Are architects best placed to unlock the potential above our heads?

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Property development Residential homes

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Mick Haley

When the building works started at Sandhurst Court, I asked the construction manager if they’d worked on many air rights projects before. “Yes, but we just call it a roof extension” he said, amused at my use of architectural jargon.

He’s got a point.

Building extra floors on top of houses is not a new concept, we’ve been doing it for 20 years, but with all the news coverage around air rights you’d be forgiven for thinking it was.

“There is the potential to build up to 40,000 new homes on London’s rooftops”

There are some crucial differences of course, but the principles are the same, especially when building in a residential area. Rooftop developments have a symbiotic relationship with the existing fabric of the city, and a successful negotiation of the planning system is key. Any project will need to be designed so that it doesn’t impinge on neighbour’s right to light and privacy, amongst other things, and in many London boroughs there will be strict rules around consistency of design – especially in tricky conservation areas.

At the end of last year, Knight Franks released research which showed that there is the potential to build up to 40,000 new homes, like the one we designed at Sandhurst Court, on London’s rooftops. But with 66,000 new homes a year needed to ease housing shortage in the capital, there will always be the temptation to construct sub-par housing cheaply and quickly.

“For years, smaller city practices have been adapting the existing urban fabric to accommodate the requirements of a developing city”

A recent investigation by The Times uncovered that many of the new build homes constructed by house building company Bovis have been built to poor standards with numerous faults. Problems arise when pre-fabricated buildings are designed with no consideration to the context that the buildings will exist in, and these ‘quick fix’ and cost-cutting solutions are simply not a risk that should be taken when people’s homes are involved – especially when you take into consideration that any housing built on top of an existing structure will be several hundred feet into the air.

When it comes to responding to the current housing crisis, architects have to be best placed to lead the way, and this is especially true when it comes to air space. For years, smaller city practices have been adapting the existing urban fabric to accommodate the requirements of a developing city, and are uniquely skilled to bring in this ‘new’ building type. From coming up with a thoughtful response to site conditions, to maximising site value, to designing a quality architectural statement which will stand the test of time.

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