Much of the debate about housing in London is focused on numbers: numbers of units, number of floors in a building, square footages and pricing. But is there as much emphasis on quality as on quantity? Can you create feelings of happiness among residents in super high density buildings? And how do you deliver a great residential experience in super high density buildings? Michael Mulhern discusses these and other issues.
Q. Do you think the built environment can enhance feelings of happiness?
A. Absolutely! 100%! I recently visited the World Trade Centre in New York. They’ve opened a new transport hub and retail centre at the base of the World Trade Centre. It was commissioned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and designed by Santiago Calatrava. Obviously the base of the World Trade Centre is quite a surreal place. You know there’s a lot of emotion there. The Calatrava building is the entrance to the station. Outside there’s quite a sombre environment. It’s a very reflective place. And then you come in to this magnificent modern-day cathedral of transportation, this major transport interchange. It’s elevating. The building elevates you from the sombre environment outside to feel that actually there is something bright and light there. People don’t design buildings like this anywhere anymore. It’s has the same feeling as the Pantheon in Rome.
Q. What are the elements of that building that contribute to those feelings?
A. I think it’s hard to separate individual elements to determine why it creates those feelings.
A great built environment is about the whole piece. How does the whole piece work together? When you design-by-numbers, you get a design-by-numbers kind of place. When you piece together great design, with an understanding of context and great materials, then you can create something that’s grander than the sum of its individual parts.
In this instance, it’s a jarring context, of sombre feelings versus elevation. It’s about the materials and the size of the space. It feels incredibly grand, but there’s a really robust use of materials. It works, because it responds to a difficult context.
Q. What else did you particularly like about Manhattan?
Great buildings always delight the senses. I had a similar feeling when I first saw the Manhattan skyline in a taxi on the way from JFK. At a certain point the road rises and you’re looking at those iconic buildings. It’s a great feeling. It’s excitement that you’re entering into the jungle of Manhattan. The built environment doesn’t always provoke feelings of happiness, but it can bring a whole variety of other emotions.
Q. What do you think the components of a happy building might be?
A. I think a sick building is a bit easier to define than a happy building because it’s about systems like air-conditioning. And what creates happiness isn’t the same for everybody.
But there are certain things good buildings have in common: great light, an opportunity to congregate and socialise and an opportunity to have some quiet space and quiet time as well. You need to have flexibility to do those different things.
For me, I think that goes back to the point that people aren’t always happy. We don’t live in a society where everybody’s happy all the time. Buildings need to respond to people’s moods. Today I think, “I’m happy, open, expressive and social!” But another day I think, “Actually I’m not really in the mood for that, I just want to sit on the couch and watch television.” Buildings should be able to respond to people’s changing moods.
Q. You are tasked with overseeing the delivery of the really complex regeneration of Old Oak and Park Royal. Tell me a bit about getting that development underway.
A. Getting development underway at Old Oak is the first big challenge. And after that the biggest challenge we face is ensuring we deliver the level of affordable housing that the Mayor will want us to deliver. That is our number one priority as a Mayoral Development Corporation.
Q. Are you thinking about the happiness of the people who will live there? How are you approaching the design of Old Oak?
A. Of course. First of all, we need to think very carefully about how we can create a good quality environment, whether that comes from creating enough amenity space, the right type of green and blue infrastructure and good planting. We need to think about bringing water into the scheme and play space, as well as daylight and sunlight. Obviously schools and educational facilities are hugely important too.
It is challenging to think about how we bring all of these elements together and build at really high density. It’s a challenge I think London is struggling with right now. London has grown so much. Thirty years ago, they were talking about what to do with all the vacant properties in London. Now we’re talking about, how to house a million people over the next 10 years!
Q. Tall buildings, high density buildings are in the news a lot at the moment. Are they the future of London’s housing?
A. London is a constrained city and housing all these people will lead us to building in certain locations at really high densities. There isn’t really a London context for that yet. I think, as a profession, we’re absolutely up for the challenge, and there are great people out there who have done it elsewhere in the world. Because of this we’re starting to apply their thinking to London, which is different city to Hong Kong or Manhattan. I think, as a city, we’re still trying to understand what building at high density means and I am not sure we are there yet.
