Social value starts by building community, by Chris Brown

I recently spent a weekend at the Royal College of Art (RCA) with community housing activists listening to inspirational architects working on community-led housing projects from Melbourne (The Nightingale project), Barcelona (the Lacol collective), Berlin (various), Zurich (Kraftwerk 1) and London (StART).

Most of the projects are a reaction to the challenges of city life, particularly housing affordability, and all of them aim to create the sorts of places where people want to live and that have significant social value.

The social value creation starts with the building of community. In all of these projects, efforts are made to ensure that the people who are going to live in them get to know each other well before building is completed, as a result of the process by which the development is co-designed and financed. These communities are then reinforced, once people move in, by a variety of different types of social provision inside and around the developments. There are communal rooftop laundries and drying areas (Melbourne), well-used community rooms (Berlin), properly enclosed urban squares (Zurich) and inclusive resident management.

There is an emphasis on encouraging locally owned businesses (Zurich and Melbourne) and on connections to the street (Barcelona, Melbourne, Zurich). Zero-carbon initiatives are often accompanied by zero-car approaches, with efforts to make walking and cycling the norm even in contexts in which the regulatory system sought to insist on parking. For me the greatest interest was in the financial mechanisms by which these buildings and places come to be realised. In Berlin, the individuals in the building group effectively share the initial equity investment and risk, supported by banks for whom this type of approach is apparently seen as commonplace and low risk.

In Melbourne, groups of architects put up the initial equity and took significant risk, but say they are now close to being able to roll out these projects in greater number as public pension funds recognise the low-risk, reasonable return characteristics. In Zurich, a number of pre-existing cooperatives have recognised the need to use their resources and share the risk to deliver projects larger than any of them could achieve alone. All of these are financial models that could be replicated in the UK.

For me, the same is true of the delivery models. Having removed the need for speculative developer profits, and capped or removed the need for expensive equity, almost all of the models are being delivered by a development manager, with the community group paying someone with a developer’s skills a fee, rather than a profit, to manage the funding and delivery of the project. In all of the projects – selected by the RCA and campaign group the Architecture Foundation – it was inspiring to see the amazing results the community and a galvanising architect can achieve.

Chris Brown is executive chair of developer Igloo Regeneration

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