Community involvement in large-scale regeneration
Putting in place design training as part of a programme of community involvement can be challenging. It needs to meet the needs and timescales of the wider project and, bearing in mind that you are never dealing with a fixed group who can all attend every meeting, it also needs a flexible approach.
It is difficult to maintain consistency when the number of participating residents and groups will naturally fluctuate. You can help by arranging various meetings and events, to allow all those who want to be involved to join in at some point. You also need to deal with different, usually unknown levels of prior knowledge and input.
Training should not be seen as a static event. It needs to be responsive to the needs of the residents and the dynamics of the project. The process should therefore fit into a clear community involvement strategy and a realistic timeline.
Adapting the Building for Life questions
The straightforward structure of 4 themes and 20 criteria in Building for Life means that it captures a range of complex issues very efficiently. It is a good way of allowing everyone to make a critical assessment of a built project and proposal drawings against the same basic criteria. For non-professional audiences, there is a certain amount you can achieve by adapting and contextualising the questions but, ultimately, each project is different and you will want to emphasise and discuss different issues each time. The best approach is therefore to have a facilitator who can help people to understand and apply the framework to their project in their place.
In this instance, issues with the language of Building for Life were dealt with in several ways. Some were a matter of common sense and of providing a relevant context. For example, ‘outperforming statutory minima’ and ‘topography’ had to be translated into plainer English – ‘not only meeting Building Regulations, but doing better’ and ‘the way the site slopes’.
In other areas, it was right to continue to use language that is specific to development, but these terms needed a straightforward explanation or a glossary. Unfamiliar terms like ‘scheme’, ‘dwelling’, ‘tenure blind’, ‘pepper-potting’ and ‘strategic framework’ were clarified through illustration and description.
There were further instances – such as questions 18, 19 and 20, which are about the detail of construction – where it was important to explain the meaning and intent but not realistic to deal with all the technical complexity and nuance that they cover.
Concepts around architectural quality (question 17), character (8), local distinctiveness (6 and 7) and ‘innovation’ (19) were mostly explained through illustrations and comparisons. These were particularly important for helping people to distinguish design quality from style.
A bespoke version of the 20 questions was developed as a result of this project and which captures the issues described above.
Understanding planning through Building for Life
One effect of using Building for Life to structure training and debate around housing quality is that it helps people gain a better understanding of planning and their role in it. It gives them the confidence to ask questions and challenge assumptions more widely.
The understanding of and level of interest in such things as the planning system and design and construction standards can vary immensely. Focusing on evidence rather than explicit knowledge helps you get over this. By explaining to people where they might look to answer some of the questions, you can open them up to the existence of, for example, assessments of community needs and aspirations for housing. It helps that many of the questions refer to things that are not necessarily fixed references and that vary by place and over time, such as local character or local needs. People then understand that their own local knowledge is important, and this can empower them to be more confident in making their judgements.
Beyond Building for Life: other key design issues
On this particular project it would have been useful to look at the following in more depth:
- shared-surface approaches to public space
- standards for disability access
- measures to promote sustainable development
- how to read drawings
- making use of guidance and discussion online
- understanding the historic environment
- other elements that contribute to local character and distinctiveness and means of engagement through arts, play and sport, and landscape and ecology activities.
It would have been beneficial to have offered extra ‘modules’ of activity and resources for these topics, in order to supplement the training that was given and the displays at drop-in areas and one-off consultation events.
There are many people who find it difficult to engage with development projects and it is important to find ways to overcome this. Further testing of the ideas generated at North Prospect and collaboration with developers, architects, housing associations and community workers would therefore be helpful in developing Building for Life as an even more useful resource.