Back in 2019 , I was recommended to visit an art exhibition at The Wellcome Collection “Living with Buildings”, surprisingly entertaining. One of the stand out messages for me was how many buildings and estates were described as architectural visions or dreams.
Black and white pictures of “play-decks” created on the Pepys Estate between 1966 and 1970 depicted what with hindsight seem to be very bleak landscape for imaginative play and certainly would put most millennial parents’ and the health and safety brigade’s teeth on edge.
Many landlords have repurposed or demolished play-decks, seeing them as opportunity sites and designers sure like to design child-friendly amenity space or opportunities for informal play. Ask a child to draw a play space and the ideas range from what they know (swings, footballs) to the fantastical (space rocket a particular favourite) but without fail the draw space is full of – well, children. It’s the space to be children together that is important not what is in it, hence the concrete play-decks are remembered fondly.
Lots of our work is alongside architects. All of them tend to be talented designers, some a bit bonkers, some great at community consultation events, but only a few are good at listening to residents and hardly any give credence to the views of children.
Fast-forward 50 years and the creation of a “play-street” which won many plaudits in Hackney with large boulders, logs, a water feature, and a hammock along with some bespoke planting and equipment. (Health and Safety experts divert your eyes).
“Yes but what is it for?” questioned a persistent six year old when the architects unveiled the equipment. A workshop on play was included in the grand opening of the scheme and the same child remained unconvinced. 6 years on and the space is imbedded in the central part of the estate but many of the features have been removed due to safety concerns. A lovely space nevertheless. The persistent six year old now an early teen walks through on her way home from secondary school where the puzzling item once stood “I told you so” she said. From the mouths of babes…….
A few learning points for consulting about play:
- A child does not need to be taught to play, they just want opportunities for play
- Think about the management of your grand designs, who will be cleaning it, how are the materials when wet/ gritted / frozen / under a heatwave?
- Really listen to tenants and their children what they are saying about your designs for their estate
We recently completed a Test of Opinion for a large housing association to gauge support from tenants for a full estate redevelopment versus a refurbishment scheme. This consultation came at the end of a full options appraisal which had engaged tenants of the estate in workshop events and two exhibitions over 12 months.
A Tenants Steering Group has led on selecting us as their independent advisors, selecting architects and commenting on each and every option are they were presented. As it often the case, a number of tenants volunteered hours of their time, using up precious leave from work, sacrificing family time and calling in child-care favours to ensure that proposals were the best they possibly could be. The estate blocks are mainly heated by electrical night storage heaters and tenants report extremely high energy bills and lack of warmth and hot water. between 20 and 30 families are living in overcrowded conditions.
In the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire, the refurbishment option excluded cladding as many tenants were fearful of this and similarly installing gas in the taller blocks was dismissed. However gas central central heating is possible for the lower rise blocks and this solution has already been applied to the ten town houses. There was proposed some small scale new build and garage conversions to create larger family homes.
The more radical and expensive option of complete redevelopment involved phased decanting of homes with 26 tenants required to move off the estate with a right to return. Tenants interrogated the architects about the extent of the disruption for those who would be living on a building site for several years so that tenants could realistically anticipate the pain.
The test of opinion took place over two weeks following the final design exhibition. There was a late campaign led by the tenants of the town houses to reject redevelopment and some misrepresentation of the facts were evident in this. However, in the main tenants participated with an 82% turnout being achieved by the deadline. We believe that this was because the test of opinion returns were confidential either on-line or by post.
The votes cast were split 50% / 50% for each option and only by analysing the results by household (very few joint tenancies) was identifying a marginal preference possible – our very own Brexit.
The landlord has decided to explore further the refurbishment option and to enhance the refurbishment “offer” in an attempt to win over those who expressed a preference for redevelopment. The outcome of the findings regarding cladding at Grenfell Tower and the outcome of the pilot renewal of an electrical storage system over the coming cold months will be pivotal.