How can design expertise earn community success?

I remember my first university lecture. The head of the architecture school, Professor Lawson, said he envied our simplified view of the world. He explained that as we progressed through architectural education we’d never be able to look at our environment in the same way again, constantly scanning for details, materials and the interactions of humans with buildings and spaces.

It’s worth considering this when we present designs to communities, slipping into the unintelligible technical language of development professionals. Scheme, space, fenestration etc. which might well be useful at university or in your office but often means nothing to your actual long term clients – current or future residents and communities.

What does successful development look like? Well for me one of the key issues is longevity. We need the homes and places we build now to be successful in the future, not up for demolition in 30 or 40 years. To my mind, projects that are designed with community input and support are far more likely to achieve this aim.

On Wednesday I went to visit a couple of really great housing projects with Urban Design London. The first was Bacton Low Rise in Camden designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects the second, Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects on the South Kilburn estate in Brent. Both designs were developed with extensive resident and community consultation.


Bacton Low Rise Phase 1, Karakusevic Carson Architects

The group of professionals and residents who I met during the day helped consolidate recent thoughts around the importance and role of successful and impactful consultation as we battle to fix the housing white paper’s broken housing market. If we’re going to build the number of homes needed, extensive action will be required –  inevitably including existing residents, communities and a plethora of stakeholders.


Ely Court, Alison Brooks Architects

Paul Karakusevic clearly set out the desired outcomes for designing successful homes and places. “It’s about architects designing what people will want, rather than trying to make people want what they design.” So not designing homes and places and then trying to convince people it’s what they want.

Being objective, as built environment professionals we don’t always get things right; regeneration projects are often correcting past mistakes. Having a strong vision and leadership is important but so is the ability to take on board a range of viewpoints, choices and taste.

“…architects designing what people will want, rather than trying to make people want what they design.”

The skill of a good designer is to find a balance between expertise and experience, extracting the views and preferences of others and using them to support and inform the design process. Consultation is a two-way process, it’s the evidence to support your design decisions and provides life experience that you don’t yet have or might not ever have. On the other side it’s the opportunity to clearly explain ideas and increase understanding and trust whilst managing expectations about what is possible.

I think ultimately those who do consultation well ask why and have emotional intelligence. They get to the bottom of why people feel the way they do, (for example, the impact of living with prolonged antisocial behavior) and understand that we get used to what we live with, blind to the benefit of improvement.

I’ve recently come across some great examples of community working:

  • Traffic light coloured stickers to help residents identify things they like / don’t want. (Bacton Low Rise)
  • Family days with free entry to kid’s entertainment after consultation input. (Bacton Low Rise)
  • The use of models to represent community facilities that can be added / removed depending on levels of cross subsidy – to understand the potential benefits of higher density proposals. (Levitt Bernstein)

In the race to build more homes and fix the market we need to resist the urge for a quick fix, returning to the value, quality and longevity created by a longer term vision to provide people focused development. In hindsight we’ll be glad we did.