Why don’t we design housing more like office buildings? Commercial developers could teach the housebuilding industry a thing or two about flexibility.
The traditional London terrace house has, of course, been able to adapt over the years to a whole lot of different uses, sizes of families and levels of housing supply. Just knock down a stud partition here, stick in an RSJ there, and you can transform your accommodation. Today’s housing doesn’t seem to have that inbuilt ability to change. Planners and developers specify complex arrangements of housing mix which the architect jigsaws into the site, creating fixed floor arrangements.
A building that really took the idea of flexible living to heart is Farrell and Grimshaw’s Park Road flats close to Regent’s Park. The 11-storey block was one of the first co-ownership projects funded by the Housing Corporation and was designed in the late 1960s by Farrell Grimshaw for a housing association that Terry Farrell and Nick Grimshaw set up themselves. After completion they moved into the block’s penthouses.
The building’s corrugated aluminium cladding, radiuses corners and continuous bands of windows certainly have the look of an office block. And just like an office building, bathrooms, lifts and stairs are concentrated in the central structural core which allows most internal walls to be non-load bearing and accommodation changed radically over time - flats can morph from one bed to a whole floor.
Park Road was listed in 2001 for its ''freestanding columns, continuous perimeter heating and regularly-spaced electrical sockets encourage maximum flexibility, its curved corners give an added sensation of panoramic views by removing the need for corner mullions, the architectural effect of its minimalism is a finely proportioned, architecturally sensitive sense of space'' It was seen as an important example of British high tech. and just as high tech has rather gone out of fashion, so the sort of flexibility it delivered has been forgotten.
Developers taking advantage of permitted development rights that allowed them to alter office buildings to residential without planning permission should have taken note of Farrell Grimshaw’s prototypical building and made maximum use of cores and the ability to employ non-load being partitions. They could also emulate John Habraken who in his seminal seventies book ‘Supports’ looked at the idea of self-build, shell and core apartments built within an office-style structure. Habraken’s ideas predated the Torre David - the 40-storey empty office block in Caracas designed by Enrique Gomez, taken over by squatters who ‘fitted it out’ to suit their lifestyles. The tower has been featured at the Venice Biennale, and was a rather bleak backdrop to several episodes of the Homeland TV series. It is certainly one way that self build and community housing can be delivered in urban environment.
Not all homes need to be flexible of course - mansion blocks have worked pretty well for 150 years or so - but we need to get the balance right, particularly in an era when space standards are not as generous as they were in the 19th century. Office design seems to be better at creating that balance right now than housing design.