Developer wants creative ideas but only if they’re commercially viable

6 August, 2020

The lockdown has thrown up huge challenges for developers but as the economy starts to reopen thoughts are turning to the opportunities post Covid-19 says HUB’s managing director, Damien Sharkey.

What are some of the challenges facing development in the wake of Covid?

 The biggest thing is uncertainty. The likelihood and consequences of a second lockdown and what will happen when the furlough scheme ends, are questions we get regularly asked by investors and local authorities.

However, based on research we conducted in-house into the last systemic shock – the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 – it is likely that if house sale volumes fall, rents will hold up. So we are confident that build-to-rent, a core sector for HUB, is very strong.

 How does HUB differentiate itself from other housing developers?

 We think we are quite unique in our flexibility and openness. We don’t start projects with preconceived ideas. Instead, we go into an area and listen to the community and the council, have an honest discussion with them, and then work out proposals from there. We’ll consider all possible options in terms of funding, development model and tenure.

What’s your view on towers – can they still provide the kind of housing people want given the demand for outside space?

 Certainly they can, on the right sites, fulfil the need for housing and high quality outdoor and amenity space – both private and shared. It comes down to basic principles of designing a good building. In fact a tower can have extensive external space. A great example is the 18-storey Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier which combines exciting and functional internal space with vast external amenity space.

Will the Government’s proposed changes to the planning system help solve the housing crisis?

 The government has said all the right things in recent weeks. The backing of major infrastructure projects and the ‘build, build, build’ agenda have given the market confidence and as a result we are seeing development happening.

I also welcome, in principle, the radical changes they are proposing for the planning system. The planning process has needed reform for a long time. However the last thing we need now is more uncertainty, so it is essential that during the transition to a new system the government provides clarity and detail.

Key questions we need them to answer concerning the zoning system include how will the quality of developments be controlled and how will communities be involved in schemes?

At present, delivering what is really needed for communities is not simply a matter of following local plans because they are often out of date – or because they don’t take account of newer models such as build-to-rent or co-living. The proposed new system cannot be based on out-of-date information and data.

The current system, as imperfect as it is, controls a whole array of factors, such as affordable housing, environmental impact, townscapes assessments etc. We need to ensure that in simplifying the systems these important elements are not lost.

Community participation has always been fundamental to HUB schemes – we take the community on a journey and we will continue to do that whatever happens – but it would be good to understand how the government sees their future involvement under a zoning system.

I would also like to see housing space standards made more flexible. The pandemic has demonstrated that homes need to be used in different ways which we struggle to do with the rigid space standards currently in place.

What do you hope to get out of the Pitch?

 We want to meet great architectural practices that we will work with in the future. It’s fair to say that when we last did the last Pitch we ended up working with not just the winner but everyone shortlisted, in various ways.

We want new ideas and practices that challenge our ways of working. HUB is already working with amazing practices but there are always new ways of doing things and we want to know about them.

 What are the qualities that you’ll be looking for from the seven architects?

A big part of this will be how they tell a story – so how they present their ideas will be key. We need practices that can take local authorities and communities on the journey – this is a really important part of how we work. Presenting well means being clear, succinct and getting the audience excited. They’ll have a short time to present but that’s the real world.

We are looking for creative, original and bold ideas, but they need to be deliverable and commercially viable, as we want to apply them to current and future schemes.

We are very happy working with less experienced and smaller practices, the size or age of the practice is irrelevant.

Do you have a favourite architect?

I can tell you what my favourite architecture is. It is something that is simple and functional – you don’t have to have complexity to achieve architecture that is beautiful and interesting.


Damien Sharkey will be one of the judges for the next Architect Pitch in September.