Building Housing to Build Community

We wanted to give a little bit of an explanation about the communal spaces and ecological design ethos of our construction, which has already started being built and will be completed over the 12 months. This short blog is intended to complement the plans drawings on our website.

Birmingham is in a worsening housing crisis with hundreds of families in temporary accommodation and provision of affordable housing not growing to meet increased demand. Home ownership is not a possibility for most younger people and provision of social housing, inadequate. Private sector housing is often poor quality, has limited security and is expensive. We wanted to build housing that afford security in a place we could afford to rent and heat.

As the city council has recognised, we are also in a climate emergency. We chose a building method that would generate the lowest carbon emissions we could afford. Not only will this building use less energy to run, it will cost less carbon to make. In spite of this we faced resistance from city planners when we insisted on using this building technology. We hope that our struggle through that process will clear the path for others.

Beyond immediate housing need and the climate another crisis facing our society is isolation. Too many people have little to no control over their lives, through their housing and in their workplace. Modern life has tended to atomise us. We decided to work together to solve our problems not only because we are much more powerful together, but because working together is good in and of itself.
We tried to include communal elements to stop the isolation that can be common in flats and is found in identikit housing developments. Our overarching design ethos is one which is ecological, and low impact. One strategy we have used is to think about how some elements of the typical English home can be communalised.

Creative hall: This will be a large (100 square metres) multi-use events space adjoining Artefact which can be used by residents for celebrations and gatherings and by the worker co-ops for events such as conferences or performances.

Laundry and guest room: In two spaces next to the stairwell on the 1st and 2nd floors there will be a guest room and a laundry which will aim to communalise bulky and expensive things which households normally have individually, reducing the ‘dead time’ when they aren’t in use and therefore useless. This will also allow for more kitchen and living space in people’s flats and remove the noise and waste of 39 different versions of the same appliance. The bookable guest room will effectively add an extra bedroom to all homes allowing residents to have their families and friends visit with less hassle.

Communal Lounge: We made the decision to turn one of the flats upstairs into a communal lounge for use by all of the residents – this will be a space for smaller events and meals and will have facilities for large scale cooking. It affects the project financially, and thus would not exist in a profit-driven build. We’re pleased we could make it work with our budget.

Roof garden: This will be a private space for residents and workers in the co-ops to relax, dry laundry or enjoy a lunch break. We’ll also be putting loads of solar PV up there. We will have a lift for all floors, including the roof, making the building as disabled friendly as possible and a number of flats on the ground floor will be specifically designed to improve accessibility.
Bike shed: We all love bikes here so we are including a 100 space bike shelter for the residents and workers. There will be communal tools for people to use and a clause in our housing tenancy banning car ownership. We are lucky our site is well located close to the railway, river Rea cycle path and canal – and there’s a bus stop literally five metres from the building. For at least 100 people in Stirchley the era of the car is over!

Garden and outdoor spaces: The space will have a communal courtyard, bike shed and bin store. The bike shed will go far beyond what is normally available in commercial developments as part a central part of our transport strategy). We intend to have a small kitchen garden, maintained by Loaf with a pizza oven and a barbecue. We’ll also have some fruit trees and a shared composting scheme. The passageway provides access to the public to the space during the day, we hope to design the space in such a way that it can also be a tranquil space for residents and bringing some life to what is a very grey high street. We are also hoping to install a public water fountain and defibrillator as communal assets for Stirchley.

We are using a building method of closed-panel timber frame for the upper two floors of the developments. This is a pre-fabricated building method where the walls are structural and are made out of wood, and can be lifted into place efficiently, and at a lower cost, prepared in the factory to a precise and replicable standard. This product will be manufactured by LoCal Homes in Walsall and it fits our ambition to build a large scale building which was affordable and ecological. Although our plans have changed over the years we have strived for the project to be as environmentally sustainable as possible – not always easy when building social housing. The environmental aspect also includes decisions involving the engineering of the build: our flat roof allows for maximum solar PV; our air-source heat pumps provide efficient heating and cooling; and our decision not to build with brick due to the higher levels of embodied carbon.