Architect and writer Jeremy Till: how intelligence and design can overcome London's housing problems

Architect and writer Jeremy Till, the new head of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, tells Liz Hoggard London could solve its home shortage in just five years
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Jeremy Till
© Gary Wallis
Jeremy Till is the new head of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design
Former dean of the University of Westminster’s School of Architecture, Jeremy Till is the new head of Central Saint Martins in King’s Cross. His partner is green architect Sarah Wigglesworth.

Together they make a glamorous power couple. By his own admission they live in a “very nice house” in Holloway — The Straw Bale House — which they built together. It has won many awards, including the prestigious RIBA Sustainability Prize.

But he’s not afraid to be polemical. There’s no excuse for a generation of young people forced to couch-surf or live with their parents, he insists. “If you put together a designer’s intelligence, a regulatory intelligence and social capital you could release a lot of spare space throughout Britain in terms of housing.”

Leases need reform
He’s openly frustrated that the Government won’t change leases and zoning requirements so that abandoned buildings or redundant offices in London can be turned into cheap housing.

The problem is the fact that the housing market is simply a market, he says bluntly. “All this Government actually needs to do to solve the housing problem is to allow local authorities to develop their own housing. If they were allowed to borrow — which legally they’re not — and investigate different modes of tenure, not just owner-occupier, we could begin to solve the housing crisis within five years.”

Jeremy Till
© Graham Jepson
Jeremy and his partner, green architect Sarah Wigglesworth, live in The Straw Bale House, which they built together in Holloway. It has scooped prestigious design prizes

Flexible living
We need to be investigating new models for flexible living, he insists. It’s mad that we only have the traditional choice of one-, two-, three-bedroom flats or a house with a garden “which no one can afford any more”.

“Co-housing hardly exists in Britain. But it’s a fantastic model because it means you could share a big dining room or a spare bedroom or equipment. If you have a proper co-housing scheme — say, 20 families — you probably only need two washing machines and one lawnmower. Google calendar could sort out the rotas in seconds.” He cites a Dutch shared-ownership model where you rent a property’s shell, but own interior and fittings.

“Property developers are obsessed with giving everyone homes with lots of tiny, unusable rooms when what we really need is larger, shared spaces. We should also be encouraging community cohesion, tackling loneliness. Why not design extra-wide corridors or decking around buildings with built-in tables, so people automatically stop and chat?”

Co-housing is the future
His partner has just been awarded a big grant to develop a new co-housing model for the elderly. “We need different forms now that many people between 55 and 70 will still be working part-time, or no longer live in conventional nuclear families.” Till lectured on the steps of St Paul’s during 2011’s Occupy protests and finds the Government’s new bedroom tax “absurd”.

“People say there’s spare space but why couldn’t you release that in a more productive manner rather than booting people out of their houses?” he says.

Scarcity is Till’s buzzword. “We need to consume less. Our obsession with endless growth is dangerous and wilful. Designers are very complicit in the construction of scarcity in the way that they design endless newness. They design you one so it will be redundant in two years. And not only that — they design it so you want it to be redundant because you desire something new.

“Our challenge is a very uncomfortable one. You can no longer define yourself through the production of newness.”

Much of his research focuses on how spare capacity in the system can be unlocked by designers. “Not adding something, but releasing it.”

Many of us are already letting rooms three or four nights a week to out-of-Londoners through websites such as airbnb, a great example of using what you have, but in a different way.

In his role at Westminster University, he headed a three-year project on Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment (SCIBE) — looking at how we can unlock resources in an era of global austerity. The project — jointly taking place in London, Vienna, Reykjavik and Oslo — looks at how design-led actions could improve the built environment in the future. Is scarcity natural or man-made? How can we share more equally?

With funding from European research council Hera, they held an open competition during last year’s London Architecture Festival for projects to transform life in Bromley-by-Bow — the capital’s most deprived borough, which missed out on the prosperity of the Olympics.

The Bow community project
Unveiled last month, SCIBE’s winning proposal — Bow-nanza — by Dominic McKenzie Architects and Peter Morris Architects (Homes & Property’s problem-solving architect) is brilliantly simple and effective. They’ve come up with a street food vending bike where locals can start their own business delivering dishes — authentic Bengali cuisine, samosas, wraps, you name it — around the neighbourhood.

It’s unlocking the hidden wealth of the community by finding the people who can really cook, encouraging entrepreneurship and offering healthier fast food for local people.

Two other projects were shortlisted — using the canals and waterways of Bow as a new “zero carbon” transport hub, and Time Banking, a “labour swap” where you deposit a skill you have, for example, computing or sewing, in exchange for training in another, say, cookery. “It’s about direct action, releasing social capital,” enthuses Till.

Peter Morris
© Adrian Lourie
Peter Morris (left) and Dominic McKenzie, architects and designers, devised Bow's street vending bike so locals can start their own food business

Architecture re-vision
His own re-vision of architecture started before the financial crash. He found himself sickened by “the myth of abundance” in places such as the City and Dubai. We were led down a cul-de-sac in the so-called boom years of the first decade of the 21st century, he insists.

“It’s not too much of a stretch to say buildings became mere commodities. There was a perpetuation of so-called star architecture. If you wanted your Chanel suit, you went to Zaha Hadid, and if you wanted your Primark, you did it through PFI. Architecture lost, to a large extent, the social purpose which the Modern Movement gave it.”

There is a sense of despair in the profession that they have given up “control” to developers, project managers and government procurement systems. Till says it can be empowering to re-describe what an architect or designer can do: to pioneer a new type of design intelligence. He gives the case history of a school with corridors too narrow for its students. Instead of spending £3 million knocking down walls, the winning architects revamped the timetable so students were in the corridors at different times. “Their solution cost £30,” he laughs. “That’s not design in the traditional sense, but it’s a very designed solution.”

Will he be lecturing future stars of Central Saint Martins about scarcity? He laughs. “People talk about teaching entrepreneurship in our curriculum. But we don’t bloody need it.

“To live in London as a student means you are an entrepreneur. They’re juggling part-time jobs with study, and what they have to put up with, compared to what we did, is extraordinary. I’m full of admiration for them.”

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