Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
The Williams Report: Small firm innovation
“How on earth did that get built?” We ask ourselves that all too often these days, gazing from train windows on convenient sections through Britain’s towns and cities. It’s the same everywhere. Despite a supposed national focus on design-quality, lazy, cramped and frankly depressing new housing is springing up apace. As aspiring home-owners, we feel frustrated by what the view offers us. As architects, we can’t help feeling we could do better. And when it comes to the Thames Gateway, the grand projet of the moment, it seems vital that we do. But where to start? The Williams report, with its recognition of the nature of the challenge, is one positive step. A second is suggested by that other train-view staple: all those individual housing extensions and one-off homes in back gardens and backlands nationwide – often the bread and butter of smaller, younger architecture practices like our own. Those small-scale projects should be understood as the nation’s housing R&D, just one part of the offer that smaller, younger practices can make to the housing debate. Test-beds for both technological innovation and accommodation of social and environmental aspirations, these are ripe with possibilities to be scaled up.

Their designers are keen to do just that. Add to this a ‘why-not’ attitude – not yet brow-beaten by delivery-pains, these practices will inventively push for things that make a difference, like dual aspect and more cores per block – plus ambition to build a reputation, fueling hard work and the generation of ideas. Last but not least, they offer experience gained on major schemes in renowned practices worldwide.

This is not to say that smaller practices are ‘better’, or that we are the Solution. We simply want to play an appropriate role alongside larger firms as part of a design-focused meritocracy. Although AOC are fortunate ourselves to have won housing work from enlightened clients, it is easy to feel that the odds are against this. Prolonged and excessive procurement processes that barely consider design-quality at qualification stage, combined with a zero-tolerance approach to risk (despite acknowledgement that creative risk drives much-coveted Innovation), makes it difficult both for smaller firms to contribute, and, more worryingly, for good homes to consistently emerge.

Clients who give us opportunities tend to be looking to generate value beyond financial return, and have realized that a bespoke and well-structured process can best serve their specific needs. Whether local authorities or RSLs, they acknowledge responsibility to the place, the proposal and the end user over time, developing projects with a broad group of stakeholders.

London Borough of Southwark, for example, has involved AOC in three schemes. Two are part of the Elephant & Castle early housing initiative, won through competition following a design-focused selection process. They are small yet integral parts of a wider project involving a broad range of architects, managed by the council to meet its own high aspirations. The third requires us to structure mixed-use development on a major council-owned site. We are advocating an approach where different practices – large and small – deliver different elements and character areas.

These projects share something with developments like Fielden Clegg Bradley’s Accordia for Countryside or Urban Splash /Will Alsop’s New Islington. Here small practices such as Fat are rising to the opportunity of delivering distinct elements within a larger strategy. Such initiatives acknowledge the value of variety: that many hands make good homes. Successful planned developments tend to offer a strong framework within which individual creative forces operate at the scale of the block or the property. There are sites where it will be appropriate for larger firms to operate, while smaller sites can capitalize on the ability of smaller firms to conscientiously deliver smaller packages. The outcome? Beautiful, interesting places, and a move away from that monotonous regen-aesthetic of domestic norms gone jumbo which surely we wish to avoid for the Thames Gateway.

It’s great that the Housing Corporation, as a key stakeholder in that region, is not only showing a commitment to place-making, but thinking imaginatively about methods to achieve that. More ambitious approaches may require more effort and resources, particularly during teething stages. But Government needs to do what it can to make things easier, and we all need to accept that it might be challenging, but worth it it for the result if we want good housing and those much discussed ‘sustainable communities’.

Young practices have traditionally cut their teeth on housing. When it comes to the Thames Gateway, there is a workforce of engaged, ambitious small firms on the doorstep who care about what is happening, who want to help shape new standards and contexts, and who are more than capable of offering imaginative solutions to meet the challenges, from flood management to zero-carbon living. In order to do that however, we need to be given a seat at the table.
Published by AOC
Building Design
18 May, 2007