New Models of Housing

With the housing crisis worsening, what can creative individuals do to improve the situation? Veronica Simpson unveils some inspiring

WHEN I was a budding, 20-something trainee journalist, and freshly located in London, I lived, along with four pals, in a damp-infested, shabby five bedroomeed house over a chemist in Tooting Bec. There was mould creeping up the bathroom wall, no central heating (only a five bar gas heater in the living room), and a hole in the kitchen window that the landlord never bothered to repair in the two years I lived there. While cooking dinner in winter, we would keep our coats and scarves on. For this squalor we paid £25 a month. Even in 1987, that was cheap, but not stupidly cheap. And my starter salary as a journalist was £11,000. Shall we do the maths? If my take home pay, after tax, was no less than £650 a month, that was still a tiny percentage – 3.85 per cent, in fact – leaving me plenty of cash for enjoying life. How does that square with the average 20-something in London right now? A trainee has doubled. Add into this crisis the soaring cost of renting and it would be hard to imagine a tougher scenario for anyone whose income leaves them no wiggle room.

The model that has dominated house building over the last two decades isn’t working – local authorities have been selling off land in order to raise much needed cash, but thereby allowing speculative developers to pretty much do what they will, at great cost to public realm, community and, of course, neighbourhood cohesion.

In such a pressurised situation, it’s not surprising that our best creative brains are hard at work trying to improve the situation, with homes that are both thoughtful of individual finances and environmental impact, but also specific life situations. Take, for example, the range of homes that Glasgowbased practice O’Donnell Brown is designing for childrens’ charity Barnardo’s, Gap Homes. The desire is to create a safe, transitional home for children leaving care to steer them into the next phase of their adult lives.

Even old fashioned estate owners are trying to ring changes: the Mount Stuart Estate, the big landowner on the Scottish island of Bute for hundreds of years, recently launched 10 eco homes designed by local architects Architeco to passivhaus standard, to support a small and almost self-sustaining community. And these are offered not for sale (and thus in danger of off-island AirBnBers getting rich off the idyllic setting) but for rent, in order to try and keep youngsters and young families from heading to the mainland.

Architects are also building innovative new schemes where they act as their own developers. Stolon Studio has made something of a reputation for community-centric housing, with its Kaolin Court project in Lewisham, plus further projects across London and Herefordshire. Perhaps better still, they have flagged up the possibility of doing things differently, attracting a private developer to want to create homes that are both zero carbon but also big on community (see the Stables Yard case study).

The situation may be worst in places like the UK or US, but even in continental Europe, where renting is the norm, and most enlightened countries operate some kind of rent control, the system is in urgent need of shaking up.

Robert Winkel, director of Rotterdam based Mei Architects and Planners, has taken a 50 per cent stake in Nice Developers who will fund a block of eco-homes he has designed in Rotterdam, using building techniques that make this project truly circular – repurposing materials and creating a structure that can be demounted and repurposed itself (see SAWA case study). He is putting his money where his mouth is, because, he tells me: ‘We know about the importance of biodiversity and being carbon neutral. But if you want to maximise your profit, you can’t spend your money on those things. It’s “shareholder value” vs shared values. That’s the whole problem: you don’t get points or money for reducing embodied carbon or improving biodiversity in Holland now.’ As he says, we need to expand our values from the current norm, where, as he says: ‘To earn a lot of money that’s encouraged, everyone wants to be rich.’

With SAWA, he is still able to make a profit, but just slightly less profit. ‘SAWA has 700m planters,’ he says. ‘When I don’t make them, I don’t make extra points, but 1 per cent extra profit. When I design a building out of concrete, I have 2 per cent more profit, but I don’t get reduced carbon. For me it’s about giving something to the collective without earning money – that’s the most terrible thing (the mainstream) can imagine.’ But, he says, his model is still viable, ‘even if we get 3–4 percent profit as opposed to 6 percent.’

To fix the system altogether, he has a radical proposal: ‘My opinion is that we have to cap the profit on residential housing in general, and that’s the most important thing – cap it to 3–4 percent and don’t give it to the land owners. You can then invest the extra money into the project.’ Are his ideas popular in Holland, I ask? ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘A lot of power is concentrated by the companies that own land or have a lot of influence to get the land and they don’t want to have less profit.’ But, as of January 2023, he made City Architect for Amsterdam. Landowners watch out.


