Co-design helps reshape social housing
Toni Gray and her three-year-old daughter had been living in a bungalow in the backyard of her parents’ council house in Bristol in the UK while on the city’s housing waiting list. They finally moved into their new home last June. What’s different though about their home was that Gray had a say on the home’s size and layout, and helped the building firm put it together before moving in.
“We sat in the garden and figured out what we wanted . . . We drew it up and I had a lot of input in all of it,” Gray told The Cable. The home has two bedrooms, a bathroom and an open-plan kitchen and living area. “It’s great because I needed my independence and space, but mum is still close by. It’s much better for the little one.”
Gray’s was the first of two new council homes to be built in people’s backyards in Knowle West — a low-density, 1930s council estate — as part of a pilot run by community interest company We Can Make. The company, currently working with the council on plans for 14 more homes, uses a co-design approach to development that it says empowers communities “to do housing on their own terms”.
The problem for the city council is that it needs to upgrade its housing estates to make them fit for the future. That could mean the demolition and rebuilding of some blocks. However, a shrinking budget and a lack of trust in estate regeneration — often seen as code for the displacement of communities — remains a challenge. So, the council has opted for co-design, where developers work with — rather than for — people who live in the homes being rebuilt. The hope is this approach will help maintain or repair trust.
Up until now, co-design has been for small projects in neighbourhoods where land exists to build on. With the demand for council homes growing fast, council is ramping up its home building efforts. But the city’s brownfield sites are limited; meanwhile, some existing council homes are in desperate need of repairs.
Gray and her parents opted for the We Can Make scheme by offering their backyard. The council-owned land was then transferred to a community land trust on a long-term lease, and the plans for the site were drawn up according to an evolving ‘community design code’. That code is being developed collaboratively with the Knowle West estate’s residents and aims to speed up planning approval, while ensuring the homes being built work for the local neighbourhood.
Melissa Mean, We Can Make’s managing director, says the group’s process of “gentle, opt-in densification”, is about truly understanding community assets and learning what local people can bring to a development. “With this, we’re able to bring in relationships of trust, understanding . . . That’s when the real magic of co-design happens,” she says. “We held very, very early engagement with the community about what kinds of things were welcome here.”
The fact Gray has known Mean since she was a child might have helped, too. She went to an after-school music group at Knowle West Media Centre, where Mean is head of arts and where We Can Make is based. “Toni has grown up with the media centre, and she’s been involved every step of the way,” Mean says. “She has been to all the workshops, worked with architects on the design of her home, right through to self-finish. She’s really proud.”
“Communities can feel a bit under siege with a development just kind of put to them. Generally, they get asked to be involved quite late in a process and it can feel a bit like a tick-box exercise,” Mean says. “What’s different here is we’re asking things as a community and trying things out. Because of the scale of the [housing] crisis, we’ve got to try new ways of doing stuff.”
But the scale of We Can Make is dwarfed by the number of people living in social housing in need of repairs, or still on the waiting list — almost 18,500. There are also more than 1,000 in temporary accommodation waiting for somewhere suitable to live.
Under Bristol City Council’s ‘Project 1000’ initiative, the aim is to build 1,000 affordable homes a year by 2024. The majority of homes in the newbuild program are on brownfield and derelict sites. The council’s attention, however, is also turning to its existing estates.
The council owns 28,000 properties, including 62 high-rises and 450 low-rise blocks. To maintain and modernise these properties, while getting residents on board, is a huge task. The council has been criticised over the state of some of its housing stock; tenants have complained of freezing conditions and damp. A 2022 report highlights how maintaining this large portfolio is a “significant challenge”, exacerbated by rising construction costs; more than a dozen estates require major work.
Under plans for an “ambitious estate regeneration” program unveiled in 2020, the council said it would identify estates most urgently in need of regeneration to make them low-carbon, low-energy and safe. Some homes could be demolished, it said at the time. Since then, while some estates that were deemed to be among the poorest-performing have had external upgrades carried out, the program hasn’t got off the ground. In fact, the council hasn’t embarked on a major housing estate regeneration project for two decades.
