An online seminar hosted by Schüco and Architecture Today explored different approaches to creating high-quality housing developments on difficult urban and suburban sites.

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Challenging sites are becoming increasingly commonplace due to rising land values, constraints imposed by planning policy and environmental factors, demands for higher density, and the growing importance placed on sustainability. An online seminar hosted by Schueco UK considered how design and innovation can create healthy and sustainable living and working environments on sites such as these. The participants explored a range of recent projects where significant site challenges had been overcome in the process of creating developments that support both individuals and the wider community.

The panel comprised Luke Tozer, co-founding director of Pitman Tozer Architects; Frederic Paulus Akuffo, managing director of Autor Architecture; and Chloe Phelps, head of design at Croydon Council’s property development company Brick by Brick and its design studio Common Ground Architecture.

In some ways unlocking constrained sites is where we find design can add the most value”

Luke Tozer presented The Reach, a 100 per cent affordable housing scheme for Peabody located on an unprepossessing, ‘out-of-town’ site in Plumstead, south-east London. The principal challenge was to create a sense of place within a nondescript suburban context, while also mitigating noise and visual pollution from nearby Western Way, explained Tozer. “In some ways unlocking constrained sites is where we find design can add the most value”, said the architect.

The scheme, which comprises 66 apartments and a ground-floor nursery, adopts a C-shaped plan organised around a south-facing communal garden. The latter is central to the development, as are dual-aspect apartments, a planted ‘acoustic wall’, and a north-facing access gallery, which enables each dwelling to enjoy views over the courtyard garden. “The access gallery was one of the biggest architectural challenges”, explained Tozer. “In the context of Thamesmead it had become a toxic device and we were keen to reinterpret it. We made a civic elevation out of it – rather than it being a stuck-on element – in order to integrate the structure into the language of the architecture.”

Overall, Tozer said that the development adopted a European approach in terms of scale and materiality – the aim being to unify a formerly disparate site, as well as establish a sense of quality and confidence.

For Paulus Akuffo, there are three key ingredients to unlocking small and challenging sites: urban design integration, architectural integration, and cost-effective construction. The practice also places a great deal of emphasis on effective communication with planners. For this it uses 3D PESTLE analysis, which models three-dimensional space using six factors: political, economic, social, technical, legal and environmental. “All our schemes have this underlying organisational grid, which we use to communicate opportunities and constraints to councils”, explained Akuffo. “The aim is to make projects and the discussions about them more transparent and target driven.”

Akuffo’s presentation explored, through a series of diverse projects, how 3D PESTLE analysis has been used to turn site constraints into opportunities. Among the examples were PTOs, existing history and urban grain, density policy, and local heritage. The architect also explored cost-effective construction in terms of improved integration, dimension-driven design, rectangular floor grids, and hybrid CLT structures.

There is no such thing as an easy site, particularly in London”

“There is no such thing as an easy site, particularly in London”, commented Chloe Phelps. The architect spoke about the Croydon Smaller Sites Programme, which delivers housing to challenging infill plots that contain a combination of existing estates, car parks, garages, old building stock, and community centres that are no longer fit-for-purpose. Led by Croydon Council’s property development company Brick by Brick, the innovative initiative has accelerated house building in the area and currently comprises some 80 live projects. “The programme employs a circular economy, whereby homes are built for sale and rent to local people, and the profits go back to Croydon Council for reinvestment in the borough”, explained Phelps.

The architect provided a snap shot of three exemplar residential projects forming part of the initiative. Phelps described the first, Selsdon Court, as a “study in finessing a project that sat on the knife-edge of viability”. The second, Bramley Hill, was an estate-based example, in which existing residents, garages, trees and an adjacent conservation area were among the challenges. The last, Pump House, explored how the project team was able to insert a five-storey development into a dense urban context of predominantly three-storey structures.

The webinar provided much food for thought, demonstrating some of the methods for and benefits of ‘unlocking’ challenging sites.