Chloe Phelps, head of design for Croydon developer Brick by Brick, on breaking the mould in housing delivery
With a need for new homes and under pressure from council cuts, Croydon Council established Brick by Brick (BXB) in 2016, a limited company that would tackle the housing crisis across the borough.
“Croydon Council had the idea to do something different,” says Chloe Phelps, head of design for BXB. “Establishing BXB three years ago allowed some freedom to get things going with a different kind of funding.”
In an interview for The Developer podcast, Phelps takes us on a walk around their first sites nearing completion. She describes BXB’s approach as an ‘anti-masterplan’ born of the desire to avoid wholesale estate regeneration.
“We focus on smaller sites which are traditionally more difficult to bring forward because they’re more expensive,” Phelps says.
She blames Croydon’s prior lack of housing delivery on the compound challenges of working with central London construction costs and outer-London property values.
The starting ambition was to gain an economy of scale by building 2,000 new homes on 50 sites, and then settle down into a pattern of finishing 600 new homes a year, turning into a sustainable developer with a business model that isn’t just about smaller schemes in Croydon.
Phelps attests to BXB’s “viable business model”. “We’re looking at acquiring sites, working with other boroughs and really becoming another developer in the London mix,” she says.
But some locals have voiced concerns given the developer is not yet financially self-sufficient.
Inside Croydon has questioned the council selling off public land to BXB for prices as low as £1. It also recently revealed that BXB needs another £78m loan from the council to complete its housebuilding programme, causing eyebrows to raise. BXB responded stating the extra funding will finance a new pipeline of sites.
All BXB profits go back to the council: “Because we’re established by the council, we see ourselves as an agent for change,” says Phelps
“We need to be commercial in how we operate,” assures Phelps. As a limited company BXB buys its funding off the council. “When we sell our first homes we should be debt free and will have money to invest in future developments.” Phelps says this should see a balancing of the books in the near future.
Phelps also emphasises its difference to other developers given that all of BXB profits go back to the council. “Because we’re established by the council, we see ourselves as a developer that’s an agent for change,” says Phelps.
“We very much make sure that what we’re doing is above board and we’re not going to get an easy ride,” says Phelps.
“There was a corporate vision,” Phelps says, which will see more than half of BXB housing going for private sale. This aligned with the “political vision” that sees housing being built on public-owned land, using public finance.
Phelps says that one advantage to setting up BXB is that Croydon can sidestep procurement regulations. “It allows us to act a little bit more quickly [and] has meant that we’ve got off the ground a lot quicker than other developers or local authorities doing similar things.”
Does BXB get special treatment when it comes to planning? Operating from within the council, one would expect so, but Phelps says, “We get treated in the same way that any other developer gets treated.”
“We are an external company when it comes to planning,” adds Phelps, “[although] we are quite a pushy team!”
Phelps says it’s important to give back to local communities with “new play equipment, new landscaping, gardens and allotments that they can use and manage themselves”
As for community engagement, Phelps says she has learned to expect the unexpected: “There’s always something different on each site that we encounter. It’s just about listening and working with them.”
“The conversation at planning committees is often, ‘Do we want houses… or do we want more parking?’ There’s a gap between the council, the local planning authority, the developer, and what people actually want.”
“Planning policy says reduce car ownership but that will change the way people are living their lives.”
Phelps says it is important to give back to local communities with “new play equipment, new landscaping, gardens and allotments that they can use and manage themselves”.
In many ways, development brings the community together, says Phelps, as they debate what they want to see happen and unite to agree or protest.
“We have dedicated people on our team, they’re the clients running the project, and they also go into the community groups and listen.”
For mixed-tenure housing, Phelps says not every site will offer both affordable and shared ownership. Rather this will be distributed across the borough, with a target of 50% affordable housing. “Our business model is about 25% affordable and 25% shared ownership,” Phelps tells us. However shared ownership has been criticised as a method for achieving affordability, with London rents often exceeding the limits of the average salary.
In future, Phelps says they will take a more standardised approach to the architecture, to benefit from an economy of scale
“There’s an ambition to do more affordable and social rent as part of the programme,” she adds.
In terms of the architecture, BXB took a completely non-standard approach, commissioning 12 different practices. In future, Phelps says they will seek to introduce a more standardised approach, as they have with the interiors, to benefit from an economy of scale.
“We were deliberately pushing the boundaries of design quality throughout the borough, coming up with bespoke designs for specific sites,” Phelps says.
Phelps shows us the site at Auckland Hill in Upper Norwood being designed by HTA Design, a development of one and two-bedroom flats she says is typical of the BXB programme.
“A good thing for us about [HTA] was their community engagement history, which is why we’ve got them involved with some of the bigger estates we’ve got coming forward,” says Phelps.
The development is arranged across a landscape that meanders down the hill, with new housing inserted between existing social housing blocks.
BXB promotes using timber frame panels, fabricated offsite. “It’s quite an elemental approach to modular construction,” says Phelps. “But we did it because it suits our sites in terms of not having too much noisy work.”
“We love brick as a material and you can get some fantastic bricks in our price range”
We also visit Ravensdale, another HTA scheme clad in red and grey banded brick. “It’s seven storeys but from about the fifth floor you get these amazing views into central London and from the second floor, lovely views over Croydon,” says Phelps.
With a name like BXB, do all the projects have to be brick? Phelps says not, but claims brick has great benefits. “We love it as a material and you can get some fantastic bricks in our price range.”
There is an honest ethos in the material. “Brick is tried and tested in London, and it’s going to stand the test of time,” says Phelps.
Finally, we visit BXB’s new showroom, a project designed by their in-house architecture practice, Common Ground Architecture, whose offices are located upstairs, alongside BXB, above the marketing shopfront on Croydon High Street.
“We’ve got aspirations to do something different and have a decent quality home for everybody as a base standard rather than a luxury”
Phelps is also head of design for Common Ground, a ten-strong practice launched in 2017. There are obvious advantages to this Russian doll system in Croydon’s housing department, where the council funds its own developer, and the developer hires its own architecture practice for design.
Phelps acknowledges, “It’s quite an interesting set-up to be a developer, client, and get to do architecture, all at the same time.”
BXB wants to be present in the community, and they hope the sales suite will encourage people to come in and buy their new homes. The showroom also establishes an identity separate from the council’s. “It will be an interesting journey and a public presence,” says Phelps.
BXB will sell to Croydon residents only, for two months: “Being owned by Croydon Council and only delivering homes within Croydon means that we’re very much developing for the people of Croydon,” says Phelps.
“It’s quite an interesting set-up to be developer, client and architect, all at the same time”
BXB also doesn’t assume market inflation, to ensure their homes will remain affordable for a local market they know is there. “A lot of developers fall into the trap of inflating their prices and pushing them as high as they can go to maximise profits,” Phelps says.
The showroom displays the Scandinavian flavour of the flat interiors: “What we’re trying to show is that good design doesn’t come with a price tag. That’s how we see ourselves.”
“We’ve got aspirations to do something different and have a decent quality home for everybody as a base standard rather than a luxury,” says Phelps.
But she also wants to do more, and describes BXB as a “socially conscious developer”.
“Our aspiration for the future is that when you buy a BXB home, you kind of join something, in a way.”
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