Introduction: This conversation explores visionary developer Argent’s work on Europe’s largest regeneration project at King’s Cross. Has the future happiness of the residents at King’s Cross shaped the developers approach to delivering new homes there?
Q. Do you think the built environment can create feelings of happiness?
A. Absolutely. Feelings of how your day’s going, feelings of being uplifted are influenced by what you have around you. While different things provoke those feelings in different people; in the context of a city, feeling uplifted comes from the ability to move around easily and also to discover new things.
There should always a balance between feeling somewhere is navegable and easy to read, but that it might have new things to discover. I love knowing somewhere, but also having the possibility of being surprised. I don’t think everything should be laid out, so it’s obvious all at once. Our enjoyment of surprise is why we invented corners and bends!
Q. That’s an interesting perspective. Can you tell me more about how feelings of surprise can make a city feel like a happy place?
A. As human beings we like to feel safe and secure, but we also like to find new things. We like to be positively surprised, to explore. I don’t mean ‘explore’ in the sense of Marco Polo or Scott, but there is still a bit of an explorer in all of us. People like the idea that they have found something before the next person, a cool little coffee shop or a shop where they do great cycle repairs.
People like richness of experience. It implies layers and complexity. It implies discovery and serendipity; a moment of surprise. Of course, this is where the idea of perspectival planning comes in: you walk down the narrow street and it opens out in a big square that you didn’t know was there. It’s a ‘Wow’ moment. I think that’s happiness!
Increasingly people like places that offer new experiences and new things happening in the neighborhood, like a pop up coffee kiosk or an unusual clothes shop or someone selling ice cream in the square. It seems that the experiential side of our cities is more important now that we have more free time on our hands. We are a ‘leisure time’ people compared to our forefathers in the 30s, 40s and 50s. How we spend that leisure time is more important than it was in the past. The way we use our cities is changing to reflect this appetite for adventure and surprise.
Q. Your comments about happiness in the built environment are focused on public realm spaces. Is what is going on outside your front door more important than what is going on in your home?
A. I think it is both. There is also a definite cultural difference here.
A Norwegian friend of mine once commented: In Europe we are out, unless we have a really good reason to be in’. In Britain it is the other way around. We go home unless we have a particular reason to be out!
In terms of people’s feelings of happiness when they are at home, I think light is really important. Though what people want changes at different times of the day: during the day, people want maximum light, but at night they want to feel cosy and snuggle up. I know there is a trend for lateral space in London at the moment, but I think changes in level are also important. Changes in level give you a sense of separation while being in the same home. When you have children that can be important.
Q. How does your own home foster feelings of happiness?
A. I am not sure there is a set standard for what makes people feel happy in their own homes because people want different things from their homes. I suspect that living where you want is part of that. Some people like clean lines and glass penthouses, whereas others like thatched cottages with low beam ceilings in Gloucestershire. I think ultimately people derive happiness from having their home exactly the way they want it. If you are like me then that would be something that is tidy with clean lines. That makes me feel very happy. If I walk through the door and all the flat surfaces are uncovered and the cupboards are shut, then I feel great!
My happiness is inversely proportionate to the number of scatter cushions in a property!
Q. What other things about the cityscape make people feel happy?
A. Lots of people like the idea of seeing the city from different perspectives. That can mean getting up high, on a roof or a hilltop. When I go on holiday I do two things: I go on a boat trip and I get up high. People like to see where they are from the water or from the tallest vantage point in a city, a tower or a mountain.
Changing levels is enjoyable and important: it is one of the lessons I learnt during the master planning for King’s Cross. Lots of the professionals see changes in level as a problem, so there is a trend to grade out slopes and homogenise levels. I take a different view. Changes in level create interesting opportunities and places. The way the public use the canal steps at Granary Square convinces me that I am right about this. People sit there to have their lunch or watch films at the outdoor cinema. It obviously helps that it’s a sun trap, but it’s also an idiosyncratic place. It’s architecturally rich. People gravitate to quirky places, places that are different, but rooted in some sort of history.
