By David Taylor
Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

 

David Taylor talks to three of the winning team in this year’s Davidson Prize – Charles Holland, Verity-Jane Keefe and Matthew Morgan about the issues it raises for housing in rural areas… and beyond.

David Taylor  
So, Charles, congratulations! And to all three of you – in fact all four of the team, because we should mention the other key member, Joseph Zeal-Henry from Sound Advice as well. Congratulations on winning! Where were you when you heard the news? And what was your immediate reaction?

 

Charles Holland
(laughs) We were actually in a room with the organizers of the competition at a London Festival of Architecture event to announce the winner. I have to say it’s the first time I think I have actually gone to something and found out that we’d won on the evening.

David Taylor
Right. 

Charles Holland
Quite nerve-wracking way to spend an evening, really, waiting for that. (laughs) But yeah, we were shortlisted, obviously, first of all, and then we developed our proposal. We had an interview for that a few weeks ago. We had to wait a few weeks, and we went to the event and it was announced.

 

David Taylor
And did you do a whoop, a jump and have hugs between team members?

Charles Holland
There was a lot of hugging. I think there was a lot of hugging on the night; virtual hugging with Matt, who wasn’t there in person. But yeah, we were super-pleased and excited, actually. It was really gratifying, I have to say, a really lovely thing to win, because yeah, there’s an idea that we generated and we thought was really relevant and extremely important in relation to issues that are close to all of our professional hearts, as it were. So yeah, very gratifying to have that recognised.

David Taylor
It’s called Co living in the Countryside, and essentially, it’s a development model for affordable rented rural housing. Could you expand a little bit on that, in terms of what the project extends to?

Charles Holland
Yes. I think the impetus to enter the competition and develop a proposal was a frustration with the state of new rural housing in the UK today, which is based on pretty much a single development model; edge of village or edge of settlement sites, usually quite small ones, which are developed by large volume house builders on the whole, using one typology of development. We’re all super familiar with that as a kind of a cul de sac series of individual private houses around it, super car dependent, fairly disconnected from the communities that they’re joining. Very little variation in terms of offer, in terms of reflecting changing family structures, or changing social structures, based almost exclusively on buying, rather than rental models. And stylistically, I suppose, extremely clichéd and unexciting.

So, we really wanted to look at how you could do rural housing in a different way. And I think one of the things about that is being very familiar with seeing those sites developed around the country, and everyone is, as they go out of the city. It’s just that overwhelming sense of disappointment (laughs) at what’s going to end up. There has to be a better way to do this; has to be a more interesting way to do this. And there has to be a way that’s much more reflective of what the needs are. So, I think we had a really strong sense that that was something that needed tackling. And that that could answer the Davidson brief to look at co-living in a very particular way. So yeah, co-living in the countryside as somewhere where the issues highlighted in the brief, around things like loneliness, about issues around childcare and home working and things, could be seen as really acute in the countryside or in rural areas because of the degree of isolation and this housing model. So that was the impetus to tackle this particular project.

David Taylor
And Matthew, turning to you, does that chime with the Quality of Life Foundation’s national picture of housing in terms of how bad it is, and how this can respond to that?

Matthew Morgan
There are definitely too many developments that are built in the wrong place and that don’t necessarily meet the needs of local people. So, what we did for this project was look at what the local need was, and try to create a project that would address that. And looking at the particular location of Alfriston and the broader context of affordability and provision for East Sussex, we decided that there was a need for those people who are on a Housing Register to create some form of rental housing in a place that would otherwise be unattainable to them. And so, we looked at the sites based on their social infrastructure, their green infrastructure, their long-term capabilities. And then when Charles was putting together the project with everyone’s input, Joseph looked at the governance and Verity at the broader context. And then we thought, okay, well, what would it be like, in the long term, to live in this place? So, it’s looking at long-term outcomes, which is something that I think house builders don’t generally do. And it’s focusing on those long-term outcomes that is important, because that’s how we get the most sustainable places.

David Taylor
And Verity, turning to you, what was the artist’s role in this whole endeavour?

Verity-Jane Keefe
Yeah – I guess, as an artist, it’s quite hard to nail what artists do. But I’ve been working in and around architecture for the last 18 years, quite often within teams, but mainly in the public realm, thinking about the role and potential of artists within development sites, and how it’s potentially more useful to bring artists in at the point of brief-setting. Potentially with an artist like me, you can actually help shape the brief, stay with the brief right through to post-occupancy. I’ve been looking a lot at owner adaptation and customization; what it is for residents to actually make a house, a home or a dwelling – quite often that comes through Council sites, somewhere that they can actually put their stamp of identity on. We’ve been exploring that a lot, and feeding into the governance model. Obviously, this is a proposal that we realize is long term. So, I guess the way I always approach projects, even speculative briefs are like, well, this is real, like, how would we make this real? It would need considerable time and engagement work. I went to Alfriston and spent two days – two heady, heady days – hanging out and making the film and talking to residents.

David Taylor
How were they heady? Describe the headiness?

