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 The proposal would see 288 outdated tenement flats demolished [which were purchased from private owners], 194 families rehoused, and result in 95 new-build council houses across five sites.”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.”
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
The best approach to meet their needs would be to build a mix of low density properties including cottage flats, also known as four-in-a-block flats, which are commonly used in residential areas in Scotland. These consist of two-storey buildings, each with its separate entrance: “good for elderly dwellings on ground floor and people with mobility issues,” Lamb added. Budget constraints, however, meant their initial vision for semi-detached properties was revised to terraced housing.
Next, Lamb moved on to other elements integral to housing developments, such as adding green spaces and slopes and providing level access for every property. Smaller yet significant aspects of daily life, such as car parking and bin stores, were thrashed out on the site plans, too. Lamb explained how one of the sites at the Johnstone Castle development existed opposite a school and backed onto a local wood. The regeneration would affect access points to both of these sites and allowed his team to incorporate new roads.
A catalyst for regeneration
A successful social housing project like Johnstone Castle takes time, Carlin observed, or “you won’t get the right results." He explained: “You have to have a design-led approach and be willing to commit time and resources.”
Carlin admitted, though, that work didn’t always go to plan. “We had budgetary and topography challenges (there were quite a lot of level changes). There were drainage issues and flood risk on site. We had to maintain access to a woods and school, and we followed on from a demolition program, so we had to leapfrog all over the site. Also, we had an unusual situation of a spring running through the site, which we had to divert.”
In the end, though, Carlin and the 95 residents of Johnstone are proud of the results. The project was awarded Affordable Housing Development of the Year in the Social Rent category at the Scottish Home Awards in 2021.
“The residents are seeing their development spoken about at a national level, instead of it being a byword for an area in decline. We are starting to change this community and will continue to change it.”
Awards aside, asked about quantifying the success of such a project, Carlin pointed out the impact on Johnstone’s community and subsequent social housing developments in the region. “We have a waiting list on building new houses nearby,” he said proudly, “it’s kickstarted a whole new regeneration exercise.”
To outline his point further, Carlin recalled a meeting in 2009, where the Chief Planner for Scotland was present. Then, he said the message from the private sector had been that they would never take part in private investment in that community, and how it was referred to as a tertiary economy. Now, Carlin explained, “we have planning applications from companies. To me, that’s a sign of success.”
“It’s a reminder of why you do architecture,” Lamb confided. “It’s transformed people’s lives.”
- Stephen Lamb
Working in regenerating social housing for Carlin and Lamb has been a profound experience. “It’s a reminder of why you do architecture,” Lamb confided. “It’s transformed people’s lives.”
Carlin wrapped up the session by adding his observations. “You don’t work for the council for enjoyment,” he smiled. “But you do enjoy what comes out at the end, and Johnstone Castle is such a great result.”