I believe that happiness in the built environment comes from lots of things: it’s about the difference between big and small; about changes in scale, perspective and level. It’s about moving from high to low, from narrow to wide, from known to unknown. It is about experience and exploration. All of these things rolled together are what makes cities uplifting. This is part of how buildings can create feelings of happiness.
Q. Did many of these opinions inform the way in which you’ve developed the residential experience at King’s Cross?
A. In reality we weren’t focusing so much on a residential experience as on an urban one, so we didn’t have an exclusively ‘residential’ angle here. We had obviously learned a lot from working on Brindley Place in Birmingham that assisted with our design for King’s Cross. Before we ever started work on King’s Cross, we ran a series of workshops and team lectures to discuss our vision for the site. The wisdom that came out of that is in our pamphlet Principles for a Human City. It was here that we talked about how people might move through the site, whether a single boulevard was the right idea, whether there should be two. These discussions were not so much about floor space or whether we could get more height, more volume or more mass; they were about what we felt was right for the city.
We wanted to know what would get the arteries of the city really pumping. The concept was that if we could get the urban life to work, that would ultimately confer value. That was the principle. We’ve now had many years to watch things change and see how people have responded to our buildings. It has been really interesting and satisfying to witness how urban life has started using the Boulevard and Granary Square, for example.
Q. Have you ever asked your residents how happy they feel living in your residential buildings? And I don’t mean about property management issues, I mean how happy they feel living in their homes?
A. I am not sure we have used the word ‘happiness’, but we have used words like ‘satisfaction’. We always survey our residents about what they like / dislike about their homes. We also ask people who didn’t buy here, but who spent a lot of time looking with us, why it was that they decided not to buy in the end. Interestingly when we ask people what it is that they most like about their home, most people list more things about the place than about their actual building or property.
Q. If you were to pursue a development template where you were talking about maximising daylight and fresh air quality and sun light with a view to delivering happier and healthier homes, do you think people would be interested in buying there?
A. I don’t think we have ever tried to say ‘This building will make you happy!’ though. And I think if we did, most buyers would be sceptical of such claims! Seriously, though I think developers are already doing these things without necessarily saying they are part of a ‘happiness agenda’. Most developers are trying to create airy spaces with volume that allow light in. Of course, we are also trying to minimise heat gain; and we are trying to get the air to change, whilst also having a sealed box! This is the high density modern development conundrum, trying to pull off different tricks that compete with each other at the same time. Our ultimate goal is to build a cosy, rimless glass box that doesn’t have any heat gain!
Q. Big cities like London can often feel alienating. How can residential buildings help individuals feel part of the city?
A. I think it starts with making buildings scalable so that the individual doesn’t feel swamped by anonymity.
Even if you live in a very big city with very big buildings, you can still feel connected to it if you have things at a human scale. This is one of the reasons I believe that brick is an enduring building material, because it is a genuinely human scale module.
That is also why the ground floor in buildings is so important, because it is the ground floor that we relate to as humans. I think we have tried to learn that here at King’s Cross.
Q. Feeling happy is partly to do with being part of a tribe, whilst retaining an individual identity. How have you tried to deliver homes that cater to both of those needs at King’s Cross?
We all want distinctiveness and character and identity from our homes. The journey to your front door is an important part of that. Walking past hundreds of anonymous front doors is very uninspiring. Personally I think it is acceptable in a hotel, but not in an apartment building. One of things I have worked with our architects to avoid is very long corridors with double-banked units on either side, where you are just one of dozens of front doors off a landing. There is something about identity and home that is so important and having hundreds and hundreds of front doors like rabbit hutches in a homogenous mass of units is depressing. And even that language of units is awful! It is so dehumanising.
Q. How does this design decision impact the residential experience in the apartments at King’s Cross?
A. It has a huge impact! We designed Fenman House for example, with two cores instead of one, not just to avoid having too many units off a single corridor. We also wanted to deliver more dual aspect apartments. Dual aspect apartments allow residents to enjoy light on different sides of their home at different times of the day. Dual aspect apartments mean you can open your windows and get air through the building. You can’t do that with every apartment in a block – it’s just not possible. But we bear it in mind to at least try to design duplex and corner apartments where possible. Sometimes we try to situate the core in the North wall of buildings, so that we remove that space for units. This means we eliminate that single aspect, North-facing condition from our units if we can. This all relates to what we are talking about: the positive aspects of light, of scale, of character.