O’Donnell Brown Gap Homes are designed as a transitionary accommodation for young adults moving out of care

Young people exit the care system at 18, at a time when they may have achieved neither jobs nor full self-sufficiency. This leaves them vulnerable, and that’s why an alarming 50 per cent of care leavers experience homelessness. Having worked with children’s charity Barnardo’s to provide apprenticeship and training in the construction of their innovative Community Classroom pavilion for outdoor learning, architect O’Donnell Brown (ODB) was invited by the charity to come up with a housing typology that would create a level of independence but also safeguarding to facilitate their transition to independence. The Glasgow-based practice drew lessons from a prototype in Paisley, then held workshops with young people who would qualify, to analyse what qualities they needed and desired. The resulting new typology for safe, welcoming, secure but economically viable housing is now nearing completion in Maryhill, North Glasgow, with more emerging in Stirling, Fife and Lincoln. All of these have been facilitated by working with Local Authorities to animate small, hard-to-sell and infil plots, though O’Donnell Brown is also assisting Barnardo’s with site analysis to ensure that wherever they are built, they are not isolated, but within easy each of shops and transport and an existing community.

This sense of community but also privacy is key in the design of the architect (Part 1) might look forward to a living wage of between £21,000 and £23,000. And they could be paying £750 a month or more for something just as dire as my Tooting house-share – around half of their income going on rent. It’s doable, but only just. But how can we have allowed a situation to arise, over 30 years, where landlords are snatching so much of someone’s income?

The UK has to be one of the worst places right now to be a young professional (graduate lawyers, bankers, accountants or IT types aside) or anyone earning the minimum wage.

Image Credit: Paolo Rosselli

For people who fall below that threshold the situation is intolerable. According to Shelter, over 1m households are waiting for social homes. In 2018, they say 29,000 socialrent homes were demolished or sold, and fewer than 7,000 were built. They state that in England, there are 1.4m fewer households in social housing than in 1980. Their website is filled with such sobering but useful statistics, such as the following: the actual rate at which houses are built has halved in 50 years, from 3m homes a year in the 1960s to 1.3 in the 2010s. Also this: in 2000, a home might cost only four times the average salary. In 2021, they said, a home would cost eight times an average salary. More worryingly, since 2019, the number of households declared homeless Gap Homes. The Maryhill Gap homes scheme features a cluster of four one-bed units placed around a shared courtyard space. There is a separate two-bed home for staff, who live on site, near the entrance. The last thing these homes look is institutional, however. The complex is set behind a brick boundary wall, with simple pitched roofs. All front doors lead off the central courtyard, via a secure front gate, which allows both for security and passive supervision.

ODB’s Gap Homes scheme uses a consistent kit of parts, comprising timber kit houses, and circular economy principles are being embedded wherever possible. All feature high quality insulation, air source heat pumps and waste water heat recovery. They can be adapted to suit different sites and contexts, with ODB currently working to develop some two-bed units. They have also devised a procurement framework which allows Barnardo’s to work with pro bono and volunteer partners, which will minimise costs to the charity and facilitate their evolution.

Client Barnardo’s
Architect O’Donnell Brown
Work commenced 2023
Cost £500,000
Consultants Zero Waste Scotland


 Image Credit: Stam + De Koning Bouw

Having planted his metropolitan reforestation ambitions firmly on the map in Milan in 2014 with his first Vertical Forest (Bosco Verticale) scheme – two towers, 80m and 112m high, whose balconies use thousands of trees, shrubs and plants as shading – architect Stefano Boeri is taking his bid for urban biodiversity out to the world, with recent examples popping up in Huanggang and Nanjing, China. But where the initial examples are all luxury apartments, he broke the mold in 2021 with a Vertical Forest for social housing in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. This 18-storey Trudo Verticale tower features 125 affordable social housing apartments, each 50 sq m of reconfigurable space with ceiling heights of at least 3.5m.

