Estate architect bemoans demolition obsession

Alex Ely, founding director of Mae architects, has said there is no need to demolish estates most of the time, instead opting for a refurbishment or renovation.

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With the estate regeneration panel, led by Michael Heseltine, due to be releasing its findings later on this month, we caught up with one of the members of the panel.

Also a member of the GLA’s and LLDC’s Review Panels and the RIBA’s Housing Policy Group, Alex is an experienced architect who has now come up with a new idea: Refurbish/Reinforce/Remodel.

Also a big believer in councils needing to build more homes to meet the demand, he says “history tells us we only meet targets when councils build.”

He said he was shocked by the go-to attitude of demolition by the government when it first unveiled its plans to regenerate estates.

“We felt rather than having a presumption in favour of demolition, you needed a more considered approach, look at the qualities and the social fabric of the community, look at the strength of the community and work with them as a first principle.

“Really, full redevelopment should be the last option. It just seemed to be the wrong message coming out of government, because it seemed to be based on a prejudice against estates.”

A full video of the documentary can be found at the bottom of this article.

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So why does Ely think some developers go for demolition instead of refurbishment?

“I think one of the main challenges we face today is the very small amount of public or government investment for housing.

“As a result, as a default, people often say, well, as there is no money, we have got to use cross-subsidy from private money. Sometimes that goes down the avenue of joint ventures or it goes down the avenue of offloading estates onto private developers.

“I think unfortunately that is not going to change for the foreseeable future, there is still a shortage of public investment in housing, and I think the government need to recognise that housing is infrastructure and it needs government backing in terms of finances and policy. So, demolition is often seen as the only way to get private money onto the scene.”

He believes this often comes back to something he thinks is of upmost importance – resident involvement.

“It is critical and part of the success of a scheme is having that relationship with the local authority and the residents.

“It is vital for the sustainability of the community. I’d hate for some of these places to be in the same situation in 40 years’ time, and people looking at the schemes we have done and saying that we need to pull them down.

“Part of the role as a developer is to act as a mediator and find solutions that will benefit the whole community. It is important to be open and frank about the benefits.

“It is sometimes difficult to get everyone, as these are people’s homes and some have been there since the start and have memories there, whilst others will be newcomers who are living in overcrowded properties and so desperately want a new home. So you get a huge mix of opinions where you need to tread carefully, be respectful and listen.”

He says this links with placeshaping: “I think you can do that by creating a bit of the city and stitching it in with existing services. Networking with other parts of the community mitigates that feeling that estates are isolated, and so people don’t feel part of the wider community.”

Refurbish / Reinforce / Remodel from on Vimeo.

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