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Improving Lives With Architectural Regeneration

Write-up of the virtual panel webinar by #DesignPopUp held on 22/03/22

On 22 March, we hosted an insightful webinar looking at how to successfully redesign and rejuvenate a community housing project without eroding the area's social fabric.

Stephen Lamb, Project Architect and Director at Anderson Bell + Christie Architects, and Fraser Carlin, Head of Housing Services at Renfrewshire Council, discussed their award-winning community redevelopment of Johnstone Castle in Renfrewshire, Scotland. The pair presented the considerable challenge they faced and how they sought to bring the community with them at every project stage.

Regenerating social housing carries unique responsibilities.

Good design should consider how we live today, from facilitating family life and incorporating the newest energy efficiencies to supporting social cohesion. When executed with excellence, the right design can have an enormous impact on the quality of life for those who reside there – and set off a ripple effect of positive change across neighbouring towns.

The regeneration of Johnstone Castle serves as a shining example of the transformative power of architectural regeneration. The award-winning project (Best Regeneration Award at the Herald Property Awards 2021) turned a typical 1950/60s West of Scotland council housing estate – neglected and deprived – into a thriving neighbourhood with modern, high quality, energy-efficient and affordable housing.

Fraser Carlin, Head of Housing Services at Renfrewshire Council, set the task to transform Johnstone Castle. He started the webinar by acknowledging the scale of the project and the logistical challenges they faced.

“In its day, Johnstone Castle provided excellent opportunities for new council housing for the area, but it had fallen into decline in the previous 15 years,” he began. “In 2014, it was agreed to start consulting with tenants, residents and owners for a regeneration strategy. The proposal would see 288 outdated tenement flats demolished [which were purchased from private owners], 194 families rehoused, and result in 95 new-build council houses across five sites.” Carlin, who was effectively the client on the project, emphasised that they did not take it lightly. “I’m really pleased with what’s been delivered, but I don’t underestimate the challenge we faced.”

The Johnstone Castle Regeneration Site (highlighted red)

A ‘community-led’ approach

Before Carlin moved on, he was keen to emphasise how crucial it was to bring the residents on board. “At the heart of any social design project are the residents. So we sought to bring the community with us at every project stage and wanted to make sure they saw it as a welcome addition to their areas,” Carlin confirmed.

According to Stephen Lamb and his team at Anderson Bell + Christie Architects, the way to do this effectively was to facilitate consultations from start to finish. “Our most successful projects with housing associations are those when we actively engage with the community,” Lamb explained. The team organised drop-in sessions over two nights and encouraged locals to come in and offer their opinion on what they wanted to keep in their neighbourhood and what they wanted to change.

Lamb described how his team set up a simple yet effective process of eliciting feedback. “We used a dot strategy,” Lamb revealed, “using red and green dots. We asked people to populate a map of the area: green being things they liked, red what they maybe had difficulty with. These clusters were a binary but very effective method of communication.” The most important aspect of the exercise? “Everybody contributed,” Lamb confirmed.

The dialogue between all parties continued and deepened as the project progressed. Carlin explained that engagement between the residents and the project team even extended to the building contractors, Engie Construction. “A local residents group was set up, who were very active on Facebook; they made people aware of what was going on and allowed them to ask questions. Engie also organised a meet-the-contractor event and built a positive relationship between themselves and the community.” Carlin summarised: “It was a very positive approach towards regeneration.”

The Macallan Distillery in Speyside, Scotland

Site analysis

Considering quotidian life

At the start of the project, Lamb’s assessment of Johnstone Castle’s regeneration identified five sites under one contract. He displayed photographs of how the areas looked before the work was carried out, pointing out “unloved and uncared for” areas, such as neglected outdoor spaces.

He also mentioned that some streets had had a problem with anti-social behaviour. Lamb was mindful, however, of the delicate nature of highlighting such concerns to residents, many of whom held a sentimental value to their homes and neighbourhood.

“These buildings would have a history of joy in some cases; children have been brought up there, and many good things have happened.” Progress was important, nevertheless, as Lamb reiterated that standards had started sliding and properties were becoming difficult to let and manage.

Not all of the sites would be slated for demolition, Lamb clarified. It was important to consider what to retain. “The area of Johnstone Castle was built around a 16th-century tower house, and we wanted to include any surrounding assets in our design proposals whenever we could.” Lamb presented layouts of the reconstruction, commenting on their vision of a “family neighbourhood”.

The existing site

“It is an area people should and do bring up children; these are family homes. Very early on we knew we wanted a kitchen with enough area for a table where children could do their homework. It seems really simplistic but presents a really big outcome.”

- Fraser Carlin