The structure comprises white concrete horizontal bands sandwiched between strips of solar-reflective glazing. Staggered planter balconies of 4 sq m for each flat are extruded from the concrete at a variety of widths, heights and depths, supporting a total of 10,135 plants, shrubs and trees. The planters are fitted with sensors that monitor the hydration and nutrition levels of the soil so that, hopefully, even the most plant-ignorant resident will be able to maintain their greenery. Just to be on the safe side, a reservoir-cum-rainwater collection system ensures the plants remain well irrigated, and regular visits from abseiling gardners will keep trees and shrubs in shape.

The Vertical Forest structure comprises white concrete horizontal bands sandwiched between strips of solar-reflective glazing, and is lined and beautified, top to bottom, with thousands of plants, shrubs and trees, Image Credit: Paolo Rosselli

Cost savings were achieved through using prefabricated components and ‘cost-efficient’ materials to meet the budgetary constraints. Said Stefano Boeri Architetti partner Francesca Cesa Bianchi: ‘The use of latest generation construction technologies, the rationalisation of certain technical solutions for the facades and, more generally, the optimisation of resources related to the project and construction of the building allowed [us] to achieve the goal to realise a Vertical Forest especially intended to accommodate low-income users and young couples.’

Each year, Boeri estimates his vertical forest will absorb over 50 tonnes of CO2 and produce 13 tonnes of oxygen. Solar panels placed on the roofs of adjacent buildings will provide some of the energy residents need.

Kaolin Court by Stolon Studio is designed as a sociable and community oriented cluster of rental apartments and includes the practice’s own studio. Image Credit: Edmund Sumner

Client Sint-Trudo Social Housing Company
Architect Stefano Boeri Architettti
Executive Architect Inbo
Technical advice Laura Gatti Studio
Planting consultants Dupre Groenprojecten Studio and Van den Berk Nursery
Completed October 2021


Image Credit: Matt Rowe

Giving something back to the urban neighbourhood, as well as supporting creative live/work lifestyles, the Cabins was commissioned by Roger De Haan Charitable Trust – De Haan being the former SAGA-business entrepreneur who, having solds SAGA in 2004, has invested large chunks of money into reviving and restoring parts of Folkestone in order to attract new residents and creative businesses. His assorted initiatives, run under his Creative Folkestone organisation, include buying up and redeveloping parts of the Old Town as independent retail units, workshops and homes, as well as funding the widely celebrated Folkestone Triennial. Creative Folkestone commissioned London-based Neat Studios to insert live/work dwellings in an overlooked part of Folkestone’s Old Town that would open up the area between the harbour, its winding back streets and Payers Park, one of the ‘art’ works emerging from the 2014 Folkestone Triennial, courtesy of MUF Architecture/Art. Neat’s response was to generate a cluster of mixed-use timber framed buildings for a variety of tenancies.

Working closely with the historic context, the footprint of these new buildings re-establishes the original building form and line of the old houses at numbers 23 and 25 Tontine Street but into that site they managed to fit five houses and four commercial units, plus a further three flats and a commercial unit inside an existing building. The timber-frame houses are clad in vertical larch panels, the exterior patterns alternating between wide, flat boards and narrow strips, to create a subtle variation between them. Vertical, structural fins continue across the window openings, to provide privacy and solar shading. Some units are painted matt black, like the classic Kent coastal fisherman’s huts, while the others are left natural. Inside, robust walls panels allow residents to adapt them as homes/workshops as they wish.

Image Credit: Edmund Sumner

But the development transforms the wider neighbourhood not just via these attractive buildings but spatially: by removing a poor quality, two-storey extension which blocked both light and pedestrian access, Neat has opened up a pathway that links Payers Park with the harbour and the Old High Street. They also continued the relationship with Creative Folkestone and the Folkestone Triennial by hosting sparkling, mirror-tiled art works on the exteriors, by artist Jacqueline Poncelet, called ‘Shimmera’, commissioned for the 2021 Triennial.

The project won a Civic Trust award in 2023 – one of very few housing projects to ever do so.

