Rob Whitehead explores why property developers need to embrace listening to residents about what it’s like to live in the neighbourhoods they build.
When a housing development is finished and the first families move in, that’s not the end of the story.
To create the better homes that London needs we need to listen to people who live in new neighbourhoods about what works – and what doesn’t.
The experience of Chobham Manor, a new neighbourhood on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, shows us how it can be done – and the difference it can make.
The housing industry needs to embrace review processes
Much of the prosperity we enjoy today has been hard won. Sometimes through headline grabbing breakthroughs. More often though, it is far more boring than that. The drudge of detailed reviews. The grind of distilling small lessons and tweaks to practice and policy.
Some industries are brilliant at this. Modern medicine and transport safety epitomise what you could call the unshowy institutionalisation of incremental improvement. Both excel at case reviews, enquiries, listening, evidence, and action.
Our homes cost more than anything else in our lives. And matter more than almost anything. We put up new homes sometimes in ones and twos, but more often in street or cul-de-sac batches. Sometimes whole neighbourhoods spring up seemingly overnight.
But compared to medicine or transport not much attention is paid to how these homes actually work for residents, and whether they have delivered on the promise of idyll, amenity or, increasingly, energy efficiency. In part, this is because we leave it to the imperfect guiding hand of the market.
This is changing. Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE) – structured assessments of data and surveys of residents – are in vogue and may become standard practice.
Other routes to understanding the reality of life in homes are also taking hold, stimulated by new imperatives around energy use and digital technology that make user opinion research much easier. All should help developers, designers and architects learn what works for residents, sometimes challenging their assumptions on what really makes a place people want to live in.
Post Occupancy Evaluation in Chobham Manor
Enter Chobham Manor. This new neighbourhood on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London has recently been subjected to a ground-breaking Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE).
Nearly three hundred homes in total were in the study. Mainly they were homes for families. The properties ranged from flats to townhouse and mixed tenures including a substantial ‘affordable’ set.
The evaluation covered hard technical data such as energy performance and far more delicate topics. Residents’ attitudes to their homes, their blocks and their neighbourhoods were gathered and analysed and published.
What they discovered by and large matched any casual observation: this is a remarkably successful development. Resident satisfaction is high. Many plan to stay there long term, unlike in much of the surrounding borough of Newham. And that key indicator of good places, children playing outside, are not an uncommon sight.
Neighbourhood issues and what caused them
The study also uncovered less comfortable truths:
- There was dissatisfaction with energy bills for district heat network.
- There was too much overheating in summer.
- Parking issues were a common gripe.
- So too was access by non-residents in cars and some anti-social behaviour.
Some of this stems from the setting, directly next to the remaining Olympic stadiums and a huge new park.
More typically it seems were tensions between residents and the building and neighbourhood management. This appears to be something of British weakness.
Too much emphasis on the capital phases of new building schemes and not enough on the operations. Weak connections between developers and managers, or at least too remote to really drive a better residential experience.
Lastly, pure market forces might not attract and sustain the small-scale retail – where you can buy a pint of milk – that thriving communities need.
How can the housing industry respond to residents’ feedback?
The challenge both for the managers of Chobham Manor, and the wider housing industry, is really listening and responding to these insights.
There were good signs at the recent Centre for London event on this topic that housing developers, local authorities, architects and others are increasingly up for it.
Build-to-rent could be one answer, giving developers far more skin in the game of residential experience.
There is also momentum to further develop and perhaps somehow institutionalise the Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) process.
Standardising it, to reduce costs, might be one path. Locking in a commitment to POE through the planning permission process, for example ‘Section 106 agreements’ between local authorities and developers, could be another way.
Improving how we do homes and neighbourhoods in London matters. Not just for the residential experience but also for our health, our planet, our wallets and the wider economy.
Studies like the Post Occupancy Evaluation of Chobham Manor have real potential to set us on a better path. But only if we pay attention.