Soft Cities

Colm Lacey - Soft Cities

Why we set up our own architectural practice

First published in Architects Journal 28/10/15 – https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/opinion/croydon-councils-colm-lacey-why-we-set-up-our-own-architectural-practice.

Colm Lacey, director of development at Croydon Council, says the authority’s new in-house architectural practice will share the guiding principles of the ‘fabled council architects departments’

Change is definitely afoot in Croydon. The primping and preening of land trading has given way to a more considered and practical focus on delivery. Our council in-boxes swell with the intricate commercial concerns of myriad development teams realising that, this time, their schemes are for real.  

These days their worries have a familiar ring to them as we have recently set up our own development company to deliver a variety of schemes on around 80 of our sites. While in essence this initiative is driven by a combination of opportunity and budgetary necessity, it has a lot more riding on it in the long term. Council funding gaps may demand that the company is a commercial success, but our placemaking ambitions insist that it leads by example and creates beautiful, sustainable and socially conscious developments.    

Our placemaking ambitions insist that it leads by example and creates beautiful, sustainable and socially conscious developments.    

To deliver this very practical task, we need the right kind of resources to call on throughout the development process. Many of the sites are on the small or mildly complex side, and our previous experience as a public authority procuring design quality and innovation for these types of schemes has not been positive. It seemed that the best of London’s architectural talent wouldn’t get out of bed for fewer than 30 units. 

In this context, we have recently set up our own internal architectural practice, which will lead the design process on many of these developments. The idea shares several of the guiding principles of the fabled council architects department of yore in that it seeks to create open-minded, technologically savvy, socially relevant architecture.

However, where previous incarnations became large and all encompassing (the LCC Architects Department had more than 1,500 staff by 1953), our intention is to stay much, much smaller, focusing on one key task: providing well-designed, high-quality, cost-efficient housing for local people. 

Our emphasis will be very much on collaboration rather than domination. For some projects, the internal team will directly design schemes to planning and beyond, and take an active role in seeing through delivery on site. For others, its role will be to lead a small stable of like-minded practices through a bespoke design process to get the job done.

Our intention is to focus on one key task: providing well-designed, high-quality, cost-efficient housing for local people.

The intention here is not to create an environment within which competition drives quality, but rather a genuinely collegiate approach where the shared task is the improvement of Croydon as a place.    

The enviable task of leading this work for us falls to Chloe Phelps, recently shortlisted for AJ Emerging Woman Architect of the Year. Chloe has a decade of experience in private practice, but most recently helped lead the placemaking team within the council’s spatial planning service. Her experience very much echoes the founding principles of the team: to combine an intimate understanding of the council’s strategic needs and policy objectives with the commercial expertise to genuinely address them. 

This is going to be a fascinating journey and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to report back regularly to you on progress. Croydon continues to evolve and reinvent itself, and the ever-changing economic, social and political context provides a fascinating backdrop to the key challenges of design and development in modern-day London.

I am quietly confident that we can meet those challenges and deliver moments of beauty to rival the best of our public-sector predecessors.