Verity-Jane Keefe
Well, it’s definitely not what I’m used to, this rural kind of bucolic, Sylvanian family-esque kind of place. But I suppose I’m from the West Midlands; this proposal is more people that… I kept thinking about this fictional resident, somebody who’s grown up in and around the area, but can’t live there, is priced out. So how do you actually make roots in a place and grow with your family? Because quite often, as Charles was saying, starter homes are lowest common denominator – you get a box, and then you have a baby, and then you have to move out. So why can’t we design places for communities to actually grow in an intergenerational context? So yeah, I don’t know if that answers it. But I guess my role is within one of looking and thinking about how do you act as a conduit between residents, customization, the individual within these teams that can be adaptable, but also practical and viable, with a long-term governance model.

David Taylor
And how did you all collaborate? What was the process?

Verity-Jane Keefe
I think we came together as a team because we all work in and around housing, but with very different lenses. So first, when Charles asked me to be on the team it was a no-brainer because we’ve been overlapping for many years thinking about different kind of anarchic kind of developments and others, like Essex, and customization. So, these different lenses on housing felt like a complement. And then just really respecting the different professions and learning from each other, thinking how we could all wear our hats and feed in.

David Taylor
How about you, Matthew? I mean, has this model proved something that you could replicate elsewhere?

Matthew Morgan
All of our work is collaborative; we always work with other people. It feels very natural, and they are a lovely bunch of people to work with, so it’s really nice project. We were very happy to be involved.

David Taylor
How about you, Charles? How was the collaborative process on this? Was it crucial?

Charles Holland
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, the team came together quite naturally, I think. As Verity says, we’ve had lots of crossovers, in mutual areas of interest around housing. And, again, as she says, looking at the history of houses where interesting experiments have taken place, and different kinds of ways of delivering housing have happened. And so that felt like a really natural fit. Joseph, particularly, who is someone who’s just worked on the House for Artists project, felt – I think we all felt – that this isn’t just a design project. It’s one which is about, well, how could it work? And how could you structure it? The sort of governance model which Joseph and Verity are both super-interested in; how do you make something like this work over time? And Matt and I know each other, and I felt that, again, what was needed was a sense of looking at this problem, or from a variety of angles, not just as design, but how does one assess it? How does one govern it? How does one build it? How does one even begin to think about the kind of sites that might happen? But yeah, that kind of collaboration was everything I hoped it would be, like a kind of rich, fertile conversation that covered lots of ground.

David Taylor
And Alfriston is mentioned, obviously, as your case study, as it were. Do you have other actual sites across East Sussex, say?


Charles Holland
We chose one site in Alfriston from a list of allocated sites. The South Downs National Park Authority have allocated a number of sites within the South Downs for new housing. Alfriston itself has two, and we went to see another. And we felt that the site in Alfriston was perhaps the one that drilled down into the nub of this issue, which is a sort of brownfield edge of settlement site, amazing location, with the South Downs Way going right past it on a kind of suburban expansion of Alfriston, which in itself epitomizes a lot of these issues. It’s quite wealthy, but it’s also a very ageing demographic, very little affordable housing. As Verity says, almost no way back in, perhaps, if you were either brought up in the area, and you haven’t got that much equity, or you’re moving there; those options are going to close. But we did conceive of it also as a model, and one that could be used or be the model for lots of other sites. So, it’s a speculative project at the moment, but we tried to base it in a very clear context and reality, as you could say.

David Taylor
Which brings me to my last question, because time’s running out; are you optimistic of seeing this emerge in the flesh, if not in East Sussex, then elsewhere in the country? Each of you?


Verity-Jane Keefe
I’m a relentless optimist. I think, why not? Something like this needs to happen. The housing crisis is relentless and feels out of control, particularly with the emerging cost of living crisis. So, it feels like there’s an urgency to actually develop tenacious models of housing that respond to really specific needs, rather than just being churned out at volume; thoughtless, crap quality schemes.

David Taylor
Matt? Do you share Verity’s relentless optimism?

Matthew Morgan
There’s a lot of crap housing in the countryside. And I think it would be good for communities, local authorities, and developers to make something better!

David Taylor
And finally, Charles.

Charles Holland
Yeah, I think it’s a really huge issue, for all the reasons Verity says. And I think people are more and more concerned about the quality of new settlements out of cities. I think the pandemic and changing work patterns and stuff has only made that more of an issue. I think there’s an appetite and I think there’s a lot of people out there who would like to do this kind of development in a different way. So yeah, hopefully. I think it’s super-timely. And yes!

Verity-Jane Keefe
I was just going to say we’re living in a time where residents don’t have power unless they own their home. So this is why we developed it to be a rental model… I think that there should be space in the future of housing for that.

David Taylor
Magic. Well, congratulations on winning – more whoops and congratulations and champagne to be had. But let’s hope we can see it in reality somewhere. So, thanks for your time.

Charles Holland
Brilliant. Thank you for organizing that. And thank you for accommodating having as many of us as could make it.

Verity-Jane Keefe
Thank you.

David Taylor
All right. See you soon. Bye.