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Affordable, Innovative, Thoughtful, Profitable

Part 3

Were there any particular architects or buildings that you used as a reference when planning Staiths South Bank?There was Gerardine's terrace, where she was born, with a 'rec'; a communal area, behind it. Also, what's been going on in Amsterdam - and parts of Rotterdam are also very good. Two streets in Melbourne, down the side of a railway were fantastic. Bits of East Perth in Australia and Reims in France, but I don't know the names of architects or anything.

Are there principles that you can compromise if you have a very tight budget for a housing complex?

We have to compromise the design all the time, but the big difference is attention to detail - things that Gerardine's had to do that an architect wouldn't have done. For example we had to compromise on the maturity of the trees, but Gerardine got round that by searching out a wholesaler in Holland who can get you a big tree for the same as it costs for a smaller one in the UK.

But certain things have to go. We fought and fought for timber windows and ended up on the first development with UPVC. We shouldn't, in this day and age, be using UPVC, but Wimpey have deals with a UPVC company; they get the windows cheaper, and they can be installed easier because the men are used to them. They can also be stored. All these reasons make it easy for them not to change. I could go on - there's loads of things you have to compromise on. But it's our ability to compromise that means that a decent development is getting built.

Of course we know that when that development is built it will have tons of publicity, there'll be tours all around it from architects and they'll pull it to pieces. But we don't give a toss because it's a damn site better than all the other stuff that's being built. But it's not pushing architecture to new limits. We probably don't want that anyway, but you've got to take one step at a time with a company like Wimpey. But we've done it and we're still with them, and they want us to carry on working with them on all sorts of other schemes.

Can you give another example of your attention to detail?

We went to the brick manufacturer. We wanted to do multi-coloured brick walls where you get an exterior of different greys and browns; it looks a bit funny but it'll make somebody happy, will that house. Gerardine had designed it, drawn it all up, looked great - but then you get told well, no, it can't happen because bricks don't get delivered like that. We'd have to get a pallet of one colour, pallet of another colour, pallet of another - and you can't expect a bricky to go from one to the other - he won't do it because he's getting paid per brick and every time he has to walk an extra three yards he could have done another brick in between, which is fair.

So after we'd exhausted the ways of trying to remunerate them in another way, which wasn't possible, our next thought was to get the bricks delivered in a mixed pallet.

Well then the brick manufacturers said you can't do that, because they all come out of the kilns a colour at a time and get stacked up like that. Geradine went up there, found a way of doing it with them that wasn't going to break the bank and explained to them the values of doing this - and they did it. And now the brickies love it. They're having fun, to the point of doing their own little patterns. It's a change for them.

A lot of these things would be seen as outside the scope of a normal architect's role.

I can't understand why it would be, because that's what we'd have done as fashion designers, so I don't understand the difference. One's designing clothes and one's designing buildings, but the process is the same. You're coming up with an idea and you want that idea to be as close to your vision as possible. And I know there are a lot more hoops to jump through in a building, but you don't let that vision get dissipated if you've got a chance of influencing it, surely? I would have thought an architect would have done that. But I've no mates who are architects so I don't know.

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