Q. What are the challenges of delivering at high density in London?
People are sometimes over-focused on housing numbers, and while that’s right, at the same time you have to talk about how we deliver hyper-density development in London and do it well. If you get caught up in the numbers, there’s a risk that you don’t necessarily build good quality places. It’s not rocket science.
We need to keep old ideas such as the need for access to daylight and sunlight and the need for good quality amenity space. It’s just about how we think more cleverly within the constraints that we face. We’ve got to put time into design to get that right. We have got to think about green and blue infrastructure, for example.
Q. What do you mean by green and blue infrastructure and why is it important?
A. Green infrastructure is anything from planting to trees to play space; while blue infrastructure is canals, rivers and drainage systems. And both are really important. On a big, urban, high density site like Old Oak Common, there’s not going to be loads of space for a big park, for example. So we need to think about green and blue infrastructure in a way that can meet needs for drainage and provide good quality amenity space.
Q. How are you planning on responding to the green challenge at Old Oak Common?
At Old Oak, we want 30% of the area to be green space and 50% of the green space to be biodiversity enriched. We are planning to plant trees every five metres along different streets. We have selected particular species of trees. Planting is not an afterthought. It is built it into the design from the outset.
Q. How do you think current thinking on development will avoid repeating the mistakes of the tower blocks of the past?
A. I think we know what good urban design is now. In contrast, during the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s we moved away from tried and tested ideas. That didn’t prove particularly successful. I believe we’ve strongly come back to knowing what creates a good place now: streets, front doors on streets, good quality robust materials, good quality amenity space. The one challenge we have yet to figure out is how to build at really high density, beyond the densities typical of what has been done to date in London.
Q. You have mentioned high density again. Can you clarify what that means?
A. Sure. ‘High density’ means tall and dense, maybe six or seven hundred units per hectare. If you imagine London is typically somewhere between 50 and 150 units per hectare; Victorian London is about 100 units per hectare. At Old Oak Common, we’re talking six to seven times that. That will mean tall buildings. It will allow many more people to live in an area and deliver more housing. People are doing this in other countries, but in the UK we haven’t had to face the challenge of building good quality, tall, very high density developments before. We’ve typically just built new towns in different places saying, “Let’s build on the greenbelt,” or “Let’s build Milton Keynes”. Now we’re saying that there will be new towns, but they will be within London. The only way we can deliver the homes we need at Old Oak, for example is to push the density.
Q. That sounds like a big challenge, culturally and architecturally. How are you approaching that?
A. I think that increasingly, we are looking outside of London and the UK to figure out how others are doing it. The UK is fantastic at exporting its architecture and architects who work all around the world. Those people bring that knowledge back here. It’s increasingly making its way into how we build tall buildings. Above all we still have to solve the issues of financing these developments and financing them in a way that delivers good quality.
Q. Does investment in green and blue infrastructure, in design and amenity space deliver value for developers in monetary terms?
A. Yeah, definitely. In fact there is a report called “Paved With Gold” which presents the case for investment in high streets and public amenity space because of all the benefits it generates for properties in the area.
It asks the question “why should the council spend its limited resource on investing in their own public spaces?” The report concludes that the more you invest in public spaces, the more property prices rise and all of the benefits that come with that.
Q. Do you think there is a solid case for investment in green and blue infrastructure?
Absolutely! There’s a huge body of evidence out there that demonstrates the increase in value that comes from investment in green and blue infrastructure. Very good developers recognise the importance of place making. I am not sure anyone has ever monetised it in terms of value thinking, “If we plant this amount of trees, it has this economic output “.
Good developers understand that if they build a really nice place, people will want to move there. And that drives the value. It’s simple. You’ll pay money to go to a nice place and to live in a nice place. How do you make a nice place? It’s exactly the type of things that we’ve talked about: access to light, good quality buildings, an ability to be in contact with nature, good amenity spaces.
It’s not that difficult. Everyone knows what good places are. We might have different opinions of what is nice, but we instinctively understand what it means. We know it when we see it.
*To find out more about the regeneration of Old Oak and Park Royal, please visit the OPDC website.