To improve housing design we should take every opportunity to better understand residents, says Mæ’s Alex Ely
We design with the goal of improving the quality of life for those who occupy our buildings, and while quality of housing is only one among many factors that affect quality of life – such as feeling safe, securing sufficient income to live well, good social networks and access to healthy food, education or employment – the synergy between a person’s quality of life and the quality of their environment is well recognised. Yet we still see little housing that is designed well. One cause might be the paucity of information with which architects can work.
With housing we often design for an unknown occupant. In this situation we can only project onto our designs the sort of qualities we would wish for in our own life: knowing the pleasure experienced enjoying family life in a sunlight room, being able to throw open the doors to allow a breeze in or pass time outside, being warm in winter, having space for privacy and being able to retreat.
With other projects we can work more directly with the residents we design for. At the beginning it will help us determine their brief – understanding any issues of overcrowded households or specific mobility needs, for example. At the end it helps us understand how residents use the home, their level of comfort and areas for improvement.
ph: Ståle Eriksen
For our work on the Regent’s Park Estate (122 homes in 8 blocks, three by Mæ and five designed by Matthew Lloyd Architects, for the London Borough of Camden), we were able to work hand-in-hand with residents from the beginning to design for them. The replacement housing project occasioned by the planned route of the HS2 rail line affected many people living on the estate. Engagement started with a Housing Needs Survey, undertaken to establish the make-up of the existing community within the blocks in the way of HS2. This was to ensure that Camden could develop a specific brief to rehouse those affected. Following feasibility work based on identifying opportunity sites, a public event was held to shortlist sites and discuss the council’s strategy for rehousing residents. Alongside the needs assessment, our brief was established.
Residents were actively engaged in commenting on proposals via regular consultation events, on-line forums, and one-to-one interviews and questionnaires. Concerns could be addressed around issues of car parking and the impact on the light into existing houses for example, and ideas could be shared on issues such as play area requirements or preferences for open-plan living.
The designs we developed adapted to the feedback at the same time as exploring ideas intended to help residents live a healthy and active life. For example communal stairs are conspicuously located before the lift to encourage walking, and balconies are located on the south of the building and run full the width of apartments, allowing space for furniture as well as plants. Connections and public spaces are designed to encourage walking and sense of security.
Once our buildings are occupied, we can continue to learn from them. Evaluation can take the form of quantitative analysis – measuring the buildings’ performance – as well qualitative analysis, assessed through interviews and gathered anecdotes.
At Agar Grove, a London estate regeneration scheme designed by Mæ and Hawkins\Brown, phase one has been monitored to test its Passivhaus performance through in-flat monitoring of temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels. The building management system’s web-based representation of communal heating performance and analysis of air-handling units reveals that humidity and carbon dioxide are within recommended parameters, and through resident questionnaires we learn that comfortable air quality is achieved. Summer 2018 was the hottest summer on record for England. Temperatures in the flats were elevated at times, but in feedback surveys no significant complaints were made about summer temperatures and concerns about solar gain could be mitigated through follow-up discussions with residents about the use of blinds.
Anecdotally we learn how such improvements directly lead to better life outcomes. At Regent’s Park, one resident highlighted the impact of poor housing on health: “We’d been living in that last place, and it was so poorly kept that it had horrible damp. My daughter got asthma because of it. There is so much room in this house though. At the last place, I would very rarely be in, I’d almost just always find a reason to be out, because it wasn’t very homely, and of course the damp as I mentioned. But now, I’d quite happily sit here all day!”
Other stories allude to mental health benefits: “I like to tend to my front planter as well, it’s a bit of something to do, almost gardening. So I have two balconies with my pots and herbs and then the one out the front on the deck. Funnily enough I wasn’t really green-fingered before, not at all.”
And we learn of the social benefits, with stories of residents getting to know their neighbours or inviting them around to play video games or to have drinks on the balconies.
Another reports how a new home ”has improved my wellbeing! I am a lot happier here than I was in the last place. I spoke to one of my neighbours the first time when we had the consultation meeting on what was going to be planned, and then I met her a second time when we came to view it. It’s quite a tight little group. I know the lady at number thirteen as she works at the same place as my son, I talk to number eleven, and number ten, he used to live in my block…”
So what is the value of post-occupancy evaluation? Our goal is to constantly improve our process and our designs. Through engagement and evaluation we can determine whether we have successfully delivered against the standard expected by, for example, the World Heath Organisation’s qualities of a healthy city, and if not, what we need to change for next time. And it’s through the personal stories that we truly learn the value of what we do.