Procurement and money hindering quality public housing

Thursday 9 May 2019

© Henley Halebrown

Getting good design quality into public housing is being hampered by two main problems in both London and New York – systems of procurement and a lack of money.

That was the key finding to emerge from the latest NYLON session – a live hook-up between key urban design practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic.

The session, held concurrently at the Covent Garden offices of KPF in London and the Center for Architecture in New York hears from Colm Lacey of Brick by Brick, Claire Bennie of Municipal and Simon Henley, principal of Henley Halebrown, each of whom bemoaned the procurement system, Lacey saying that winners of competitions tended to be those who were good at procurement rather than design. At least, though, the tide was turning in terms of councils taking more risk, some 75% now across the country having a version of private housing companies. Some like Brick by Brick are responding to three main goals – being a responsible developer producing housing similar to what is wanted by the local authority’s planning department; making money to fill gaps in central government funding, and maximising indirect value from development. But surely it was time to pay more attention in this whole arena to the subject of embodied energy, Lacey suggested. Bennie suggested that although some councils like Hackney, Camden and Croydon were doing sterling work, in creating a risk-taking culture, they are the exception rather than the rule. But local authorities were struggling to recruit people who were good at procuring, while architecture schools ‘merely tend to breed people that create art galleries for rich people and that’s that’. Perhaps students should have a stream in their part two where they ‘become a client’, she suggested. Authorities should also get better at asking for excellence, she suggested, avoiding overly-bureaucratic approaches.

Earlier, presentations from New York were introduced by Daniel McPhee, executive director of the Urban Design Forum and included KPF principal Hana Kassem, showing a series of projects including the NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn that highlighted the need for flood prevention measures on the peninsula, differentiation, personalisation and effective use of lighting. Kassem said there was nevertheless a big issue of distrust felt by those who have to move out in order for their place to be fixed, and even the high quality nature of proposals sometimes caused suspicion that people with more income would start moving in, she said. Nadine Maleh, executive director at the Institute for Public Architecture on her work with communities in Brownsville. Maleh said that had not been enough community outreach and engagement with residents in the past and a real feeling from residents that if they were relocated, they might never be able to return.

Mark Ginsberg, principal of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, who presented a series of public housing across New York including Baychester-Murphy, two developments three miles apart in the Bronx, said it was important to seize opportunities of densification but also reassure communities. ‘One has to keep emphasising: “we are not displacing people”’, he said.

That feeling of being ‘displaced’ was also consistent in London, said Bennie, in places like Elephant and Castle, even if the buildings and landscapes that have been created are ‘absolutely astonishing’. London has been on a ‘journey’ and ‘rocky ride’, she said, from an era where tabula rasawas the way forward to private sector intervention and sometimes accusations of gentrifying areas.

Henley presented schemes including the Kings Crescent Estate, which has had the ‘heart of it missing for at least a generation’, stressing that in regenerating such housing there should not be a ‘them and us’ in terms of existing and new residents. Neither should the profession ‘demarcate’ where to build but let the residents decide, while London should crucially allow for more development of small infill sites. But in New York as in London the key issues on public housing was one faced every day, even if all the developers and NYCHA care about quality, said Ginsberg. ‘It’s money, and there’s just not enough of it’.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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