Design, Sustainability posts

21/03/13

BD: ‘Everybody needs everybody’

Broadmeadow, Teignmouth, Devon – Preliminary design proposal

Broadmeadow, Teignmouth, Devon – Preliminary design proposal

A couple of years ago, at a wedding, I sat next to a charming, bombastic property developer. In the course of his work many of his tenants had become his friends (including Will Alsop as it turned out), he had recently started a Jazz Club in the basement of one of his buildings, and he seemed to have a plethora of ideas for the future. Essentially he had developed a creative community around his property portfolio, and when I asked how he manages to balance commercial realties with community aspirations he stated the following:

It’s a recession! Everybody needs everybody!

Recently I have noticed a growing and gathering spirit in much of our new work which seems very much in line with this statement. Indeed there seems to be a community groundswell of people who simply want to ‘get things done’. Let me describe some examples.

A contractor who we regularly work with in the West Country is undergoing rapid expansion and needs more office space, but is disappointed with what is available locally. At Sunday morning swimming lessons (for the kids that is) he happens to meet someone from the local council who has a commercial site with planning permission, but is keen to look for a more exciting scheme with a pre-let if possible. On Monday morning the contractor gathers together all his regular collaborators to pull together a quick proposal for a low energy flexible ‘startup’ office space to show the council, and we move forwards from there to design and develop the scheme.

Or as an alternative to this, a friend in marketing meets a lady at a party who is really keen to start a city farm in West London. But she is stuck as although she has the seed funding she needs to persuade a land owner, local authority and funder that this is a good idea. Our friend introduces us and we produce a preliminary proposal with our regular team of consultants. The lady is now pulling together massive local community support to get the farm going and appears to be succeeding in persuading all and sundry about the viability of the scheme.

West London Farm – Preliminary design proposal

West London Farm – Preliminary design proposal

Or finally this example, a surveyor in Dublin who has just completed the successful refurbishment of an historic castle, starts thinking about uses for a large grainstore on the site which has been built as a tower and folly. On a visit to the UK he visits a themed playground which he thinks could work on the site. In discussion with the local council and the office for public works he gets enough funding for the contractor of the UK playground and Jerry Tate Architects to fly over and put a scheme together for discussions with a potential operator. Everybody is very excited about the potential to generate a commercially viable use of the site and save the historic building.

The ‘Wonderful Barn’

The ‘Wonderful Barn’, co. Kildaire, Ireland – Photograph of existing structure

These are some of the enquiries we have had as a practice this year, and I would say that there are some common themes running through them. First, whilst all of the projects want to create a community facility, they are also all aiming to be commercially viable; although none of the projects has profit as a primary motive for development. Second, all the projects have been generated by a community, either a ‘local’ community or a ‘virtual’ community of collaborators, who are trying to jump-start something into existence. They are the results of a groundswell of support, rather than a top-down edict. Third, there is a large element of trust between collaborators, everyone is working for the good of the project and no individual or company is putting ego before results.

I would hesitate to declare this as a new form of capitalism (I am not an economist) but all of these projects are about more than simply maximising monetary value. The benefits they are seeking to provide are wider, regenerative, generous, but founded in a commercial realism. When we discuss the idea of sustainability we often focus on the technical issues of using less energy or water, but a low consumption building that nobody needs or wants is a clear waste of resources. Projects which are generated inside a community are inextricably linked with the needs of a local area. Based on our experience so far, self-starting projects such as these can provide an alternative form of development that promises to give additional richness to our built environment.

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