High Density Living: Review

‘High Density Living’ (Sripriya Sudhakar and Lucia Cerrada Morato, 2020)

The great shutting in of 2020, now extended into the new year, has shown city dwellers how great their cities are: by denying them use of their city’s features. City life—in its usual, non-pandemic mode—is stimulating. This is even true for families, who are often supposed to be wanting to move on out to somewhere more diffuse. Given the enduring attractiveness of cities, it’s not surprising that urbanism in the UK has revived. In London, the borough of Tower Hamlets has attracted a large fraction of recent residential development, and that brings its own pressures. The borough, though, has responded positively by producing a design guide: ‘High Density Living’, currently being revised following consultation.

‘High Density Living’—even before finalisation—is useful to designers across construction specialisms and in my view deserves to become a widely read reference. Its content is relevant to all boroughs and—you tend to think—all cities. The guide is comprehensive and is empirically supported by an in depth borough post-occupancy survey, case studies, and workshops with both residents and building managers. The guide is also logically organised to a high degree (unusual in the UK), and illustrated throughout with well-drawn diagrams and precedents. It shows how its recommendations relate to both borough and city policy (i.e. the London Plan). Its one hundred and thirty-two numbered guidelines are arranged under three headings: ‘Around the building’, ‘Communal spaces’ and ‘Home.’ Along with appendices, the document concludes with a brief typology study that discusses a number of generic massing types. Possibly typologies (or ‘types’) are where the document should begin and could say more; the clear-eyed assessment given here is distinctive. For example, perimeter blocks—with courtyards—aren’t promoted above types such as towers on podiums or free-standing towers: different solutions will have their different strengths and will work better or worse depending on brief and context. Many courtyard schemes suffer from poor microclimate, noise and shadowing; something often overlooked as priority is given to streetscape. There could, however, be discussion here on scale, since some recommendations (such as Guideline 70: provide windows to lift lobbies to allow residents to look down at communal areas) work well at one development size but less well at another. The unlucky Robin Hood Gardens (in Tower Hamlets) had a central garden that was sunny, and well overlooked, and accessible, but just too big for parents—unless equipped with Superman’s vision—to be able from their homes to oversee children at play. That said, one key finding of ‘High Density Living’ is that higher density in itself does not correlate to lower resident satisfaction. Instead, the guide says, residents value certain features of their buildings and neighbourhoods, and gravitate towards them.

Alongside consideration of types, ‘High Density Living’ follows the successful and influential ‘London Housing Design Guide’ (2010) in evoking a narrative of city life. For instance, both documents ask the question, although in slightly different ways: ‘how do you get to and from your front door, and what is that experience like?’. It’s true that in the high density city you are most likely to meet your neighbours while waiting for the lift (Guideline 69 says to make lift lobbies large enough to accommodate every resident on a floor); it’s also very possible that you might find yourself stopping for a chat (Guideline 71 says to provide seating in circulation areas on every floor). Once inside your home you may want somewhere to put your things, especially if you have children—and it turns out from the guide’s survey that many higher density residents do have children—and so Guideline 103 asks that hallways be made functional with storage for outdoor items such as buggies and strollers. This narrative approach is combined with a sense of existenzminimum and smart space packing; for example, Guideline 120 suggests providing extra storage space above lower ceiling areas. For this reason, it’s probably not right to think of ‘High Density Living’ as consisting only of a long list of asks. There is a lot here for a design team to work through, it’s true, but the spirit of the guide is not really to do with inflating or shrinking areas of buildings; with being generous or being mean. Instead, the guide tells you to consider the whole of city life and ask how its frictions and problems can be efficiently mitigated: how can our lives be made better? For instance, if you want to take your child to a nursery, what’s more convenient and enriching than having that nursery—along with its outdoor play space—compactly built into the podium of your own building? (Guideline 13 says to incorporate childcare facilities into lower floors as an ‘interface’ use. At 3DReid, we have looked to do this with our scheme at 49-59 Millharbour.) Our society’s ingrained habit of contrasting deprivation to luxury and asking ‘how much should we measure out in this case?’ doesn’t fit the guide well: although there are some basic minima below which designs can’t go, really the discussion here is operating along a different dimension.

A modernist ethos is also found in the guide’s treatment of home thresholds—recessed, personalisable coloured entrances are suggested, reminding me of Le Corbusier’s Marseilles Unité, although in that case the colours were prescribed—and in the recommendation to avoid full height windows in favour of cills set above furniture height: i.e. eighty centimetres. On this second point, the guide doesn’t explicitly connect window shape to daylight and overheating, but it easily could: for a given area, horizontal windows—think Lubetkin’s Highpoint buildings—do distribute daylight better. Some of London’s best modernist projects might score well if assessed under ‘High Density Living’. For example, the galleried lightwells of Crescent House in Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s Golden Lane Estate provide space for residents to meet and do some gardening—upping their activity levels—typically with window boxes attached to the lightwell balustrades. The guide’s practical, empirically-supported approach—’from our survey, we’ve found that a significant number report a lack of daylight’—offers a balance to more formal, style-based methods; the ‘Georgian proportion’.

Some parts of ‘High Density Living’ suggest repeated borough experience with a problem. For example, ‘traditional refuse storage’ is strongly discouraged in favour of compaction or below ground bins. It’s true that high density development can generate clusters of bins on the pavement on collection day, and good practice dictates avoiding this with adequate internal provision. The guide also considers the resident experience in taking refuse to the point of disposal (which can be nasty). On cycles, ‘High Density Living’ backs the London Plan policy of large, shared cycle parking areas. In my experience, these areas suffer from theft, something the guide doesn’t explore. (After losing multiple bikes, I keep the one that remains in my flat’s hallway; luckily there is space there for it.)

‘High Density Living’ also addresses sustainability and microclimate. There is an emphasis on wind, daylight and sunlight, with solutions. The discussion of wind echoes similar guidance published by the city of Toronto (a notoriously windy city): podiums and other devices to interrupt wind are advised. There is consideration of urban heat island effect and overheating—now an acute issue—and recommendations for both apartment planning and glazing ratios. The guide’s discussion of active environmental systems is maybe too short, although the guide is right to identify noise as an issue with the emerging sustainable use of air source heat pumps (in tandem with a decarbonised grid) for heating.

Last, the guide zeroes in on home working as a key design consideration for residential planning. This is almost clairvoyant, given that the home office is where many of us now are. Still, the advice is good: make homes adaptable, and consider designing communal areas in buildings as places where you can work remotely, but with others (Guideline 54).

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