Advice: Making high rise housing work

High rise housing has come in for criticism recently but it can be successful in the right location with good urban design and quality management, finds Ben Kochan.

Stepped designs using different housing types can help high rise housing to integrate into the local area (pic Pollard Thomas Edwards)
Stepped designs using different housing types can help high rise housing to integrate into the local area (pic Pollard Thomas Edwards)

Housing blocks of more than ten storeys are becoming common for schemes in London and the South East. But they are coming in for public criticism because of their design and impact on local areas, says Ben Derbyshire, managing partner at urban design consultancy HTA Design.

It doesn’t have to be that way. "If designed properly as part of larger schemes, these blocks can help meet housing need and create attractive areas, says Derbyshire.

However, high rise should be seen as a last resort, developed where there is a shortage of land, urges Professor Peter Rees, from the Bartlett School of Planning at University College, London and former city planner at the City of London Corporation. He says it poses numerous challenges: "Developers need to look closely at how the spaces around their schemes work and the management arrangements".

Here are four factors that help make high rise housing successful.

1. Mix housing types

High rise blocks should be used with great care and integrated with other street-based housing, says Andrew Beharrell, senior partner at architect Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE). "Mid-rise apartment blocks of around seven storeys can create high density housing without the cost, townscape and social issues associated with towers," he says. "Introducing some taller buildings into the mix should allow family houses to be included while maintaining the overall density." PTE’s Zenith scheme in Colindale, north west London, rises from two storey mews houses through mid-rise mansion blocks to a 16-storey tower. "This enables the development to integrate with the surrounding low rise suburban housing," he says.

Derbyshire says varying the heights of housing around a perimeter block, "breaks up the blocks and allows sunlight through into the centre". He points to his firm’s scheme for the redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, south east London, which includes blocks ranging from two to 25 storeys.

2. Target younger and older people

High rise suits specific resident groups, such as young and older people, but not families, says Beharrell: "Older people are keen on living in high rise blocks, where they feel safe, there is good access and all the facilities are available close by". He highlights examples in Birmingham and Liverpool where council-owned blocks have been given over to warden-managed housing, and the Netherlands, where purpose-built blocks have been developed for older people.

Derbyshire says high management and maintenance costs of tower blocks mean flats are suited to the private rented sector. "Tenants in the private rented sector can afford the higher costs," he says.

3. Ensure good local services and public space

Councils prioritise locations with good public transport connections for high rise housing, both in central London and suburban locations around the wider South East, says Tom Venables, director of cities at planning consultancy AECOM. But he urges them to look at availability of other local services needed by residents: "Health and education services are often difficult to provide in tight urban and suburban locations, but without them, the high rise schemes will not be successful".

Derbyshire highlights the need to consider the space around towers. "Architects are often too concerned about what their buildings look like from afar, but it is how they work at ground level that is more important," he says. Spaces should offer shelter and be integrated with surrounding areas, he explains.

4. Ensure on-site management

Pooran Desai, director of environmental consultancy Bioregional, which advises developers on housing schemes, says management is important not only to keep high rise housing safe and tidy but also to help create a community. "Tower blocks are often seen as the antithesis of community – fragmented living," he says. Desai points to his One Brighton scheme with housebuilder Crest Nicholson, which includes a caretaker to look after the eight and 12-storey blocks. "The caretaker organises a whole range of services, which include the allotments on the roof, the vegetable drop-off and the car club," he says. The result is residents feel part of a community.

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