Involving residents in major regeneration schemes might seem like a tall order, but there are tried and tested examples of how to go about scaling up co-design across an entire estate. Bristol could look to projects such as north London’s award-winning Packington Estate, which involved existing residents in its major rebuild.
The old estate’s inward-looking layout had encouraged anti-social behaviour, which meant a top ask from residents was to reinstate the site’s original Victorian street pattern. They asked that social housing be given priority over the 300 private homes cross-subsidising the scheme. Also on the wishlist: traditional brick and block construction, spacious flats and balconies that could accommodate a table. It took 12 years to build, eventually completing in 2019. The term ‘co-design’ wasn’t used at the time but was there in all but name, says Kaye Stout, the architect who led the regeneration’s design from 2009 and whose practice PTE has used the approach since the 1970s. Stout notes Packington residents are “fierce” campaigners, as well as being ahead of their time. Most of their demands would later appear in London’s Housing Design Guide, a blueprint first introduced in 2010 for new homes across the capital.
Other factors played into its success as well, though. The scheme began before the era of austerity kicked in, with the national government filling “gap” funding to kickstart the project. Its affluent location also meant the private homes would fetch huge prices, though the developers did resist the “temptation to capitalise more than necessary”. Packington’s status as an estate in transition between owners also played its part, presenting a rare opportunity for residents to step in and influence the scheme’s direction.
Packington’s results are testament to what can be done if residents are allowed into the process. As resident Jan Durbridge says, “People live on these estates, they know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s very arrogant that people think they know what’s best for you.”
Over the past few decades, politicians of all stripes have zoned in on housing estates as symbols of wider societal problems, blaming modernist architecture for “designing in” poverty and crime. However, the regeneration schemes of the 2000s did not deliver on bold promises of renewal. Instead, estates across the UK became battlegrounds, with higher land-value cities such as London some of the worst affected. Heygate Estate in south London was formerly home to around 3,000 residents before they were “decanted” and the buildings demolished, a cautionary tale for how destructive regeneration can be. And, awareness of the marginalising of council tenants’ voices has grown since the 2017 Grenfell Fire saw residents’ repeated fire safety warnings ignored.
Against this backdrop, councils’ use of co-design as a regeneration ‘tool’ is growing, suggesting an effort to right past wrongs and repair trust. It fits naturally with the UK’s community-led housing sector. One example is Bristol Community Land Trust’s 12-home Fishponds Road project where residents even completed their home fit-outs themselves.
There are many reasons co-design on large social housing projects is hard, says Hana Loftus, an architect and planner with extensive co-design expertise. Among them are local politics, a lack of resources, and disillusionment from previous, failed regeneration attempts. The most fundamental, perhaps, is reconciling responsibilities to existing tenants and to building homes for the thousands of people on waiting lists, or in overcrowded temporary accommodation.
Experimental projects such as We Can Make in Knowle West and London’s Packington Estate show that working with local people can build trust and housing fit for the future. Loftus describes how, at its best, co-design can deliver more than that, becoming a “process of empowerment”. Co-design is about getting the best design solution possible through involving residents, rather than making “everyone agree”, she adds.
“Communities have a huge amount of know-how and creativity, and we’ve got to better tap into that,” says Mean, who expects to build another four council homes in Knowle West by next northern spring. “That’s where new ideas are going to come from. And we definitely need some new ideas . . . The housing crisis isn’t going to be fixed by ‘business as usual’.”
Scaling co-design up from Bristol’s micro-sites to an estate with hundreds or even thousands of residents is certainly a challenge. But standing at the beginning of its new estate regeneration chapter, with a wealth of local knowledge and expertise to draw on, Bristol City Council hopes to rewrite the rulebook.
TOP Toni Tray (left) with the builders out front of her new build
ABOVE Melissa Mean (right) with Toni Gray and her three-year-old daughter
PHOTOS David Griffiths