Small Projects Panel: The rationale behind the final decision
Claire Bennie, Peabody Development Director, on choosing the final six architectural practices
We interviewed 20 practices this month and were privileged to encounter such a talented and committed group of architects. It was always going to be very difficult to choose our final six practices who are going to work with us on small schemes over the next four years. We believe that we have chosen a panel which is balanced in terms of experience, size and style and we’ve set out here what drove us to these six.
Innocence and experience
We named our panel the "Small Projects" Panel rather than "Small Practice" or "Young Practice" for a reason. Our aim was to find firms who were going to give us the dedication, enthusiasm and innovation for smaller schemes which is sometimes hard to find. Our winners have varying degrees of experience of completed schemes and of housing, and the age of the practices ranges from four to 18 years with about as many staff. The panel will offer the chance of the first housing scheme for half the winners; the other three may be able to provide coaching in some of the more arcane housing design regulations.
None of the schemes from our winners (or any of the other 300 or so entries) was perfect; four weeks will never be enough to understand the site, create stacking plans or assess rights of light, let alone understand the client and local residents! Through interview, we explored the proposals more and were able to gauge the candidates’ thought processes, their ability to explain their work and their flexibility in seeing possibilities for change. Some candidates had done detailed and insightful research into the sites, the local economy and Peabody’s landholdings which was admirable. We also subjected our candidates and their schemes to the scrutiny of estate management staff, whose informed eyes provided an important dimension to the critique.
The completed schemes gave us a chance to see what we could hope for in the finished product. We learned more about this through interview, including the ups and downs with the clients, locals, planners and heritage people which are an inevitable part of inserting a scheme into an already busy landscape. Craft was a key aspect of interview success: Can you work with and learn from builders? How will you get them on side and get the detail right? What compromises did you have to make?
The winners really showed that they had researched Peabody and tried to understand our priorities. This made their interviews less of an architectural monologue and more of a conversation with us about housing, planning, affordability, social cohesion and stewardship.
We asked ourselves at the end of each interview: could we put these people in front of residents, whether Peabody or other local community members? The answer had to be a unanimous "yes". The winners all demonstrated an ability to frame a good jargon-free narrative around their schemes, to respond nimbly to criticism and to suggest ways in which the locals would actually be consulted if they were to start their scheme now.
Finally, we were keen to see and encourage a variety of architectural approaches in the panel. It could be argued that we have chosen the simple, solid and beautiful as well as the more idiosyncratic. We very much look forward to nurturing and seeing all the fruit borne from this valuable process.
If there is one thing which I would like to convey to all practices out there, it is that architecture is not an isolated, artistic endeavour. It is the fascinating, negotiated product of art and broader societal concerns including economics, politics, and the tangled complexity of human interaction. Architecture can be as much about bad behaviour in forgotten corners, the height of a fence and the longevity of a lift as it is about reveal details and cross-laminated timber. Our favourite interviews combined both poetic and prosaic discussion; we think all your clients are looking for a similar dialogue.
Claire Bennie is Development Director at Peabody