Meet the client: Anurag Verma – ADC

Anurag Verma, chair of the Rural Urban Synthesis Society, has been instrumental in delivering a sustainable neighbourhood for its community in Lewisham. Verma talks to AT about the process of bringing the project to fruition and what’s next for the Community Land Trust.

Why was the Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS) set up and what does your role entail?

The impetus came, when Kareem Dayes, a founding member of our community assisted his father with the retrofit of their self-built family house at Walters Way, a self-build development in Lewisham built in the 1980s. This involved installing a ground source heat pump, underfloor heating, PV’s and triple glazed windows. Seeing the benefits of both micro-generation and self-building planted the seed of sustainable energy and food production in his mind. Shortly after, in 2009, a group of half a dozen people sitting around the dinner table began thinking about sustainable development and the housing crisis. Over conversations the vision of creating sustainable neighbourhoods designed, built, and managed by its community took shape. This was the beginning of RUSS.

As the chair of RUSS, my role is to lead RUSS collaboratively with the Board of Trustees and active members ensuring that we provide an aspirational future vision underpinned by a deliverable strategy and business plan. The chair is also responsible for maintaining relationships with existing stakeholders and cultivating beneficial relationships for RUSS. I am a guardian of RUSS’ rules and principles, help steer RUSS through its projects and have oversight over the complex funding arrangements that make Church Grove possible. In particular working in a collaborative manner with our stakeholders. Finally, I am expected to champion Community Land Trusts and in particular the RUSS community led development model.

How did you find a site?

The architect Jon Broome, a founder member of the group, knew the site having grown up next door. As Lewisham has a history of supporting innovative housing and had enabled Walter Segal’s self-built schemes in the 1970s and ’80s, we wrote a paper explaining what was achieved in the past and worked up a business plan based on the site. The council then commissioned a feasibility study and called a public meeting. It became clear that there was an appetite for a community self-build project and this was followed by the council tendering the site via an OJEU process. RUSS submitted a bid for the site in 2015 and the bid was premised on maximising social value by the provision of a 100 per cent affordable, multi-tenure scheme. In 2016, RUSS signed a development agreement with Lewisham and the site was given to RUSS on a 250-year lease.

The built project is known as Church Grove and was designed by Shepheard Epstein Hunter. Read more about the scheme here. 

How did you find an architect and how did you work with them?

Architects have worked closely together with residents to design the scheme. Originally Jon Broome Architects and Sam Brown assisted our team with the development of a strategic brief for the scheme. This translated our vision of a sustainable neighbourhood into a set of practical outcomes that guided the development of the design. The outcomes related to the tenure mix, self-building, sustainability, co-design, community use, affordability, environmental performance and resident involvement.

Following this Architype were appointed to develop the design in conjunction with future residents. Future residents were identified and allocated to specific dwellings in the scheme. They were involved extensively in a ‘co-design’ process with the professional team, resulting in the designs submitted for planning. This co-design process was spread over five sessions, each session addressing a particular topic. These were the site, landscape, character, materiality and feel, internal layouts and sustainability. The sessions were run by Architype architects and facilitated by Jon Broome Architects and the resident feedback integrated into the scheme design. Most expressed an appetite for self-building on the later stages of the build to benefit from a cost saving and RUSS aimed to provide training and support to enable residents to work effectively with the selected contractor. After a successful planning application Architype continued to develop the detail of the design in conjunction with various consultants.

Post tender returns, we embarked on the redesign of the scheme to deliver cost savings and appointed Shepheard Epstein Hunter Architects to assist us with an Minor Material Amendment application and as the lead designers for the remainder of the scheme.

How did you find someone to build it?

Prior to the completion of the tender package, RUSS issued an invitation to tender for the construction of Church Grove. This was the first stage of a two-stage tender to identify a contractor to provide pre-construction services to the project. RUSS chose ROOFF on the quality of their submission and a positive approach to incorporating self-build. This was followed by their appointment as the principal contractor for the works under a Design and Build contract (with quantities).

During co-design sessions residents had expressed an interest in self-build to reduce costs and learn new skills.  This crystallised around a group of five households who met regularly to discuss their plans with a self-build manager to assist with the programming, training of self-builders and procurement of materials. At a mutually convenient time in the construction programme, ROOFF handed over five water tight flats in shell’ condition to RUSS. These were in turn handed over to the self- builders who proceeded to transform their shells into compliant and habitable homes.

The remainder of the homes are handed over as ‘self-finish’ units, that is without flooring and wall decorations. This is a saving reflected in reductions in the purchase price and gives residents an opportunity to customise their interiors.

Finally, RUSS and its residents are working [now, at the time of writing] on the landscaping of the common areas.

Our homes are affordable in perpetuity, as their price is decoupled from the market and indexed to RPI.”

How will RUSS ensure it can serve its community moving forwards?

Looking forward, RUSS is actively seeking opportunities to partner and collaborate with stakeholders to deliver new sustainable neighbourhoods for its community. We will shortly be reviving our school of community led housing offering workshops. We have started to monitor the air quality at Church Grove and polling the residents to establish the health and social benefits that living at Church Grove brings.

At Church Grove, the Hub and community play area are available to the wider community. Our homes are affordable in perpetuity, as their price is decoupled from the market and indexed to RPI. With a variety of tenures and sizes we hope that Church Grove will remain a resource to our community far into the future.

What do you do outside of RUSS?

My training is as an architect and am currently working on commercial new-build and historic building refurbishments, predominantly in central London for Latitude Architects. A firm believer in the value of community land trusts and their ability to deliver sustainable benefit to our communities, I promote the CLT model at public events and contribute to panel discussions. I’m also a member of the visiting faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University and have taught History and Theory at University of East London and London Metropolitan University previously.

What’s next for you?

At this moment, I look forward to taking a break from volunteering, to recharge my batteries and reflect on the lessons learnt over the last six years. I am thankful to RUSS for the opportunity to contribute to an incredibly creative process. I intend to continue working on developing strategies for delivering long term sustainable, community led solutions to our housing needs.

Source: Architecture Today