After the cladding system of the 24-storey Kensington block Grenfell Tower failed to prevent a kitchen fire from spreading in June, at least 80 people lost their lives. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan vowed that the city should never again witness such a disaster; and the following month, he announced the launch of the Good Growth by Design programme – a multilateral place-making project tasked with instructing and building inclusive, attractive and affordable communities. Sadie Morgan, alongside Sir David Adjaye, is among the most high-profile of 50 “design advocates” appointed by Khan to lead the programme in delivering much-needed housing for London’s growing population.
Morgan, who is also design chair for HS2 and a board member on the National Infrastructure Commission UK, says that Good Growth by Design’s main merit is in its “holistic approach”. “The programme,” she explains, “doesn’t just look at buildings on their own. We want a London that is resilient to change, working on the synergy between both the public and private sector.”
Design advocates will help Khan to set stringent design standards through audits and reviews, and to commission construction of the 50,000 homes a year needed to keep up with demand, while providing space for 46,000 new jobs, and the social infrastructure to support both. Good Growth by Design’s early influence has already seen revisions to London’s planning process, with Khan informing developers that they will have to provide at least 35 per cent affordable housing without public funding. On public land, this rises to at least 50 per cent.
That Khan has appointed so many different architects and designers, and from so many different backgrounds – indeed, half of the design advocates are women and a quarter are ethnic minorities – is no hollow move. Morgan nods. “I think having that diversity of not only expertise – because one architect can’t know everything – but also experience, is hugely important.” One of the systemic issues that allowed the Grenfell disaster to happen, she says, is that construction is too often carried out with minimal collaboration. “Right now, everything is done in silos. Different people focus on their own bit, but it’s the overlap that we have to get better at. That’s what Grenfell teaches us. The cladding was done after or independent of initial construction.” She links the point about experience, meanwhile, to fostering a greater sense of belonging in a community. “Ultimately, we’re making a city that’s for everyone and if you have a group of white, male 50-somethings designing everything then the way the city is built is really only going to reflect their experiences.”
The government inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy has said that it would consider the decision-making of Kensington and Chelsea council; namely the adequacy of building or planning regulations, the tower’s recent renovation and the response of authorities in the aftermath of the blaze, would form its focus. However, broader questions on the nature of social housing will not be addressed at this time. Morgan feels that the inquiry is missing the point. “The building industry, collectively, needs to really think about how it delivers social housing. How do we procure buildings? What happens if we start cutting costs? Is short-termism really worth it when something like Grenfell happens? What matters more – some numbers or a quality of life? Frankly, people need buildings that are safe and communities that are engaging.”
Morgan’s own heightened sense of community, she reveals, stems from her upbringing in a Sevenoaks commune set up by her grandfather, where all ages and types of people lived closely together. “It was a social experiment which he wanted to carry out and explored the benefits of shared living space. We had one room per person and while there wasn’t a huge amount of space, we did all like the feeling of responsibility we had to each other. Living communally might not be for everyone, but as demographics change and we have to deal with an ever-growing and ageing population, we may have to embrace alternative models.”
Morgan believes that the key to fostering better communities lies in giving residents more opportunities to interact. A recent holiday to Asia got her thinking. “Last year I travelled to Singapore, where I was pleasantly surprised at people’s ability to live in small compact spaces, combined with generous shared inside and outside areas with excellent communal amenities. Architects have designed sky gardens and are breaking up tall buildings every 30 metres – the maximum distance in which you can still recognise someone’s face – with outside open space. These are clever, thoughtful, solutions by designers.”
dRMM’s Trafalgar Place, Morgan says, represents exactly this sort of progressive approach. The 235-home complex in Elephant and Castle was nominated for the 2016 RIBA Stirling Prize and “steers away from the alienating size” of traditional high-rise builds. Trafalgar Place instead blends mini-towers, apartment blocks and town houses. Each apartment has been designed from the “inside out”, maximising its exposure to light, and all come with either a garden, balcony or roof terrace. “The feeling of place gets harder to achieve the denser and higher you build. Yet too often, spaces and amenities that make place are lost in the first round of value engineering, or aren’t designed at all.”
Morgan accepts that there is “no silver bullet” for the housing crisis and it is only through variety that it can be solved. She suggests that the emphasis from concept through to construction “needs to be shifted towards building homes rather than houses” and warns that a failure to do so will leave London socially fragmented. “We need better safety standards and an inherent appreciation of quality as well as quantity. We can’t have a knee-jerk reaction to the housing crisis that just leads to more dense blocks. We need to think about how to integrate living with working.”
What makes a house a home? “Design is central to that. For example, mean, north-facing windows leave an interior devoid of sunlight. Getting to know your neighbour is easy when the stairway is designed for integration or localised use. It’s plainly unacceptable that people would live in homes that aren’t properly ventilated, don’t have good escape routes or are overcrowded. Come on, it’s not rocket science.”