From old car park to sustainable housing solution: how LaunchPad sought to test a new way of developing

In this guest blog, Bethany Albrecht from United Communities introduces ‘LaunchPad’, a collaborative project conceived to deliver affordable homes quickly whilst also promoting a diverse and healthy community. 

LaunchPad is the first of its kind in the UK. The RICS Social Impact Award 2020 South West winner for Best Residential Project and Project of the Year is the first project finished for The Bristol Housing Festival. It was designed and built in just over a year and challenges the way we look at development. It offers 31 studio apartments, with additions like communal living space and laundrette services, to young people from a range of backgrounds. It is novel for its use of modern methods of construction and its blending of communities.

The idea for LaunchPad was conceived following a trip to Startblok Riekerhaven in Amsterdam, where a development featuring 500 converted shipping containers houses young people with refugees. LaunchPad’s version would create a strong partnership between the United Communities Housing Association, charity 1625 Independent People (1625ip) and the University of Bristol’s Student Union. It aims to bring students, young people (working with 1625ip) and keyworkers together. The different groups brought together by each partner meant that from project inception the community was intended to be blended and balanced, allowing residents to experience and get to know people who they otherwise may not cross paths with.

Local stakeholder support was key to the project’s success. Bristol City Council (BCC) gave a 10-year lease on what had been an underused car park at a peppercorn rent. Bristol University offered support to future residents by granting them all access to their facilities. Both these organisations and LandAid grant funded the project and helped ensure that all apartments were offered at affordable rents.

Access to university facilities is something special to LaunchPad, it gives non-student residents opportunities they may not have had access to otherwise. It also opens a city resource which non-students seldom receive. Residents have taken ownership for general upkeep of the building such as cleaning, lowering costs and creating opportunities for leadership. A community grant from Nationwide Building Society is supporting LaunchPad’s concept of residents sharing their ideas and experiences and bringing the young people together as a community.

Given the constrained nature of the site (it is down a small dead-end side road) and the relatively short length of the lease, it would never have been possible for traditional build methods to deliver the project. Instead, a modular solution was found. The initial idea had been to use shipping containers, but these provided narrow and uninviting spaces which had poor thermal performance. Instead, purpose-made modules were built by Integra Buildings ltd in just 8 weeks. Meanwhile, groundworks took place to install services and foundations, allowing the completed units to be craned into position during the summer holidays.  A final few weeks were required to complete service connections and install furniture, wrapping up a 4-month construction period just in time for the new academic year.

The use of off-site construction not only benefitted speed of delivery and logistics of an awkward site but also enabled the use of land which may not otherwise be suitable for development or accessible without full council disposal which can be a lengthy process. The structures themselves have a designed lifespan of 60 years – equal to a traditional house. Enabling, should the lease not be renewed, the possibility to relocate the building to a new site, providing a highly flexible solution.

The project was not without challenges. The steel construction means that Wi-Fi and phone signal can’t travel through the walls – a big issue when you are housing students and other young people! This was resolved by cabling superfast broadband into each apartment but highlights one of the challenges faced when working on something new. The project had a tight deadline to be ready for the new academic year, delays were not an option and there were many stakeholders to coordinate. Whilst off-site construction was great for speeding up the time on site, that very increase caused its’ own pressure to coordinate everything to be ‘just in time’ – an approach more akin to the manufacturing and logistics sectors than our traditional construction industry.

To conclude, LaunchPad was a truly collaborative project conceived to deliver affordable homes quickly whilst also promoting a diverse and healthy community. Eschewing traditional delivery models of both construction and tenant mix, a high quality and novel development was created on a constrained site. By providing shared space and facilitating residents to self-manage aspects of the day to day running of the block, interaction and community engagement are hard-wired into the living experience there. LaunchPad has encouraged its residents to broaden their horizons beyond their conventional socio-economic peer group and hopefully promote greater tolerance and understanding for their neighbours. Given the current social fractures which are evident across politics and society, perhaps this model of co-independent living points to a more harmonious future where we can harness modern technologies alongside mutual values of collaboration and empowerment to solve our longstanding housing crisis.

Bethany Albrecht is Development Project Co-ordinator at United Communities.

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.


Date: July 1, 2020 3:13 pm


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