A reflection on 10 years of RCKa

RCKa was founded in 2008 by Tim Riley, Russell Curtis and Dieter Kleiner to promote socially responsive design, which we referred to at the time as community-centric architecture. This wasn’t a grand gesture, more a meeting of minds and common interests evident in our respective work and approach that we applied across a broad range of sectors. A number of early competition wins that celebrated the positive and central role that communities can play within regeneration projects cemented our approach.

Over the years our passion and belief in the associated benefit of a more holistic approach to development has attracted a dedicated and talented team, of whom we are extremely proud. Alongside which we’re incredibly lucky to have found, and been found by, a wonderful group of like-minded private and public clients and consultants with whom we have worked regularly since.

We like to think we have been part of a movement towards the delivery of a more meaningful and engaged architecture whose primary purpose is to support use and users, albeit in as beautiful a way as possible. We are convinced of the importance of delivering buildings and places with greater relevance and resonance, and are heartened to hear most developers now talking about the importance of community, neighbourhoods and place-making.

Whilst sectors such as the Private Rented Sector (PRS) have helped convince even the hardest nosed developer of the importance of social cohesion, even if simply to reduce tenancy churn, there have been significant wobbles over the last ten years when it comes to design quality.

The winding up of Regional Development Agencies removed oversight and shifted the emphasis of the planning process from design to local politics. This resulted in a greater number of applications being dealt with through appeal, costing the taxpayer and delaying the delivery of homes. This was exacerbated by swingeing cuts to planning departments that design professionals left in their droves, and was only tempered by the private and charitable sectors who stepped in with the establishment of Design Review Panels that have proven a life-line for those concerned with quality.

Keen to support these initiatives the directors applied and were appointed to early design review organisations, such as CABE and Transform South Yorkshire. We now sit on more than a dozen national and local authority design quality related panels; from the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group and Design South East, to the LLDC, and Croydon, Harrow, Kingston, Haringey and Ashford Local Authority panels.

We’re hopeful the tide has now turned – in and around London at least – with acknowledgement of good design within council planning teams and the Draft London Plan.The challenge now is helping elected members recognise the value of good design, something we believe will happen in response to local constituent concerns, and so our focus will be on communicating better with communities.

We cannot ignore that project delivery has become more complicated, particularly with regard to procurement which too often still separates appropriate design talent from a commission because of arbitrary technical standard or legal expectation – school design being a prime example. RCKa have stepped into this arena too. Russell set up Project Compass following a stint on the well-meaning but not-so-effective RIBA procurement panel. The resultant community interest company (CIC) has some high-profile success to its name and has positively reformed procurement by encouraging best practice and supporting and advising commissioners and applicants on how to retain quality within EU rules.

Similarly, clients are recognising that Design & Build contracts are being abused and now offer little in the way of value for money. Essentially all projects of any design quality going forward are traditional in terms of the level of contract information, with the respective contract now just influencing the apportionment of risk. We and hopefully other architects have brushed off our traditional contract administration role skills, and look forward to bolstering the profession’s important role in securing quality and value.

Finding an affordable place to live has been recognised as perhaps the biggest challenge for many. Having worked with some of the most innovative housing providers in the market we decided to engage in this struggle ourselves and recently set up a CIC called Common Home with a Fintech company – becoming a truly affordable housing provider ourselves. Further information can be found at www.custombuild.co, but our ambition is to deliver with the help of RCKa and modern methods of construction, housing for sale at 50% below local market values, making custom-build housing available to everyone.If the past ten years have taught us anything, it is that there are always opportunities for visionary architects to contribute to society in positive ways that extend far beyond what is perceived as our traditional role. We all have the ability to improve our environment for the good, to be objective, and to offer leadership, it just takes courage and conviction

It is wonderful to see our early thinking about how to shape places to best support use and users now becoming a reality. We’re excited to learn how the physical spaces and tangible buildings we designed to encourage social cohesion actually work, and have embarked on a body of post-occupancy evaluation to inform future projects. With the support of a host of amazing people we have come a long way. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of our journey so far – may we all achieve great things over the next ten years.