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Interview with architect Craig White, CEO at Agile Property & Homes

Housing Solutions Platform spoke to architect Craig White, CEO at Agile Property & Homes, to further explore what role architects can play in tackling housing exclusion. Agile Property & Homes is a U.K based firm that focuses on safe, civil , high quality, low carbon affordable homes for those in housing need. Their vision in to create a people-centred housing model as a radical alternative to the current housing market. In this in-depth interview you find out more about how the firm addresses the issue of housing exclusion and about Craig White´s architectural motivations and thoughts on architects' responsibilities.

Craig White, CEO at Agile Property & Homes

"Working with people who have lived experience of homelessness is crucial to the co-design of our homes and communities."

"In Europe, we faced multiple crises, not least of which are the climate and housing emergencies. Both of these crises will deliver more homelessness. As architects, we have a moral obligation to meet these challenges head-on."

Why did you become an architect?

The reasons will have changed over time. My path into architecture was not a straight one. I originally studied Geology and Oceanography, saw that this was not what I wanted to do in reality. I then worked as a musician, in a bakery and did set design. This rekindled my interest in design, creativity and making things. I then applied to study architecture without really knowing if it was going to be the path I would follow. It soon became clear that it would be. It was also the time when sustainability became a big part of my approach to design. It coincided with the activism of Green Peace and Friends of the Earth in the early eighties. I slowly began to weave this into my work to the point where it underpinned, over-arched and threaded through everything I did. I have been privileged to have worked with clients, engineers and other designers on projects where this was a core outcome and not simply a bolt on.

How is Agile taking its place on the issue of inclusive, affordable housing?

Agile was established specifically to deliver, safe, civil, low-carbon affordable homes for people in housing need. Our work centres around people and community and not the business as usual, development models routinely fail to deliver homes that all but the very wealthy can afford.

Have you addressed the issue of homelessness or housing exclusion in any project you have participated in?

This core to our work at Agile. We are working with homelessness organisations to deliver affordable homes where it is extremely difficult to do so. As a start-up we are raising investment via the Enterprise Investment Scheme and we were delighted that we were able to close our Seed Round with Crisis Venture Studio investing in Agile. We are working with Crisis, Emmaus, and St Mungo’s to deliver innovative housing solutions for formerly homeless people across a number of sites. Working with people who have lived experience of homelessness is crucial to the co-design of our homes and communities. Of our current 24 projects to deliver 144 homes, 85% are for social or Local Housing Allowance rents. We are working with 4 homelessness charities, as well as Housing associations, Councils and Local Authorities.

Have you ever faced the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon in developing one of your projects, and if so, how did you overcome it?

NIMBYism is a perfectly understandable response to change. Any new housing development brings change and people’s responses to it are generally negative. The planning approval process talks of consultation, but this often only done as a box ticking exercise, with designs being produced without consultation and generally presented as fait accompli. Our approach to this reality is to work with, communities, stakeholders and near neighbours through consultation processes. By working with communities we learn what their fears may be and develop proposals to work with and around them. Our approach is to create YIMBYs, (Yes In My Back Yard!) before people even imagine they might be NIMBYs.

Emmaus Rooftop Community

What is the most innovative/daring affordable housing solution you have come across in your career?

I’m pleased to say it’s one of Agile’s projects. Working with Emmaus Bristol we co-designed a rooftop community on the roof of their offices in Bristol. Its a community-led project where Emmaus Companions are not only our client but co-designers of the project. There are lots of air-space designs, but they routinely aim to maximise numbers of apartments over creating communities and place. Our rule was simple - no corridors. Why? In apartment blocks shared corridors quickly become ‘no man’s land’ that are unloved and spaces where people never really want to be. They also drive apartment designs that only have access to daylight from one side. Our approach was to create homes, not apartments, arranged around courtyards. We successfully secured planning approval for 15 one and two bedroom homes on the roof. A courtyard scheme allows us to have windows on two sides. We create spaces where people want to be and share.

