24 June 2011

Social Sustainability and the Quest for a New Sustainable Architecture

It strikes me that the pursuit of sustainable development is in grave danger of missing the point! In many instances sustainability as a term is misused to where it merely refers to environmental sustainability. This has the damaging effect of adding cost to projects while failing to deliver value. For me the logical starting point for any design process that seeks to achieve a more sustainable solution is to begin with the needs of the users. Placing social considerations at the heart of the process will ensure that all development is truly fit for purpose.

So what does this mean in, terms of building design, when social sustainability is put at the centre of the design process? Well, it must begin with a client who is committed to achieving significant benefits in this area. We have been fortunate to work with a number of organisations who take this stance. I believe that there are lessons that can be learned from the way that these enlightened organisations work which are highly applicable to a wide range of others.

A great example of this approach is our current project for Phoenix Community Housing the first Housing Association in London to use the Community Gateway approach, which empowers tenants and leaseholders to take a central part in decision-making and to become shareholding members. They are lead by Pat Fordham MBE a remarkable women who has been a community and housing activist in Lewisham for over twenty five years.

Phoenix HQ
The brief for their new Community Hub called for a new building typology that combines a wide range of community uses with office accommodation for the associations one hundred and fifty staff. This challenging brief has to be satisfied with a limited budget and also must achieve high levels of environmental performance.

Central to the project is the inclusion of a range of flexible spaces at ground floor level that are open to the public. These will be occupied by a broad spectrum of social enterprises including a Credit Union, a training kitchen and community café along with a number of smaller units and kiosks that will be rented at low cost on an hourly, daily or weekly basis by new start local businesses, set up by graduates from local technical colleges.

The Phoenix offices are located above the community uses but with all of their support spaces including meeting rooms and toilets at ground floor level. This arrangement ensures that the building will be animated by the movement of people throughout the day and will guarantee that tenants and Phoenix staff will meet informally as a natural consequence of the buildings design. The businesses who occupy units will also benefit from having a large potential customer of Phoenix staff passing by. Outside the Community Hub a new public square will host a range of outdoor activities including a local farmers market.

What makes this project so special is the effect that placing social sustainability at the heart of the design process has had. I believe that it has delivered a new building typology that is unique and which will act as a powerful precedent for future development. The symbiotic relationship between the social enterprises on the ground floor, and the resident office community above, introduce a new take on how mixed use development can be arranged.

It strikes me that if we as a society are to truly embrace the challenges posed by sustainable development then we need to do far more than simply make our existing development models less harmful by applying sustainable building technologies. We need to rethink development from first principles to ensure that social, economic and environmental drivers are properly considered and reconciled on all schemes.

Imagine what would happen if all development had to demonstrate a social benefit to the community in which it is to be built. We would be able to dramatically improve both the quality and quantity of community infrastructure in a relatively short period of time. The resultant developments would be significantly improved and would be relevant not simply for the developers or occupiers but to our society as a whole. This approach would require the development of new architectural responses that would, in my opinion, ultimately lead to a new sustainable architecture shaped by the social, economic and environmental drivers of each scheme.

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