Building a community voice into designs

web_food-drive-at-church_credit_istock-1408430587.png

web_©Belong_MN2.pngArchitects Meera Nash and Ben Stagg believe community-driven projects are an important part of the social fabric and have set up the BELONG architectural studio to foster collaborative and sustainable local design projects that genuinely reflect the needs of end users. 

Ben Stagg, Director of Stagg Architects, describes BELONG, a community-focused initiative he co-founded in November 2022 with web_©Belong_BS2.pngAssociate Architect Meera Nash, as a “new challenge”, but also an opportunity to create “better places through great design” in a studio environment that brings a diverse range of community voices together to inform the process. 

The Stagg Architects colleagues have worked together for 15 years and have a wealth of experience delivering projects in the commercial sector; more recently the architectural practice renovated the Chartered Association of Building Engineers’ (CABE) Northampton headquarters

However, this new, equal-ownership venture, which will run in parallel with their existing and new client work, presents a very unique challenge. 

As Stagg explains, in many community-delivered developments end users “don’t feel real ownership” because they rarely have access to the architects shaping the designs and often are only briefly consulted on the asset’s use and long-term legacy. 

“From the outset, we want to make it very clear that BELONG will only work directly with communities,” he explains. “That’s our thing and if it’s not part of the project, then we don’t want to do it.”

“We want there to be a legacy that is not just about the aesthetics; we want to create true social value,” adds Nash on the pair’s vision. 

“We want the people who use the buildings to be happy and to be involved in the process. It has to be truly collaborative with the community, so it’s not just us going in as architects and saying, ‘We know the process, we’ll take you through this and get you a great building’. It’s us going in and really learning about the community there, the people and the area. In return, we have some skills that will help get to that end product. It’s a learning process for both sides.”

Nash and Stagg both work out of the firm’s Southwark office at London Bridge and live in South London, so initially the projects they are hoping to kick start in early 2023 will be based in the capital. 

“It’s important that there is someone from the design team who is there,” says Stagg. “We don’t have to be from the local area, but we do need to be there on a regular basis so we can properly get to know the project.”

Having said this, the partners are open to collaborations in other parts of the country. “We are really interested in creating a network of similarly-minded people, so if something does pop up, we can make contact with someone there and work together,” he continues. 

“It’s very much about not being precious and saying, ‘No, this is our project’. We really need a network of collaborators because these are UK-wide issues, and to solve them effectively you do need to work together with others.” 

Since launching BELONG, Nash and Stagg have spent the past few months exploring different funding sources and building contacts with a diverse range of potential collaborators in their local areas, including community groups, heritage groups, community land trusts, charities, local councils and other like-minded consultants and developers. 

“Although we had some initial doubts about setting up BELONG, in talking more and more to people, they have been really supportive,” says Nash on their first tentative steps to get the ball rolling. “It’s refreshing going into this area of work and people genuinely want to help us.”

Nash and Stagg see community-led designs as the future. Social media has been a very powerful tool in connecting individuals at a local level and crowdfunding has opened up new avenues of funding. As a result, communities feel more empowered and more confident to take on heritage assets and turn them into spaces that reflect their needs.  

“Community-led projects look amazing,” says Stagg. “They work very well and they have a real vigor and vitality about them. They are budget projects so it’s usually about using simple, sustainable building materials.”

The list of potential projects continues to grow and includes community pubs, affordable workspaces and meanwhile spaces at the small-to-medium scale up to larger developments such as housing that specifically meets local needs and high street regeneration. 

These are all areas that interest the BELONG founders who have drawn inspiration from a number of community-led projects they have visited over the past few months. 

Stagg highlights a shop in Shepherd’s Bush that has been redesigned by architects RCKA with partner Harvest UK as a food centre that aims to drive greater inclusivity. 

“It’s a brilliant enterprise because it serves free food to the homeless and others that need it, but the public can also go in there and pay for something and have lunch,” he explains. “It breaks down boundaries.”

As the BELONG founders explain, each project they pursue will have its own unique challenges and design requirements, which are informed by the end user. Their role will involve working with all of the different stakeholders to bring the projects to life with the aid of a funding source.

A typical example might be a local council that owns an asset but doesn’t really know what to with the space. At the same time, there are charities and local community groups that are providing a lot of social good and are very effective at working with local communities, but don’t necessarily have the right type of facilities. 

Bringing these partners together with funding support, Nash says BELONG’s approach would also reflect the design principles that Stagg Architects applied to the CABE HQ renovation and its wider commercial client work, namely to “reduce, reuse and recycle” materials to ensure sustainability runs through each project.  

“It’s all about being creative and inventive with a low-cost budget, sustainable materials and using those to brilliant effect to create spaces that are amazing and which through good design bring real transformation to communitiesand which you would never for a minute think are community spaces because design-wise they look terrific,” adds Stagg. 

BELONG’s founders are looking to start building community-led projects in early 2023 and would be interested to hear from potential collaborators that share their values and vision and can contribute expertise, funding and resources. 

To find out more about BELONG, visit: www.belong.studio

To get in touch, please email: [email protected]

Image credit | iStock

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