See a fly through of the project here:

According to you, what moral responsibility does architects have do to address the housing crisis and the issue of homelessness?

Architects are in a hugely privileged position, we routinely get to spend millions of other peoples money. Our job is to do that to the best effect we can. In Europe, we faced multiple crises, not least of which are the climate and housing emergencies. Both of these crises will deliver more homelessness. As architects, we have a moral obligation to meet these challenges head-on. At Agile we believe that access to a safe, civil, low-Carbon affordable home is a human right. At the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is essentially food, water and shelter. Where we live, is essential to our health, well-being and happiness. If we don't have shelter, we have nothing. Architects are in the business of creating shelter for all sorts of uses, whether they be offices, schools, theatres, museums, art galleries, shops. Architects make a handsome living from providing shelter for these uses, but unless we also provide shelter for people to live in, then everything else is for nought. Until we truly end homelessness, everything else is simply privilege.

How do you believe that architects can contribute to the fight to eradicate homelessness?

We need to be come Activist Architects. Our privileged position in society means that we have huge opportunity to enable and facilitate new models of development that deliver properly affordable homes, rather than serve a development machine designed solely to deliver profit to an ever smaller group of people. Housing need is so great that a Cambridge graduate, on a starting salary of £50,000, cannot afford to buy a home in any metropolitan city in the UK. The spectrum of need in housing is now so great that homeless people and university graduates now occupy the same spectrum of need. Unless we deal with this structural failure in our housing supply, we fail all of us. Clearly, a Cambridge graduate will not face the same challenges as someone who is rough sleeping, but they absolutely have common need of shelter and therefore, now have common purpose. As architects we might have chosen in the past to serve the needs of one, but unless we serve the needs of all, we will end up serving none.

What do you feel is needed to support architectural firms in order to engage more on daring inclusive housing projects?

Architectural firms do not need support. Instead, they need to understand this: I teach at a school of architecture in the UK. After 6 to 7 years of elite education, we graduate young architects into the world of employment. A Part 2 Architect in London will start their employment on £28,000. In 2019, the average income in London was £34,200. The average house price was £496,000. The official low-wage threshold in London was £30,000. We are simply graduating architects who qualify for housing benefit. This is untenable. Add to this that in London 37% of children, 24% of working age adults and 19% 0f all pensioners live in poverty, then the only business in town is for all architects to wake-up and engage in the delivery of affordable homes.

In Europe the quality standards for housing are really high and demanding. Some people argue we should be able to overrule them in some occasion to develop temporary rapid rehousing solutions. On the contrary, many argue a Housing First strategy is the only long term sustainable vision and homeless people must benefit from equally high standards of quality. Is this a debate you have faced in your career and what would be your take on this?

Yes, but the former is is a happily delusional falsehood. All too often, we see well-meaning designs for homeless people that deal with homelessness as a noun rather than a verb. When we do that, we casually reject the person in front of us and instead deal with their state of being. At that point we see substandard space solutions, barely good enough propositions, and hutches for the homeless. We demean ourselves when we forget the person in need of a safe and civil place they can call home.

How do you think architects and homelessness organizations can better work together to find housing solutions for people in poor housing or experiencing homelessness?

Homelessness is not a design problem. It is a societal, cultural and systems problem in need of a systems thinking response. Homelessness organisations occupy a space which is now so long in existence that they too might now seek to re-think what they do. They should not run design competitions for architects to respond to. Instead, both should listen to people with lived experience of homelessness. As a triumvirate of common purpose, we might see new and innovative thinking emerge. But as architects, we are not the bringers of the solutions needed. We need to expand the team to include, artists, economists, financiers, makers, sociologists, psychologists, technologists, entrepreneurs etc etc. We don’t need more conferences, we need a new activism. We need to start and think small and then scale fast. To paraphrase an old saying we need to Think Global, Act Local and Act Now.


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