Housing developers benefit from hearing a wider range of voices, says Chloë Phelps, head of design at Brick by Brick


Chloë Phelps


In a truly fair and equal world, our buildings and landscapes should be designed, built and managed by a workforce that is representative of that place. It seems like a simple ambition, but currently is rarely, if ever, achieved. The lazy explanation is to say it is a supply problem, and the ‘right’ practices do not exist. However this has been proved wrong – at least to us at Croydon Council’s in-house development company Brick by Brick – through our recent competition ‘Housing for A Better World’ which we ran in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. We were overwhelmed by the abundance of high quality submissions from talented and truly diverse teams and practices who were taking positive action to address the current imbalance.

Of course we should strive for diversity in many forms; gender, age, physical ability, race, sexual orientation, religion. Croydon is one of the most diverse boroughs in London, with a rich cultural heritage and a young population. Almost half of the people living in the borough are BAME. The aim of this competition was to help us rethink how we commission professional services so that we can ensure diversity, with a focus on BAME.

Competitions can’t answer every problem, and inevitably have their faults. But the exercise was hugely positive, allowing us to dramatically extend our network and open our eyes to a host of wider issues and the need to embrace the awkward conversations.

We have many reasons for wanting to ensure we work with people from diverse backgrounds. For us, it’s not a tick box exercise, but a way of expanding the range of ideas we can embrace through diversifying the types of voices around the table, and really understanding how different people use their homes in different ways because of who they are.


Above, top: The winning entry to Housing for a Better World was by Jas Bhalla Architects. The competition sought “bold and thought provoking ideas”, and asked entrants to consider diversity, sustainability and health and wellbeing. Initial expressions of interest led to six practices being asked to present proposals in more detail, with the eventual winner appointed to design a future scheme for Brick by Brick, Croydon Council’s in-house development company.

The jury included Colm Lacey (CEO, Brick By Brick), Chloë Phelps, Anisha Jogani (placemaking team leader, Croydon Council), Pragga Saha (Stephen Lawrence Trust alumna), Betty Owoo (Architecture Foundation Young Trustee) and Yemi Aladerun (Islington & Shoreditch HA, Architects Benevolent Society). 

Jas Bhalla Architects’ submission “addresses the poor living conditions found above Croydon’s linear retail parades – disproportionately used by minority ethnic groups. Housing in these locations rarely meets internal or external amenity standards, and is often accessed via service yards used to store commercial refuse. Through targeted intensification, Parade Living seeks to demonstrate these locations can provide alternative models of housing that are generous, flexible and commercially viable”.

We are in the business of creating homes that improve people’s everyday lives. We want to create happy, healthy and sustainable communities, and to conserve and protect our scarce natural resources. If we are not designing and building the homes people need, they will end up being sold on or, worse, demolished.

There are also substantial socio-economic benefits to diversifying the supply chain. One finalist, David Ogunmuyiwa, founder of ArchitectureDoingPlace, made a significant point in his submission that public bodies receive income from diverse taxpayers, yet they trade with few diverse consultancies. Diversifying their supply chains would provide economic opportunity and facilitate social mobility in a sustainable way well beyond the scope of traditional regeneration and investment projects.


Along with winner Jas Bhalla Architects the shortlisted practices were Gbolade Design Studio, Kristofer Adelaide Architecture, McCloy & Muchemwa (supported by CZWG), NimTim Architects and ArchitectureDoingPlace. Kristofer Adelaide Architecture’s A.F.R.O House –Architecture For the Reasonably Ordinary – (above) proposes a modular construction approach with a variety of facade treatments to give cost-effective high-quality housing.

The winning submission by Jas Bhalla Architects went on to identify that, through greater understanding of how different communities live, we can seek to create new homes that will transform people’s lives, and target specific areas of our built environment for improvement. The practice identified low-density shopping parades on key routes through Croydon that typically house minority groups with limited financial means above the shops. These properties are often of a poor standard with no access to external amenities, and provide some of the worst living conditions in the borough. By working with the communities in these locations it might be possible to bring forward much-needed new homes while creating regenerated shopping parades leaving a lasting benefit for the area.


McCloy & Muchemwa’s proposal (right) advocated “an adaptable system of housing”, constructed from CLT and designed to promote density, biodiversity and community cohesion.

Running a competition takes a huge amount of work, both for those submitting entries and also those running it, from setting up the infrastructure to reviewing entries and judging. It has been a hugely rewarding process, but I’d encourage those who are procuring services to think about taking active measures now to appoint diverse teams, embedding the right principles into their daily business. Clients and commissioners who recognise the need to improve their networks but are not sure where to start could reach out to organisations such as the Architecture Foundation, Paradigm Network, and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to name just a few. We’ve also got a great new list of practices if anyone needs suggestions. For us this is the first step towards ensuring meaningful change in how we procure projects.