With a rolling crisis in the supply of housing in the UK – where the shortfall in new homes has become ever more acute – Ellie Duffy looks at how one 150 year old organisation still provides an inspiring model for housing provision.
To meet projected demand and make up for the current shortfall in housing supply, it has been calculated that Britain now needs to be building up to 300,000 new homes a year. In fact it is currently building at a rate of less than 110,000 – the lowest output since the 1920s. In London, where housing shortage is particularly acute, the housing crisis is being fuelled by a global property market and disproportionate numbers of wealthy “buy to let” or “buy to leave” investors. Places to live for ordinary people are scarce and expensive. Beds in sheds scandals – where householders illegally rent out space in ramshackle garden sheds to multiple occupiers – are increasingly common in the city.
Housing shortage isn’t new to London. In 1862, George Peabody, an American merchant banker and philanthropist who’d transcended humble origins in Massachusetts, was so appalled by the living conditions of workers in the rapidly industrialising city that he established a fund to finance the building of decent and affordable housing for ordinary workers.
As a precursor to both state-provided council housing and the modern-day housing association, Peabody’s innovative dwellings were intended to “ameliorate the conditions of the poor and needy” – probably the majority in the quickly-growing Victorian city. That such an initiative was powered by the vision and capital of one individual seems remarkable today, when philanthropy and social conscience seem to have fallen out of fashion with the super rich.
Those familiar with London may well recognise the “Peabody dwelling” as one of the city’s defining housing typologies. Dotted around inner London from Chelsea to Spitalfields are small estates of apartment blocks dating from 1864 onwards. These are characterised by their slightly austere, bricky solidity, mid-range height (typically five to six storeys), and somewhat guarded enclosure around inner courtyards. Another defining trait is striated brickwork in yellow London Stock – a feature of many of the early blocks.
Health and sanitation were important drivers behind the housing designs: to ensure good daylight and cross ventilation apartment blocks were spaced apart around open courtyards; the pattern of communal sinks and lavatories on landings and the inner network of refuse chutes informed internal apartment layouts; and many of the early estates were planned around shared laundry and washing facilities. Management of this new type of housing was originally kept fairly hands-on in the form of a superintendent, supported by a team of porters, whose role – as well as that of collecting rents – included ensuring residents were vaccinated against smallpox, recording incidents of infectious disease and locking the estate gates at 11pm. Typical early residents included labourers, printers, tailors and bookbinders – in a term of the times: the industrious poor.
George Peabody died in 1869 but the scale and ambition of his charity ensured the survival of the organisation. Today, in the midst of another kind of technological revolution, Peabody is playing an increasingly important role in the delivery of new affordable housing in London. As well as managing its 27,000 existing properties (home to up to 80,000 residents in a variety of tenures) and providing community services (such as employment training, health and wellbeing initiatives and family and parenting advice), it has recently embarked on an ambitious programme of new home-building projects across the city.
At the larger end of the scale this includes Peabody’s new responsibility for the management and regeneration of Thamesmead, a district in south-east London that was originally conceived as a visionary new town of 60,000 residents in the 1960s. Smaller projects, however, are also very much part of the contemporary Peabody picture.
In the early days Peabody made use of a single architect for all its design (H. A. Darbishire was Peabody architect until 1900, Victor Wilkins from 1910–1947). More recently the organisation has become known for commissioning a much more diverse range of architecture. Schemes such as the BedZed carbon neutral development by Bill Dunster (2002), the Silvertown shared ownership flats by Ash Sakula and Niall McLaughlin (2004) and the newly completed Mint Street housing in Bethnal Green by Pitman Tozer have broken new ground in a variety of areas including sustainability, internal planning, materials usage and financial modelling.
Peabody recently held a competition for architects for a “small projects panel” for schemes of 20 or fewer homes. On the look out for innovation and emerging talent, it took the unusual step of discarding onerous pre-qualification requirements, opening up entry to any practice with a built project behind them – including extensions or refurbishments. The competition, which asked for design proposals for one of three inner London sites, attracted more than 300 entries. Of these, 20 practices were invited to interview stage and the final panel of six was announced in February this year.
The successful architects are now working on the early consultation and design stages of a range of projects in boroughs across London. Adam Khan Architects, Urban Salon and Studio 54 are drawing up plans for the three sites in Hackney and Islington that were part of the original competition brief. The remaining practices – Lyndon Goode, Pitman Tozer and Jan Kattein – have been allocated new plots: an infill project at Whitecross Street in Islington (a Peabody estate from the 1880s); the conversion of an existing commercial building in Lewisham; and the development of two garage sites in Greenwich. The idea is that the panel, which is mixed in terms of experience, practice size, style and approach will share knowledge and experience, with those more experienced in the technicalities of housing providing a coaching role.
The original Peabody dwellings were at one time derided by the great chronicler of England’s architectural landscape, Nikolaus Pevsner, who in the 1950s dismissed Darbishire’s designs as “familiar but nonetheless detestable”. But if, as well as providing homes, the buildings being commissioned today posit models for the future or forge new standards in the way that the first Peabody dwellings did, they will have performed very well indeed. As Peabody’s Development Director, Claire Bennie, noted in her summing up of the recent competition process: “architecture is not an isolated, artistic endeavour. It is the fascinating, negotiated product of art and broader societal concerns including economics, politics, and the tangled complexity of human interaction.”
– Ellie Duffy is a director of the graphic design agency Duffy, London. #duffydesign