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Designs to Compliment the Neighbourhood: Interview with Richard McCarthy

For architects, defining a vision for the neighbourhood is a crucial part of designing buildings. Simply depositing a residential building on a site without consideration for the surrounding area, its buildings and people can mean it quickly becomes a useless misfit.

When designing a building, architects have three clients. There is, first and foremost, the one who is paying – the developer. The second are the people who end up being residents. But not many people think about a third client, who also have a vested interest. There is a duty to the people in the neighbourhood, who have nothing to do with the development, but who have to live with it.

Therefore, architects often approach a project with three hats to define their professional responsibility. There is no doubt, however, that this is difficult with the increased pressure and demand for housing.

Inside out design

From a developer’s point of view, most residential buildings need to be designed and sold from the inside out, because what you’re selling is the layout as a product.

For residents, however, it isn’t a product, it’s a home. The defining thing about residential buildings is that, unlike any other building type, they can be there for hundreds of years. Your vision rarely includes knocking them down after a few decades and that has a big impact on how you design them. There can be a tension between getting the internal design correct (ceiling heights, space) and creating something externally that fits in with the neighbourhood. Density is, of course, a challenge as developers sometimes want more units for their money, but it is important to understand what that means for the residents and the local community. Adding flexibility to the internal design allows clients to play with the look of a house without too many compromises.

Achieving flexibility

There are lots of ways to achieve a flexible design that takes this vision into consideration.

An example of this is Chelsea Bridge Wharf and Vista that sits next door to it. Both designs look, behave and are used very differently. When Chelsea Bridge Wharf was built, there was frustration about how it worked. The façade was well designed but the client decided that the market had changed and the new brief was to redesign the internal units. The layout was the thing they were selling and they had to be of maximum value. But the layout also has to be right for the residents. What that meant for the façade was that it didn’t fit with the internal design anymore and there was little opportunity to soften it. So, when it came to the Vista design next door, the building was set up so that it has stone bands around the building and the façade was set back from that. That created plenty of flexibility so that the internal design could be moved around and the façade was not affected.

As we can see from this example, one of the things that kill seeing a building as part of a community is when designers follow a formulaic aesthetic pattern. It is sometimes difficult to persuade people that the building is part of a unique community when it looks like every other building.

Making the design attractive to neighbourhood residents

The problem is that most residential buildings require certain components to be attractive to potential residents. The most important of these is outside space. We all know how difficult it must be living in an apartment with no outside space, and especially in the time of COVID-19. Balconies are very important to help relate the building to its place. A lot of apartment buildings have the same bolt-on one as every other building, so its is vital to think hard when designing outside space for residents.

It is possible to achieve something unique that contributes to the overall look of the building and balconies are a dominant force on the look and usefulness of a building. If they are not right, residents may put up ugly privacy screens or use their balconies as storage. Both actions completely change the look of the building for the neighbourhood.

Architects also need to look beyond the design as an elevation and think about what neighbours see when walking past a building. Most of the time, all you can see is the underside of a bolt-on balcony. Conversely, the large terraces with stone bands designed for Vista immediately gave residents privacy and a planter designed into the terrace blended and softened the view with the park beyond. Just as importantly, passers-by saw the smooth stone and greenery from the pavement.

What success looks like when creating a neighbourhood

It is so important to engage neighbouring communities and landholders early on in the design. Everyone is then working together from the start to create something, not just for the individual site, but for neighbouring communities and beyond.

It’s about getting the ingredients right for the master plan of an area with a good blend of building uses and open spaces. You can’t build a community without amenities, parks and community centres. These details form the community. Designers should look at how all the buildings and spaces work over 24 hours, and how they will continue to work and change through the seasons and over decades.

There need to be areas where people will mix and start to form friendships, communities and neighbourhoods naturally. Creating a design that is flexible enough to allow updates without losing the cultural heritage is what success looks like.

A successful design means architects have tied the building into the history and heritage of the area, but aesthetically they have to decide whether to replicate the buildings around or be unique, because they are designing for the future. The history of a neighbourhood can be a huge source of inspiration both for outside and inside design.

This article is based on an interview with Richard McCarthy, Board Director at Scott Brownrigg

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