Did you think you were going to win the Stirling Prize?
Riches: ‘We really had no idea that we’d won. Nobody gave us the wink. I was hoping we’d win one award – either Client of the Year or the Neave Brown Award for Housing. But winning two was pretty incredible. I’ve already had 49 texts. I didn’t know I knew that many people.’
‘We wouldn’t have been able to do this project without the client. It is a struggle doing high-quality housing.
You won the design competition for Goldsmith Street 11 years ago. How much has changed in that time?
Riches: ‘The final scheme is very similar to our competition entry from 2008 [then as Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects]. We set out to design a passive solar scheme. Turning that to Passivhaus has meant extra work. But we haven’t changed the fundamental principles.
‘At the contest stage we challenged the overlooking distances so we could have [narrower] 14m-wide streets. We were lucky that there was someone from the planning department on the jury who bought into that challenge; otherwise we would have had 21m-wide streets and blocks of flats.’
Kikhail hawley riches original competition entry view from goldsmiths street
Had you borrowed any ideas from any of your other schemes?
Riches: ‘We’d already tried a similar roof profile at Clay Field at Elmswell [which completed in 2008]. It’s about the angle of the winter sun.’
Mikhail: ‘We hadn’t seen it done before we did Clay Field. We kind of worked that out, with Buro Happold advising us. Buro Happold then did done a post-occupancy evaluation of the scheme as a two-year, really in-depth study.
‘That threw up lots of fascinating facts about how the residents used it, etc. What really worked was the solar orientation.
‘There were things that didn’t work, too – such as the biomass boiler and district heating. But we benefited from that knowledge in Norwich.’
The biggest cheer of tonight was for the scheme’s traditional contract. But you had to cut costs. How did you do that without an impact on quality?
Mikhail: ‘We had to save £2 million on a £14 million project, which is no mean feat. Yet the value engineering was a really good process.
’Our client had decided not to go down the design and build route. So, while we worked with a contractor, we were not led by them.
’The contractor did have good ideas, though. For instance, lots of the three-bedroom houses had dormers on the roof. The contractor pointed out that working at height is really expensive. So we changed the three-bedroom houses to two-bedroom houses without a dormer which, actually, sat quite happily with the council’s needs.
‘But we led [the process]. The client paid us for our trouble, too. Again, unheard of. So we were able to take the initiative. We’d struggled to find suitable roof tiles to sit at 15 degrees. It was just too shallow. But we found some amazing pantiles in Belgium, echoing those found around Norwich. And that saved us £300,000; it was a no-brainer.
‘Rather than getting rid of one big thing, the whole team was really granular about it. We found lots of ways of doing the same things, but cheaper. ‘
Riches: ‘The client did things that were unusual. I didn’t want to say “brave” [on stage when receiving the award] because I didn’t want to put off other local authorities.
‘But they took some very unusual decisions and that allowed us to make Goldsmith Street as it is.
Architects want a traditional contract because they want quality
‘You can do good projects with design and build, but you can’t guarantee them. So if you want to guarantee good quality you have to use a traditional contract. And what’s wrong with the traditional contract?
‘Architects want a traditional contract because they want quality. We don’t make money from doing it [this way]. But that was a brave decision for them. ‘
What kind of message does this win send out to the wider world?
Mikhail: ‘There is a bigger message that the client is sending out: local authorities, with the right team, can do great things. They took the long-term view in terms of materials and sustainability, because fuel poverty is important to them.
‘We hear from the residents and some of them have come from squalid private properties that they had been paying more for and had been miserable. But the good feeling we are getting from the residents is just amazing.
‘I’ll be honest though, if it hadn’t been council housing, we would have designed the scheme exactly the same. People are people.’
Is this scheme replicable?
Mikhail: ‘Hugely. It is a really dense scheme – 100 homes per hectare delivered for £2,200/m², low-rise with social connectedness and sustainability at its core.
‘But it is relatively low car-use. So it is not replicable everywhere – not in places where people are stranded with no public transport and a pint of milk is half an hour’s drive away.
‘However, there are loads of town and village fringes where it would be.
‘We are now working with York, which has very similar ambitions, as the delivery architect for 600 homes. They, too, have a green agenda.’
Is there any particular thing you’d do again on other housing schemes?
Riches: ‘The ginnels – the back alleyways. We’ve tried to persuade other clients to provide that unmanaged, communal, semi-private, semi-public space. But it is always perceived as too much of a risk.
‘However, Norwich decided to try it out and the best feedback we’ve had from people is how it has enabled their children to make friends. We nearly lost them at one point.
Mikhail: ‘The social housing provider that was the original client wanted to get rid of them.’
Riches: ‘They were the routes to the bin stores, so we [insisted we] had to keep them.’
Mikhail: ‘That enabled us to enlarge them and make them a bit more sociable. So, by stealth, we managed to get them in. As soon as Norwich was on board as the ultimate client, they were on board with ithe ginnels – after a little bit of eyebrow-raising from their maintenance department.
’They were a great client. While they don’t have the resources of Network Rail at London Bridge station, they are exactly what we need. Intelligent people.’
Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley 4
Could the result have any impact on government policy?
Mikhail: ‘We have literally shown the minister [Robert Jenrick, who was at the Stirling Prize ceremony] how to do it. And [government officials] are all going to it as well. We’ve had the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government come down two or three times – and they’ve put it in their new design guide. We’ve had Esther McVey plant a tree.
‘We were worried to see Roger Scruton writing an article about us. In fact, Peter Barber and us are being lauded by a right-wing philosopher. I’m not sure how I feel about that.’
The scheme is 100 per cent social housing? That is very rare. How was it achieved?
Mikhail: ‘Yes, schemes usually only have about 30 to 40 per cent social rent. From how I understand it, the council has a housing revenue account – the rent they get from the homes they currently have. Under the new guidelines for the first time in a very long time they were able to use that money to build housing.
‘What is unusual is that they are doing it themselves, rather than registered providers. [Doing it like this however] means they have control and can make decisions about what they want it to be like.’
Of the other shortlisted schemes, which would you have wanted to win?
Mikhail: ‘I loved the low-carbon thinking and execution of the Cork House. If there was one project that I’d wish I done, it would have been that one. But there was something in all of them. I did love the diversity of this year’s list.’
What will winning the Stirling Prize mean for the practice?
Mikhail: ‘I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far! We would love to be doing socially engaged, ecologically engaged beautiful work. That doesn’t just mean housing – we have been slightly typecast.
‘I don’t think we will ever be massive. We are not looking at 100 people here. We are not interested in growth for growth’s sake.
‘Things are changing. I have been that “unco-operative crusty” – and recently. Somebody has to do it.’