The Canterbury Society has made one of its most scathing reports on a planning application. Keith Bothwell, Honorary Senior Lecturer at Kent School of Architecture and author of the submission, explains why the Society is so concerned by the proposal for a new block for 45 students in Cossington Road.
Pity the poor students who will be billeted in this new dormitory — perhaps incarcerated for three years or more; pity the neighbours who will suffer the overshadowing and the rubbish traps; pity the local citizens and passers by who will see this conservation area disfigured; pity our planet and its children who will suffer even more, as this building proves to be yet another white elephant that has to be torn down in a few short years, adding yet more to the mountain of carbon emissions.
This proposed new block for 45 students in Cossington Road fails on all these fronts.
Firstly, students would enter a dark and dingy entrance into a windowless corridor. They will then be confined to one room each where they will work, sleep, cook and eat. There is no social amenity space apart from one miserable small common area that has to be accessed from outside — hardly conducive to socialising in winter — and even then can only accommodate a fraction of the students who will live in the building. There is no outside garden space or external terrace for students to enjoy — they will effectively be confined to their cells. This proposal, by its very design, actively discourages social interaction. The implications for the mental health of young people — often away from home for the very first time — are dire.
In the wake of the Grenfell disaster it is critical that we examine all building plans to ensure that they are safe. If there were a fire in this building, the residents on the upper floors would escape down just one staircase which leads directly into a car-parking space at the rear of the building — which hardly seems a place of safety! To get away from the building they would then need to walk past the windows of ground floor rooms — which might have flames coming out of them — before passing back through the building archway to get to the street.
There is poor consideration for how the building joins the adjacent properties on each side, leaving narrow gaps that would fill with rubbish. The frontage fails to follow the building line and steps back awkwardly from both its neighbours in Cossington Road. The building is over-deep, occupying too much of the site, and will have an adverse effect on neighbours, overshadowing the rear of adjoining properties. The elevations are clumsy and fussy with an irregular rhythm of windows, and lacking any doors out onto the street, presenting an impregnable façade. The roofscapes are a mess with varying pitches, which would look awkward and ungainly.
Well-designed sustainable buildings are easily adapted in the long term, to suit different requirements in the future. This particular proposal is extremely inflexible, with small study-bedrooms in a cellular structure which cannot be readily changed to alternative uses. Although none can predict the future, it is likely, and especially now following the coronavirus, that resident student numbers will fall and never rise back to previous levels. This makes a very strong case for student accommodation that is either directly planned as individual dwellings or is easily adaptable to become individual dwellings — so that the accommodation can be sold off or rented to families in future. Many students prefer to live in ordinary homes in any event — with a shared kitchen, dining and living room — so that they can socialise with each other and invite friends round.
In the present climate emergency — as declared by parliament and the city council — all new buildings should be constructed to zero-carbon standards. This is essential if we are to reach the goal of eliminating all carbon emissions by 2030. Apart from some token solar panels, this proposal appears to have unambitious energy standards, which means that it is storing up problems for the owners in the immediate future — when they will need to retrofit more insulation to the requisite levels and install carbon-free heating systems, at huge extra cost. It is very easy and cheap to install thick insulation and zero-carbon heating when a building is being constructed, but extremely costly to add it later to already-completed buildings.
The plans show the loss of all existing, admittedly limited, wildlife, and no gains, which is a huge missed opportunity. A ridiculously narrow strip is designated for a ‘hedge’, which is totally unrealistic. The bicycle storage is welcomed, but the parking for cars is cramped and looks almost unworkable. Rather than paving over the entire rear ‘garden’ to provide parking why not see a proper garden with trees and planting — which could provide a valuable amenity space for the students, as well as a habitat for wildlife. As a society we are now moving away from cars and discouraging their use, so why is any parking shown at all?
This proposal falls short on many fronts: on student amenity and welfare; on architectural quality; on good neighbourliness; and on the imperative need to be sustainable in the face of mass extinction and runaway climate change. For all these reasons this proposal is completely unacceptable.