Q. What other steps are you taking to ensure that the residential experience at King’s Cross is more human and varied?
A. We have also worked hard to deliver residential buildings with a variety of different types of units in them. I know this is hard to do in areas outside London where values aren’t so high, but here we have tried to avoid building hundreds and hundreds of identical units. Within the limits of efficiency etc. we have tried to create variety and choice here. One buyer might love a duplex where you go up to bed, types of units in Tapestry, for example. Some people love balconies, while other people don’t care about outside space. But we tried to create that that variety to appeal to different people’s tastes.
Q. Would you live in your own developments? And which would you chose to live in.
A. Yes! I would live in King’s Cross without hesitation. I don’t live in London at the moment, but I would love to live in a very modern apartment, somewhere with a great view. London is a great city and King’s Cross is a great part of that great city. There is so much on your doorstep here: whether it is free keep fit, or the shops on your door step or the ever-changing restaurant scene or the canal or the culture at King’s Place. There are so many incredibly rich things going on.
I would probably choose an apartment in Gasholders overlooking the water. It is such a distinctive building. It has got light and air and you are on the water. You are surrounded by urban London at its best with The Coal Drops and Granary Square alongside the building. I think Gasholders would be very hard to beat.
Q. What technological changes might help with the building process? Have you considered modular or prefabricated technologies?
A. I personally get nervous about ‘modular construction, where you have to use a particular system, for example. I don’t think technology should enforce more systems. To my mind technology should free you from systems to allow more customisation. People get very stressed about potentially buying in to a system that may become obsolete. Everyone worries about becoming the Betamax developer, which would obviously be a disaster!
I don’t think it is about coming up with another ‘system’. I think it is more about technology freeing us from constraints. It is strange how we are still building homes based around the limits of technology in the 1850s when we are now in the 21st century.
I think technology must offer solutions for some of the obstacles in the construction chain. I don’t think our industry has been brilliant about embracing them. Being able to build faster to a high quality is definitely the outcome we need, but I am not sure this result will come from finding a new system to do that. I think we need more open source systems to help with our house building challenges.
Q. In what way do you think the customer experience of residential development can be improved?
The way we buy homes is Byzantine. It takes such a long time. The retail experience of buying a brand new home is not great. If you compare that to the car buying experience. It doesn’t event come close. We have a lot to learn from an industry that sells a product worth a tenth, or a twentieth of what we sell. The experience of ordering, the retail purchase and the in use is very different.
It obviously not like cars, in the sense that houses are not built in factories. Everything about house-building is a once-off process. And homes are not being produced in factory conditions. We have blokes out in high vis. jackets in the wind and the rain trying to build houses. And everything is a once off process. But if we can make home building more like a car factory; if we can make home buying more streamline, we can get more like the car buying, car delivery and car aftercare experience. That would have that would be a good thing.
There is something interesting there about sharing systems. In the same way that car manufacturers collaborate on systems, but then put their own spin on the chassis or the engine. It could be the same with house-building.
Q. From an estate agency point of view the most difficult homes to sell are ones with compromised entrances. What is it about the entrance to a property that is so significant?
A. Your front door is an important part of how you feel about your home. It is to do with proportions, but it is also to do with approach. An entrance needs to have presence with being pompous. Buyers make snap decisions when they come to see a property about whether they can see themselves living there. Whether it is proportions or something else, there is something about the way the front engages buyers that is like an instant reaction.
The importance of the entrance is one of the reasons that developers are increasingly delivering oversized front doors to create that sense of arrival. It is also a tactile experience when you accompany it with a nice door handle and a definite clunk when the door shuts. I know this is a price point thing, but it really matters.
There is a sensory reaction to whether something feels safe, sold reassuring, high quality. I call it the Audi test – that satisfactory clunk of shutting a well-crafted car door.