Client Roger De Haan Charitable Trust
Architect Neat Studios
Area 1,125 sq m
Value £2.8m
Completed 2021


SAWA by Mei Architects and Planners will be built in timber to make it the Netherland’s greenest building, both in terms of lavish planting to boost biodiversity and circular construction methods. Image Credit: Mei Architects And Planners

Mei Architects and planners gained fame and multiple awards for their creation of Rotterdam’s elegant Fenix I Loft Apartments, which placed light and airy homes on top of a refurbished warehouse whose cultural facitilies are now creating community and vitality around this former derelict dockside. Now they are gearing up to build the ‘healthiest building in the Netherlands’: SAWA is a unique wooden residential building, 50m high and constructed along circular principles. Its ownership also aims to boost inclusivity, with 50 mid-market rental homes that look no different from the 20 private sector homes, and 39 owner-occupied homes.

Mei’s innovations include taking a 50 per cent stake in Nice Developers who will fund the project. The structure is built entirely of CLT (cross laminated timber) with concrete kept to a minimum: Mei is avoiding the usual practice in CLT buildings of using concrete for floors for stability and thermal mass. Here they will use CLT for the flooring, weighted and stabilised with dry ballast. Says practice director Robert Winkel: ‘This means the building is fully circular and therefore demountable.’ All trees used for SAWA’s construction come from sustainably managed forests in West Germany and for every tree cut down, four different species will be planted. Other materials used will be ‘biobased’ where possible. In areas where the wooden structure can be left untreated it will be, and plaster will be kept to a minimum.

Kaolin Court by Stolon Studio is designed as a sociable and community oriented cluster of rental apartments and includes the practice’s own studio

Greenery fills the building, both from outside and in. There will be 600 linear metres of planters with over 20 different types of plants, as well as nesting boxes for birds, butterflies and bees.

Apartments range from 50 to 165 sq m, and there will be shared facilities, including a DIY workshop and storage room, and both a shared deck and a vegetable garden to actively build community. All apartments are designed for cross ventilation and oxygenation, with controlled ventilation valves in the faces. Solar panels will provide energy – include powering the lift – and apartments are heated through a district heating facility. All these measures in combination give it an EPC rating of 0. It was completed towards the end of 2023.

The scheme is already winning awards – including the Annual Architecture MasterPrize (AMP), America’s most prestigious architecture competition. The judges praised its ’balance of form and function’ as well as its impressive environmental credentials.

Client  Nice Developers
Architects Mei Architects and Planners
Size 12,000 sq m
Construction Started August 2022, completion end 2023


When Kaolin Court, a development of affordable rented homes near Forest Hill started winning major awards, including The Developer magazines ‘Place of the Year’ award, it signaled a massive thumbs-up for the kind of innovative and sociable housing typology that is fast becoming architects Stolon Studios’ calling card. Similarly to their own home, built alongside two others around a shared courtyard (Forest Mews), Kaolin Court was also designed and funded by the practice. Their unusual methodology and typology, intended to enrich a sense of community, identity and quality of life with minimal damage to the environment, attracted an unusual private developer client, in Beckenham, south London, who also wanted to establish sustainability as one of the drivers for his scheme Stable Yard’s appeal. On a backlands site behind terraces of Victorian houses, Stolon has arranged six semi-detached, eco-friendly homes with both private space and a shared garden. It is both low carbon and flood resistant. True to their Kaolin Court style, there is great use of colour across the site, including pink window frames and durable cementitious plank cladding in playful shades of terracotta. Living areas open on to private decking at the rear of the house (raised above and protected from a culverted river) and a shared garden runs the length of the scheme. Dining areas open onto another shared deck at the front of the properties. Landscaping includes meadow-like planting to boost biodiversity.

The homes benefit from an air source heat pump, solar panels and a mechanical heat recovery system. Says Jessica Barker, co-director: ‘In terms of energy, it looks to be about 1/60th of the cost of running a Victorian house of an equivalent size.’ The client, says Barker, ‘has spent his life building places. But he didn’t just want to do housing but something different – something that goes above and beyond the minimum. He’s been amazingly supportive all the way through. Our approach has been: If you were doing this for yourself what would you do? It’s a very high standard of development. All of these things shine through with the environmental performance. He wanted to make it exemplary.’ For the client, the idea of having a shared garden and shared space, echoes ‘how he grew up, playing in the street when it was safe to do so, where he grew up in London.’

Clients Stables Yard Developments
Architects Stolon Studio
Completion Summer 2023
Consultants StructurHaus

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