London’s new homes: architect Clare Richards’ bold plan to change the way we design buildings and communities
After a successful 15-year career running an award-winning TV production company, Clare Richards chucked it in to become an architect, at 45, with three adult children.
That was in 2003, and the training took seven years. After working since then as a qualified architect, she’s got a much bigger goal — changing the way we design communities to make them better, more sustainable, more ecological and more inclusive.
Her non-profit company ft’work (Footwork Architects) has been consulting with and lobbying London Mayor Sadiq Khan for the adoption of six simple “social design” principles to improve the way communities are designed, which Richards is hell-bent on getting included in the Mayor’s New London Plan.
Due out next year, this massive 20-year overarching blueprint, running to hundreds of pages, will influence everything designed in the capital.
Her six brief principles include involving local people from the very start of any community-led design project running right through to their moving in.
Another is retaining the best features in the existing communities, for example, a cherished local pub or much-used shops. Another urges re-using parts of the built environment instead of tearing them down, to conserve resources.
“We’re very good at displacing people and destroying buildings and calling it gentrification,” she says.
What unites all her principles is genuine, far-reaching inclusivity. And she fights for what she wants.
Clare Richards (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)
“I bang on about them everywhere. I bring them in like a stuck record at public consultations, and I’m nagging the Mayor and the Greater London Authority to make sure that they are included in the plan.” Not easily ignored, she’s earned the right to speak out.
But she praises the Mayor for progress so far: “Sadiq and the GLA have made it easier for local communities to get funding, and last year they introduced ‘Good Growth’ policies, which are the bedrock of the New London Plan.”
Architecture for the people
The hard-hitting TV programmes Richards used to make were about subjects such as homelessness, and she soon recognised that a poor built environment was connected to many of the problems she saw.
So she applied to the nearest architecture school, the prestigious Bartlett: “If they accepted me, I’d go,” she explains. They did.
But the three-year course left her disillusioned: “The [architecture] process didn’t seem to be enough about creating buildings for people, but about making statement buildings … in fact, nothing had a social context.”
Richards completed the final two years of required studies at the University of Westminster, under tutor Jeanne Sillett, “who saw the importance of engaging with real people and designing built environments for them”.
By this time, the Sustainable Communities Act (2007) had come in, about which Richards is scathing: “It said that we — architects, planners, and local authorities — had the power to create sustainable communities — but we didn’t! It was buck-passing by the Government.”
So she wrote her dissertation on how to improve that. Called Happy Communities, it won the RIBA president’s dissertation medal in 2010.
Getting locals involved in design
Her research showed that consulting for new development doesn’t start nearly early enough. “Local people are consulted once there’s already a design. But that’s too late,” Richards stresses.
“It’s box-ticking. We must identify the needs and wishes of all the many groups of people involved before we make the building — working with the architect, the planners, the local authority. And we need to be trained to talk to local people, so we don’t just hear those who shout the loudest.”
To help, she’s writing a collaborative design guide for architects, planners and local authorities.
She also wants collaborative methods taught in architecture schools, to train up a generation to understand that they must work with the people who will live in what they design.
Pioneering project: a disused church in a sea of carparks was developed with residents on a low budget (Bromley-by-Bow Centre)
But the tough, competitive TV world made Richards pragmatic. She knows that developers must make money, and that lengthening a process with consultation can cost more.
However, she is adamant that the results of genuinely sustainable communities last longer and are much better.
She cites a pioneering project in Bromley by Bow, where “a disused church in a sea of car parks” was developed with the local community into a GP surgery, a nursery, café and other facilities residents wanted, all in one place, on a low budget. “It’s still growing and the benefits are palpable,” she says.
How can we build faster?
Richards worked on a collaborative community housing project for older women in Barnet, with 24 flats. She involved the future residents from the very first site meeting.
They got the homes they wanted, designed in ways that prevented them from feeling cut off, with ingredients they specified.
New Ground: the collaborative community housing project for older women in Barnet (PTE)
“They were intensely excited to be involved in the design of their own homes,” she says.
But the rules for planning and financing such group enterprises meant that the process took a painfully long 15 years. Richards wants this cut to five. “That is reasonable.”
Clare Richards’s six social design principles
- Identify and address social needs as a precondition for development and regeneration
- Protect social infrastructure where it exists and provide for it in all new development
- Make integration and inclusion the drivers of major planning decisions
- Give “social heritage” the same value and protection as “built heritage”
- Adopt self-determination as a formal component of a democratic planning process
- Prevent the displacement of existing communities
Further info at ftwork.co.uk