Can we ensure design quality from planning through to construction in housing projects in London?

Friday 17 April 2015

How can the design quality of residential buildings be lifted by improvements made to the planning process?

That was the broad question posed to a group of architects, developers, engineers and public sector representatives who met at the offices of Weston Williamson + Partners to try to provide some answers.

The session was kicked off by Weston Williamson + Partners’ Philip Breese, who said that although there were some fantastic residential designs emerging in a capital city faced with immense pressure on housing delivery, there were still an equal number or more that ‘were not getting anywhere near what they need to do in design quality’. In many cases the situation can be directly linked to the process involved, and whether or not the original architect was retained, or dropped at the planning stage. In the latter case, the architect can only stand back and worry as robust details are dropped and the overall design quality of the scheme is often eroded.

One problem is that planning committees and officers may not know what to look for, said Will Lingard, director of Turley. ‘Do officers have the skills and time to analyse what the original design intention was when discharging conditions?’, he said.  Planning is veering towards becoming a technical profession with few architects in house at local authorities.

Resource is without doubt a challenge, said Rodney Keg, LB Hackney Manager for Urban Design, Conservation and Sustainability, and a lot of local authorities don’t have qualified design officers. One measure Hackney employs is to get as much detailed drawing approved at planning stage to ‘lock in’ design quality.

John Robertson Architects has enjoyed an ‘active collaboration’ with Rogers Stirk Harbour on a number of schemes including Montevetro for Taylor Woodrow and Neo Bankside, which has worked well and led to working with Stanton Williams at Wood Wharf. But problems arise, said Robertson, when developers win planning consent using big name architects and then sell the site with it. ‘That’s when it goes awry’, he said. Robertson added that capacity in the industry was a hindrance, and that he was ‘shocked’ at the level of fees that win projects.

Every day that a site is ‘stuck’ in the planning system also costs money that may be available to deliver design excellence, said John Nordon of Pegasus Life. ‘We want to get on and build stuff. We’ve got no desire to use a name and change the architect after winning planning.’ A major problem in this area for Pocket Living, said its design director Russ Edwards, is the pre-app, which is an inconsistent process with timescales for feedback that can stretch to 20 weeks. ‘It’s a completely dysfunctional process in London’, said Edwards. ‘We are desperate to pay PPAs for a guarantee of service, but it’s simply not happening. The discussions can be proactive, but the bureaucracy can be dysfunctional, while the time it takes to negotiate a Section 106 can also be ‘a financial disaster’ that can derail a project by six months, even on Pocket’s schemes, typically of around 35 units.

Local authorities differ, however – Mark Ludlow of Countryside Properties said the pre-app process is working well with a level of understanding and trust on a project his firm is doing in Ealing. But shouldn’t the planning system be more about rules and codes that set out parameters, asked Craig Horn. One answer might be a key design feature statement that could go in with the planning application that is ‘absolutely sacrosanct’, said Wates’ Bid Centre Manager Matt Smith. And yet, said John Nordon, the whole process was ‘almost set up to go to war’, and there was a need for a system which could broker agreement on what everyone’s interest was. Nordon said n a previous life, he had had a situation where a planning authority had argued that the original building did not deserve a quality extension, and perhaps it should be more ordinary.

Planning has become a complicated dogmatic beast, said Assael Architecture director Niall Cairns, but why should planners have any say on design quality? ‘If you took design quality out of the planning process you could free this up’, he said. A design guardian was perhaps also worthy of consideration, said Philip Breese, and perhaps having a Design Review Panel right at the end of the process was ‘crazy’, said Craig Horn, head of land and planning at Hyde. They should attend more to smaller schemes too, said Edwards. Nevertheless, design review is a good tool to have on all sides, said Linguard. ‘It’s a shame more boroughs don’t have them.’

How fragmented is the architect’s position in the whole process today? Young graduates coming through need to take possession of nitty gritty items in the design process they now say are boring, such as door schedules, said Robertson. Or does the architecture profession relinquish them to the ‘phenomenally well geared up’ contractors? It is shocking how architects can’t seem to act as lead designer now, agreed Russ Edwards. Having more architects in other parts of the industry might help, said John Nordon, who himself has made the transition to the client side. This could ease a ‘them and us’ culture’ with barriers between the professions. But the most dangerous time is less about planning but when prices come up, said AKTII director Rob Partridge. After spending two years coming up with an integrated design, two weeks of aggressive value engineering can unravel a project. There is, he added, not enough engagement in the design process to engage with market forces and what the supply chain is telling us, and, suggested Nordon, maybe cost consultancy is too reactive. The QS is today more on the client side, and Nordon said he was shocked the architect often hasn’t seen the cost plan. For its part, said RIBA national councillor and Partner, Sheppard Robson Alan Shingler RIBA is lobbying about residential standards, and is looking too with the ARB at education, with a view to coming up with an integrated course that has a much closer connection to practice.

So, how to fix this ‘broken’ system?

Take politics out of it, make it more about what it should be: about land use, design and creating better environments for people, said Niall Cairns. The next mayor will have a much stronger mandate on this than Boris Johnson had, with stronger decisions and more supply coming through, said Linguard. And on public land – large public sites – there is no reason why the GLA or local boroughs cannot maintain a contractual obligation or some other protection to ensure quality is maintained. Often, though, it is simply the ‘Holy Trinity’ that is required for good schemes, said Keg – a good client, architect and planning service, something which is rarely in balance – but does happen.

Finally, there was time for one left-field proposal - to "delaminate" planning permission from land, and replace it with de facto planning held by people who all have a need for a home. This would create a meaningful relationship between land owners, developers and future residents.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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