UK, with 90,000 people per km2, set to rise to 130,000 by the end of next year with large landmark towers being built on small footprints, said Isle of Dogs Cllr Andrew Wood. The area will see schemes including a 75 storey (whose density is 5,100 habitable rooms per hectare), as well as 68-, 67-, 63-, 60-, and 55-storey towers, with a ‘whole gaggle’ of others around the 40-storey mark. The population of Wood’s ward will rise as a result by 20,000 in the next seven years and many of these schemes will bring associated affordable housing. ‘Tall buildings can deliver’, said Wood.

But what was important was matching claims with reality, with residents of some towers already expressing disquiet through Facebook groups. ‘They’re saying “don’t sell a dream and expect us all to live the nightmare”, said Wood. ‘Which comes back to the quality issue’, with glossy brochures departing starkly from the built reality.

At Old Oak Common, said Dan Epstein of Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation, there will be around 30 tall buildings, which will have a major impact on schools, green space and other social infrastructure, making the creation of decent streets especially important. But a worry was that we may be returning to housing focused models of development rather than proper mixed use regeneration. Hyper dense development is driven by housing capacity studies and the economics of regenerating difficult sites. Capacities are often determined before a detailed masterplan has been developed, and this can impact on place making and on getting the right mix. That mix, indeed, needs to be really curated, said Gensler principal Lukasz Platkowski, with a deeper view than simply providing, say, retail.

And yet curating uses could be the problem, said Perkins + Will principal David Green, often leading to designed public realm tied to specific buildings at a specific point. ‘That’s absolutely not the way to design cities’, he said. Streets are being neglected, said Green, and many towers are completely inflexible and unadaptable. And what are they saying about our cities anyway, asked William Murray, group director of strategy at Wordsearch. Who, exactly, are they for? ‘I look at some of the tall buildings in London and think we sold our skyline to millionaires’, said Murray. ‘Why do they get to have that and own our city?’

HTA managing partner Simon Bayliss, who is building the largest modular tower in the world, in Croydon, says quality is set in the factory in modular techniques, which could be a ‘fantastic solution’. But there is an issue when density makes an area difficult in terms of play area provision for children, said Wood. There is pressure, too, on politicians to deliver as much housing as possible, and, in Tower Hamlets, to spend right-to-buy receipts (some £85m) within three years.

In Deptford and New Cross, too, a number of tall buildings are coming forward, but which don’t really deliver affordable housing and are not contributing to what makes the area special, said Lewisham’s head of planning Emma Talbot. ‘They have a role to play but are certainly not the answer’, she said. People object to tall buildings because they are emotive, and the council struggles to answer what benefits they bring to local people. And 25 storeys, she added, is now not even seen as ‘tall’, with a rush to towers often seen as a lazy one-upmanship. ‘I want to know the rationale behind a tall building, not the justification.’

In Kingston, said the borough’s Urban Design & Development Lead, Strategic Planning, Chloe Clay, one of the things the council has found is that tall buildings do not tend to meet with as much resistance when the public approve of the elements going into them. The high number of heritage assets in Kingston makes things more difficult, however. For its part, Historic England has argued for a character-led approach, said London Planning director Emily Gee; understanding what is significant about places. Consequently, Historic England is happy to see the plan-led approach in the draft London Plan, but its anxiety levels rise when it sees more authorities simply wanting tall buildings to ‘put them on the map’. ‘That makes us nervous’, said Gee.

For GL Hearn’s head of residential planning James Cook, proximity to stations will be important, and engineering companies, said Lucasz, are looking at building over stations, but must do so in a much more affordable way. Innovations are coming in this area, said WSP director Jane Richards, chiefly through modular; it will always be more expensive to ‘overbuild’, although it is becoming more feasible. ‘You can do pretty much anything you want with a tall building’ she added, but a trend WSP has noted is for local authorities partnering with developer to deliver large plots of land, as in Haringey

Talbot instead raised concerns about the quality of what being initially presented

 when it comes to TfL and Network Rail, as a numbers-driven approach could prevail over  a placemaking one. Lewisham is doing its bit to up design quality by trying to retain architects on schemes, if only through a payment via Section 106s. By so doing they can hire the original architect to ensure that quality is retained during construction. Otherwise the concern is that we are repeating the mistakes of the past, Talbot said, as well as the present.

Places like Kings Cross exemplify a longer-term approach that PRS developers also promise, but, said Clay, when it comes to land values these aren’t necessarily coming to Kingston.

The draft London Plan’s recommendation that towers should have a bottom, middle, and top was not a new strategy to SimpsonHaugh’s Christian Male, whose practice has always looked to how its buildings hit the ground and sky. Its One Blackfriars, though, was ‘seamless’, said Peter Murray, but, added Christian Male, was a ‘visionary statement in a different time, a singular building, designed to be an urban marker at the head of a cluster. At the time of its conception 14 years ago it was intended to trigger change for the Borough helping to attract development further into Southwark from the river’. It was also an example of where English Heritage said it would not object to the project if the height was dropped by 10m and the developers ‘buckled’, said East. He envisaged it as the start of a ‘tree lined-boulevard’ leading down to Elephant and Castle in the borough he worked at when One Blackfriars was being determined. But if what was sold to local people as a benefit of this project and others – an enhanced public realm paid for by Section 106 money – does not happen, that erodes public confidence, East added.

Simon Bayliss said that architects have to get quality fixed in at the planning stage – one can deliver more with height but such schemes have to integrate well with the street and be part of a bigger vision. But what should also be remembered is that we’re talking about people’s homes, said Andrew Wood. In some tall buildings on his patch people didn’t have hot showers as a result of poorly designed and built projects; others were living in buildings where sewage was flowing into the main lobby. One 60-storey building currently being built out that Wood visited has no strategy yet for dealing with rubbish. Post-occupancy work, said David Green, was thus key, as was the need to reinstate the importance of the street. Examples like Leadenhall Tower, Green suggested, demonstrated that the street was not important, while 20 Fenchurch Street was the perfect example of what not to do above the street. Or perhaps it was a failure of management, suggested William Murray, and any thoughts that architects might solve the problem was the real issue.

The sustainability and environmental performance question was an important one to consider, said Dan Epstein. Citing Robin Nicholson, Epstein said creating tall buildings with glass facades was like having unprotected sex – tempting, but very irresponsible. Finally, Clay said permitted development rights were also an issue, with many offices being converted to residential in Kingston without any contributions to Section 106 or the public realm. This, she said will continue to be a problem too in other outer boroughs. 

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