Wednesday, 29 April 2015

New London housing - design by regulation

A 'new normal' is emerging for the design of dense urban housing in major projects in London - more as a consequence of following the rules than as a brainchild of any creative mind.

That state of affairs is not novel or unusual - it is how many building types emerge.  Much of the way that buildings are shaped has been determined by regulation rather than design intent, ever since there were regulations. Examples include the New York 'set-back style' for tall buildings - a consequence of that city's Zoning Ordinance of 1916; and London's interwar mansion blocks, many of which are 8-10 storeys high simply because of the height limit imposed at that time for reasons of fire safety, with developers 'maxing out' within the rules no less than they do today.

The building type that is emerging in London is a free standing apartment building of eight flats per floor, with a linear plan of four flats each side, with the block's long axis north-south.  These characteristics result from the housing standards now being insisted on by the GLA: no more than eight flats per lift and stair core; no more than 50% single aspect flats (therefore four corner flats plus four along the sides); no single aspect north facing flats (therefore oriented with long sides facing east and west).  You can't join the blocks up into terraces because you lose the corner flats. But the form can go as high as you want (until the planning authority, structural engineer or QS stop you for other reasons). Some schemes offer fewer flats per floor, giving you a form that is more tower-like than slab-like when you go tall - but many clients will want to know why they can't have eight flats per core like everyone else. 

This plan form can produce decent buildings.  The general idea, executed at a high level of sophistication and cost (and fewer flats per floor), can be seen in Rogers Stirk Harbour's scheme at Neo Bankside.  But as Le Corbusier's Unités (as seen photographed in sunshine) morphed into 1960s council housing (as seen photographed under storm clouds), we may fear that imitators will not pull off the model so well.

The form when repeated leads to arrangements of free standing buildings - rather at odds with today's (revived) urban design precept of buildings being used to define external space.

The GLA rules don't tell you to build in this way - it is just where the rules seem to take you. Other housing typologies - deck access, scissor flats etc - are available, but do not seem to find favour.

The New York Zoning Ordinance was turned into art in the 1920s by the genius of Hugh Ferriss, in his studies of what could be achieved within the new rules.  London's housing today needs an equivalent.