Block party

Wed 3 April 2019, 10:56 am

Bristol is proud of its pioneering spirit and is now leading the way when it comes to innovative housing solutions. Jane Thynne reports

Bristol likes a party. Over the course of a year it plays host to the Bristol Harbour Festival, Upfest and, of course, the International Balloon Fiesta. But last autumn, a new happening hit town, bringing a rush of fresh ideas that could change the city’s landscape forever.

The Bristol Housing Festival is an initiative designed to re-imagine affordable housing provision across the city. By using new modular technologies and creating public-private partnerships, the city has embarked on a five-year project to combat its housing crisis. More than 25 companies exhibited at the 17 day-long launch event in late 2018, including modular home designers We Can Make, Zed Pods and ISO Spaces, which specialises in shipping container conversions. Visitors flocked to the festival base in Waterfront Square, where the presentations were met with enthusiasm. But what happens now? Can innovative approaches such as this go some way towards satisfying the city’s need for critical accommodation solutions?

“One of the main factors of the launch was to start a narrative for the wider public,” explains Jez Sweetland, project director. “We don’t want to be just an expo showcasing ideas. The challenge is what we do next in terms of delivery. We have to demonstrate how ideas have been incubated and brought forward from the launch event.”

And things are already moving, with at least three projects in the pipeline. Leading the way is Launchpad, a consortium comprising Bristol University Students Union, 1625 Independent People (a local charity) and United Communities (a social housing provider), aiming to provide accessible “inspired accommodation” for young people and key workers.

Partnered with the city council, the 33-home container scheme is making use of a former council car park bordering Alexandra Park in the Fishponds area of Bristol. The hope is that youthful communities will grow and encourage active citizens who will co-mentor each other. As Sweetland points out, the thinking behind modular housing is not just to create a series of pop-up homes but to “help the city find positive solutions” to what is a very real social need.

Launchpad is based on a co-living model first tested in Amsterdam. Involving students and refugees housed in city-owned blocks, the Startblok project has been successful in terms of low-cost accommodation provision, as well as community relations. And The Netherlands is leading the way when it comes to innovative housebuilding – the city of Eindhoven is set to have the first collection of homes made by a 3D printer.

But are the people of Bristol ready for such revolutionary solutions? Sweetland is keen to emphasise modular housing does not equal temporary housing. He stresses that a property built off-site is no less substantial than a traditional construction.

While the usage may be what he terms “meanwhile”, the homes themselves are by no means transitory structures. While the festival shows exciting promise, complex planning laws need to be negotiated. Sweetland is aware making sweeping changes to existing regulations could create a “free for all”, and that despite the acute need for new homes, traditional procedures and good practice must be respected to gain the right outcomes for the city’s present and future residents. Bristol Housing Festival sees itself as a “broker” that will help partners negotiate with the city. Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees’ One City governance approach persuades the area’s stakeholders to work together to resolve issues such as housing. He is encouraging the festival to work cohesively and reach out to city lawyers, architects, planners and captains of industry to work for the benefit of the city as a whole.

This is a shortened version of this article. Read the full version in the second issue of Bristol Is here