Mikhail Riches are the architects behind the 2019 Stirling prize winning Goldsmith Street. This groundbreaking council housing is built to Passivhaus standard and is the culmination of a five yearlong collaboration with Norwich City Council. The development has been popular with residents and has attracted widespread interest.
Annalie and David tell the story of this award-winning project.
First of all, congratulations for winning the Stirling Prize! Goldsmith street has been described as a groundbreaking project and outstanding contribution to British Architecture. Firstly, how does it feel to have that recognition?
Annalie: Quite strange, we keep forgetting and remembering (laughs). It’s amazing – our client did a lot of very unusual things in their project. Hopefully it will have an impact on the way people are thinking about what’s possible in housing especially within a green agenda.
Has it had a lot of impact on your company?
David: We won lots of work before the Stirling from various competitions, but weirdly since we won Goldsmith street, we have not won any new work. Someone said to me ‘winning the Stirling is like winning an Oscar – everyone assumes you are either too busy or too expensive’.
Annalie: People have told me that it’s changing their work culture, someone just said to me the other week they are rewriting their sustainability agenda now. This makes me feel positive and hopeful that it’s changing something.
What influenced your idea of what housing should be and were there any specific precedents or housing estates that you have taken any principles from?
Annalie: We are working on Park Hill in Sheffield which is quite an important building and although it was not a direct influence it definitely made me want to be involved in social housing. I am quite blown away by the ideas behind it, not necessarily how well they were resolved, but the ideas themselves: like keeping places for children to play safely, orientation towards the south to maximize sunlight.
David: I can’t point you to a body of work and say ‘we love that’. But why housing? I think It’s because I’ve been more in love with cities and backdrop architecture than standalone buildings that ‘shout’.
In the many years I have spent travelling around Europe seeking the work of heroes I am often left slightly ‘deflated’ by the reality of what I find. I think gradually over the years that meant that I became less interested in architectural icons and more interested in backdrop city-making, place-making and a modest set of aspirations as a designer.
You’ve worked with the council for Goldsmith street. How did that experience differ from working with a private developer?
Annalie: Norwich city council had high aspirations – similar to other local authority clients – they need to do a good job for political reasons, so they are invested in what they do.
David: One of the reasons for this project’s success is that the client was on board all the way through from 2008 – and that continuity is not typical of local authorities. As Annalie said, the aspirations in their brief were higher than most private developers in terms of the green agenda, but also in terms of connectivity and social ideas. And that particular local authority was quite up the curve on Passivhaus design – they had done a smaller development that was fully certified; Politically they were ready for Passivhaus, even though it cost 10% extra. Most private developers would push the architects to the side and start working closely with their favourite contractor to find out how they could save money.
How does the scheme encourage a car free environment?
David: Unfortunately, it’s not car free, it’s 0.7 cars per home. The local authority did some research on car ownership for their socially rented tenants and backed up a case for relatively low car ownership. Most local authorities are seeking at least 1 to 1 and a half cars per house. So, in that context it was a relatively low car environment.
David: The thing we did which goes against most house-building expectations is: we did not supply on curtilage parking – all parking is on the street.
Annalie: That was the innovation really – to therefore make the streets not wide enough to pass comfortably – which made the traffic child friendly – you have to slow down and watch if there’s another car coming.
How did you implement community engagement in the project? Do you see the benefits of that process and have you adopted it for other projects?
David: Community engagement started long before we won the project – the local authority set up a RIBA competition. It was between us and a previous Stirling prize winner, and clearly the other company had a lot of status, they couldn’t decide between them and us. They invited a local resident to make the final decision and she decided on us – so it started there. After that there wasn’t a hugely innovative or joined engagement process – not compared to the ones we are doing now.
How do you envisage the site growing alongside those children? So, these dedicated ‘children spaces’ don’t become irrelevant in 10 years time?
Annalie: That’s a very interesting point. I have wondered about that and really, we can’t predict it, but they are not just spaces for children, there are picnic tables – parents meet out there and they’ve all gotten to know each other.
I think those alleyways were a risk – we did not know how they would perform and it’s not the thing that most councils would allow you to do. In a meeting the council just said ‘if they don’t work they don’t work’. They do have other uses – they are the route for half of the terraces to take the bins out. They can evolve as these small places and people can use them as they like. I quite like the fact that we can’t predict what they do.
