Seemingly insurmountable problems can have solutions if the ambition is there

It may be freezing where you are, and our suitably austere January cover star (pictured, thank you, Child Graddon Lewis!) isn’t an obviously heartwarming choice. But dig a little deeper and the backstory to this residential-led, mixed-use scheme for Westminster City Council in North Paddington uncovers an estate regeneration project with a difference.

None of this is easy. But, as David Green, director of Belsize Architects (and a former Bank of England economist) writes in a letter to the AJ this month: don’t underestimate the desire to ‘get things sorted out’ in 2024.

The Harrow Road scheme was changed mid-construction, by a freshly elected Labour council, from being 50 per cent earmarked for private sale (and only 17 homes for social rent) to 100 per cent affordable rent (increased to 77 social homes). On top of that, the project also switched to being powered by 100 per cent renewables (it was originally going to be mixed-mode) through a communal air source heat pump serving the entire scheme, with supplementary PVs.

Indeed, there’s a lot of ambition addressing key challenges in this issue of the AJ. For another example, the first residents have moved into a £24 million build-to-rent scheme in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, designed by local practice Tim Groom Architects. The investment for this ‘modern mill’ came from London-based Cheyne Capital’s Impact Real Estate Fund, set up to tackle the UK’s shortage of affordable housing.

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And, while the path to genuine circular construction can be a very bumpy one, take inspiration from a mixed-use project which sees the retrofit and conversion of a historic barrel-loading hall at a former Berlin brewery. Architects Die Zusammenarbeiter (‘The Collaborators’) and their colleagues have gone to extraordinary lengths to reuse materials – it’s a fascinating case study.

The Harrow Road scheme is a positive example of two massive challenges facing local communities – the housing and climate crises – being actively addressed at a local level with an engaged public sector client, nimble architect and political will. Of course, it isn’t easy to effect changes such as these. But this project shows that seemingly insurmountable problems can have solutions if the ambition is there.

As the AJ’s Fran Williams explores in her excellent article, the shift presented technical issues, and some design implications are evident – for example where second bathrooms have been removed or stripped back. But, overall, the flats are generously sized, with good views, too. There’s no doubt that relationships will have been key here, with teamwork to the fore.