Community led design as standard

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James Irvine is a student on the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) Professional Diploma in Architecture (Part II) course. Here he reports on the second residential period at CAT, where students have been applying the principles of community engagement. 

I travelled through to CAT from Lincoln on Sunday to arrive late in Machynlleth. During the final leg of the journey I actually managed (after rectifying a brief lapse of concentration – or getting on a train to Sheffield instead of Birmingham) to tie together some of the presentation we were asked to prepare for Monday morning. The end of September’s Prof Dip week saw our group being split up and tasked with researching different elements of a site in Ceinws. The site is the focus of our first project: a decommissioned piece of Forestry Commission land (now Natural Resources Wales) which is being considered for social housing. Our group chose to research the subjects of land tenure, financial, legal and governance of the project which (maybe surprisingly) was the most popular choice. Other group’s elements of site research included: energy, environment, topography, historical, transportation, materiality and building typology / vernacular.

Architecture part II
The team: Professional Diploma in Architecture students 2014

So, upon arriving at CAT, I was greeted with some left-over supper and by my group: Tasha, Gemma and Paulo and we spent the rest of the evening catching up and putting the finishing touches to our Monday morning presentation before heading to bed. We were all really pleased to be back at CAT and surprisingly well prepared and informed of each other’s research directions, due to the pretty consistent flow of emails, messages and Skype chats between us since September’s module.

Monday morning and our presentation was well received. We spoke of Community Land Trusts, self builds, flexible models for growth and Section 106 agreements for affordable housing… though what is really worth mentioning is the amount of information that the group as a whole managed to gather about the site! Site analysis is a fundamental part of any architecture project and one of the first skills we are asked to develop as undergraduate students: observation, sketching, photography, research, sense of place, even conversations with the community in the local pub are valuable information gathering skills (or not so much…) and up until now I have relied upon my own skills, resources and analysis techniques to take me into a project. But with twenty people working on a project, and each with a different approach we managed to uncover a huge amount of information. There was an impressive level of presentation and we learnt loads from each other’s work – and what a rich resource to begin a project with! It was rare during my part one to work collaboratively, which felt un-natural to me – (surely architecture firms work collaboratively?) I got the feeling that the whole group had embraced this way of working and that the whole really was greater than the sum of it’s parts; all at the end being grateful for each others contributions.

It is worth mentioning that the Ceinws Affordable Rural Housing Project is a live project, being that the Ceinws community has recognised a need for more housing for a changing local population. The last ten years has seen a local community group and Community Land Trust being set up to protect the land with extensive consultations taking place. The proposals have drawn support and partnerships from local and national agencies and the work we will produce for the project will hopefully help inform, and draw further support for the housing project.

Infographic Ceinws
An infographic of the Ceinws community, by fellow student Kirsty Cassels

The rest of the week gave us plenty of time to re-visit the site and develop our designs. Ideas were shared and discussed within the group and there was ample time for feedback from our tutors. For this project we couldn’t ask for a better team of architects with the relevant experience to guide and support our group: Prof Dip’s course leaders Duncan Edwards and Trish Andrews. Duncan gave a lecture on the work he has done on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne: working with the local community to establish affordable social housing solutions in this delicate location. He spoke of the enabling and transformational aspects that good housing can give to a community and also the frustrations of negotiating a bureaucratic system. Trish has lived locally for a long time, has a wealth of local information and is a key member of the steering committee for the Ceinws Project. Pat Borer – who gave a short workshop on calculating U-values and who with David Lea designed the WISE Centre here at CAT which we work in every day, and which really is a beautiful space to be taught in and David Lea who has designed and been involved in several social housing projects throughout the 70’s and 80’s and gave a lecture about the efficiency of space and the importance of maintaining green spaces in cities and urban areas.

This issue really resonated with me as over the last couple of years I have been working alongside charities and community groups in my home town of Lincoln on placemaking and community gardening projects. This work has shown me the clear therapeutic benefits of gardening and what a positive difference green spaces and a connection with nature can give, which is not always easy in a city.

Some other great lectures this week included an introduction to the principles of Permaculture by Chris Dixon. I had no idea that permaculture was such a wide reaching discipline – it’s ethics embracing development on a personal, environmental and community level. There was an evening lecture from Sunand Prasad, ex president of the RIBA from Penoyre & Prasad Architects who won this year’s AJ100 Sustainable Practice of the Year.  Elena Blackmore gave a really inspiring lecture about Common Cause. Common Cause were set up to promote debate around the values and motivations which affect societal change. Or alternatively: to encourage change through fostering intrinsic values – such as self acceptance, concern for others and care for the natural world – and move away from negative power structures which foster fear and alienation. Anna from Adaptation Scotland gave a really inspiring lecture about the challenges of adaptation and mitigation to climate change from a national agency’s perspective. The key things that I took from this was that effective change is the most sustainable when it begins at community level.

There was definitely a thread running through the weeks lectures and workshops: responsible design, community development, collaboration, dialogue, reinforcement from research from classic and social sciences, the challenges of engagement beginning from a positive perspective and not through fear. These are the reasons I chose to come to CAT – where else could you go?

We also tidied the wood working barn, this time lapse shows what we achieved:

Find out more about CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture.