As architects, we need to understand the difference between the brief that the client has given us and what residents need to create a home. There needs to be a more concerted effort to focus on the customer in residential real estate, where it has, for too long, been largely absent. This we can do by telling the story of the community in the fabric of the building.
The storytelling process
If we were to compare buildings that were being designed ten years ago to how we design them now, we’d see many notable differences. In the past, we used contextual analysis, going through a process of crafting the product to suit its environment in a balanced way. This process has now evolved into creating a unique narrative for every building.
Each design tells a story for and about the neighbourhood and its residents, whether historical, cultural, religious, fan-based or corporate. For residential schemes in particular, it is important to capture the identity of the community, so we can represent that diversity.
When you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll discover that a neighbourhood has a diverse, often multicultural identity and historical indigenous culture. So, in order for everyone to feel like it is home, we need to know what details we add that will give them a connection with the building.
There are universal elements, such as brick, that can conjure a sense of place. Fabric is also part of peoples’ identity, so there is always a rich source of materials. Coming up with a rich colour pallet, we can be spoilt for choice as there is a multitude of options; the challenge is getting the right blend.
Getting it right
The introduction of colour, material and texture to a building can be both subtle and striking, but it’s important to bring character that doesn’t end up being too garish or awkward. These elements need to be folded into the story of the people, the community and the neighbourhood. Appropriate and meaningful colour additions can then blend into the environment as well as reflect and represent its history.
Outside space is becoming much more meaningful, so architects are beginning to think about how they design schemes to reflect this. External spaces, including balconies, will be getting bigger and biophilic design will become more prevalent to connect residents with the natural environment.
Even in high density build, where design briefs don’t often answer the need for us to be part of the natural world, there is a way to introduce nature to a building. It’s not just throwing plants at a space, however, but introducing easier access to natural light and the ability to be among and touch nature in the building. It is only recently that we have come to live in urban settings and we need to have a more diverse landscape with more texture and colour. That’s how we create identity as well as community.
Finding a balance
If it’s really important, a balance can be found within the brief’s financial constraints. When there is customer focus stated in the brief at the beginning, its costs can be well controlled. Increasingly in the build-to-rent market, developers are competing for customers, so customers’ needs have to be at the forefront of the design, rather than focusing on a quick sales. Wellbeing and sustainable products are high on the agenda and the building industry cannot ignore that. This is the storytelling that gets written into the brief, the consequence of which can be an efficient and aesthetically pleasing building.
Similarly, high density buildings and balconies can and should do more to diversify to the needs of the residents. The mistake is to supply a compliant product without looking at its purpose. If a design merely complies with design guides and regulations, you are going to get something very different to a building or product that has the needs of the residents and the community in mind first.
An example of this is an intergenerational housing scheme in Croydon, where balconies were designed to be deep enough that a child could do a full circle on a tricycle. The feedback from the residents about this and other details that take their needs into consideration has been overwhelming.
Common identity and belonging are fundamental to our existence. It’s in the detail that we allow people to feel at home. An orange colour brick design amongst a London stock brick wall might describe the history or the origin of the building or its residents.
We can no longer get away with just producing a return on investment if residents aren’t taken care of.
Combining the product, people and curatorship into design briefs results in a building that not only is safe and compliant, but on that also adds value to the people and its neighbourhood and will continue to do so for generations to come.
This article is based off an interview with Brendan Geraghty, Director at Centred Architecture. Brendan started his career in interior design and moved into architecture. He is a founding member of Centred Architecture and his expertise is in MMC and build-to-rent properties. He has a huge interest in the role of people in buildings and how they contribute to the process.