What are your thoughts on the Right to Buy scheme and the dynamics that might change with that scheme still in place for social housing? If that scheme is in place in a few years’ time when they become very desirable properties
David: It’s difficult isn’t it? Well you would not be quite surprised that we support the Right- to-Buy to be rescinded in the UK, it’s already been rescinded in Wales and Scotland. Social housing needs to be social housing; however, it is quite tough because we’ve had such great feedback from the residents. Some people would really love to buy their house, they love it there.
One of the residents mentions that it feels like a home without having to own it
David: I think that’s brilliant. I’ve met tenants, you get little parts of people’s stories – there are a lot of people there – the Daily Mail would have no way of describing them – they would not tick any particular boxes and it’s a real privilege to meet people there and see how delighted they are – it does feel like a bit of a shame that the generation after them would not get access to similar housing if they are all bought.
Annalie: I think fundamentally it should not happen
You mentioned that it was the local authority that pushed for passive housing – was that their decision and how do we make this the norm?
David: Our competition response was originally a solar scheme. So, we had the solar strategy but there were no real metrics on it – we hoped that would lead to good outcomes on energy bills. When Norwich had the finance to run the project in 2014, they said to us: ‘what about doing this as a passive house scheme?’
I think I said in the meeting: ‘I’m really not sure about passive house – does that not mean no windows on the north side?’ I managed to swallow my anxiety about it – met somebody called Sally Godber based in Plymouth and she convinced us that Passivhaus could be very appropriate here.
The reason why it was affordable here to have windows on the north side was because we were building terraces of 4 or 5. If you’re doing a one-off house it’s much harder to avoid the energy losses that are required for Passivhaus. Passivhaus is achievable with almost any building but you do spend a lot more money making it achievable.
We’re trying to make it the norm – we have clients at the moment who are looking at Passivhaus in York – they want us to get them certified which is incredibly ambitious – essentially taking Goldsmith Street to the next level. Also in a project in Nailsea – again aspiring towards Passivhaus. But I’m afraid there are still developers and local authorities that would like to put the priority on providing cheap homes – and if Passivhaus costs 10% more that’s 10 homes not 11 – it’s a difficult judgement for clients to make.
What is your opinion on Passivhaus?
David: We believe there are lots of benefits from Passivhaus which are not just about low carbon: one of them is the quality evident in Goldsmith street – incredibly well built and detailed – for social housing that level of quality is remarkable. But it was only through Passivhaus ambition that we were able to convince the client to go for a traditional procurement route – with everything drawn and specified before we went to the builder – the quality is much better.
Annalie: The reality is: if you look at the zero carbon targets, we need to be building every building to Passivhaus standard if we want to hit those targets. Despite that we were quite skeptical about Passivhaus when we started this project. Now through I am convinced that we need to be hitting those standards even if it’s not certified in order to achieve the desired decarbonization.
I do think Goldsmith Street has had an impact on people seeing that this is actually achievable.
Did you always want to start your own practice from the beginning and how have you found balancing running your own practice and family life?
Annalie: Architects are prone to being completely destroyed by the economic cycle, so I graduated in recession and there was no work – I went to Paris.
With the current situation – we might need to become economic migrants again. For the last 8 years we’ve had relatively prosperity with no big economic blips, and I think people are starting to think that this is the norm – when in fact it isn’t.
Having been through 3 recessions – all the times I thought it was an absolute disaster there’s always been some way that you can make the best out of the situation – we bought land that was cheap because of the recession. There are results that sometimes enable you to do something else and it’s not the end of the world.
You both had quite different routes to where you are now, do you think you balance each other in practice
David: Yes, we work really well together – and I know that if we spent time together on a project – I am pretty confident it’s going to be good. She has the ideas – I draw it up, that’s how it goes generally.
Annalie: You need people with different brains to be able to navigate across all the scales and you need to work collaboratively.
What advice you would give to architecture students?
Annalie: Always print out work and check your lineweight – Drawing is a communication tool and it’s almost impossible to read some drawings
David: When presenting, it’s important not to turn your back to the audience. It’s important to engage and get eye contact. That’s very practical
This interview was created from a masterclass between Mikhail Riches and students of UWE Bristol.
Written and edit by Ekaterina Petkova & Carla Tilley, UWE Bristol