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Designs for Life

Designs for Life

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Through CAT’s MArch Sustainable Architecture course, students take a genuinely collaborative approach to improving life in an urban environment. Gwyn Stacey, Senior Lecturer, and Dr Carl Meddings, Programme Leader, explain the impact this unique course has on both students and the communities they engage with.

Our built environment and the way we arrange communities around it is one of the most important factors in determining our quality of life. Human wellbeing is often linked to being part of thriving and active communities that can adapt and shape the places they occupy.

One of the first projects students on CAT’s MArch Sustainable Architecture course are given is an exploration of urban living and the relationships between the built environment and its inhabitation. This is viewed through the interrelated lenses of sustainability, resilience, adaptation, and prosperity.

The project requires students to collaborate in researching place and people in an urban settlement and the relationship with surrounding areas.The research examines a wide range ofeconomic and environmental factors. Students are asked to consider the specific context of a place, its communities, and the challenges they face in relation to both climate change and other socio-environmental issues.

Engaging communities

Fundamental to this research is engagement with the community, to ‘get under the skin’ of the issues facing them, and to listen and respond with an open mind. Rather than developing master plans and imposing urban design ideas, we ask students to really get to know the local people and respond with empathy and respect to what they find.

In this way, we seek to question not just what should (or perhaps should not) be designed but, more fundamentally, what an inclusive, responsive design process should be. This is a hands-on approach to engagement with people and places that leads to a thorough understanding of local needs and how informed interventions (sometimes very minor) can be truly transformative.

A pop-up exhibition in Llanelli allowed students to share their work with the local community, continuing theconversation.
A pop-up exhibition in Llanelli allowed students to share their work with the local community, continuing the conversation.

Unique problems…

Wales has urban and rural settlements with a broad spectrum of conditions, needs, problems and concerns, making it an ideal place to examine the way we live. In recent years, students on the course have engaged with communities in Caernarfon, Milford Haven and Conwy/Llandudno Junction. Last year, the focus was on Llanelli, a town facing a particular set of challenges and also new potentially beneficial opportunities. We were able to link up with a highly socially engaged organisation called People Speak Up, who were ideal hosts to help develop a plan for community engagement.

Our students first walked around the town, to get a broad understanding of its context, shape, activities, patterns of life, and interactions. They then worked collaboratively on a plan for community engagement, which included a feast and on-street discussions and consultations. For the feast, the students invited and cooked for more than 80 community members. The event was not just about gathering information, but also an opportunity to bring people together to discuss life in the town.

“In Llanelli, our project was about connecting with the community by utilising skills learnt at CAT to engage with local people. Whilst sharing a meal, we heard their stories, favourite memories and hopes for the future of the town. We asked people to write notes to Llanelli on postcards, helping us to build a picture of the town’s diverse character. The opportunity helped me contextualise my work, grounding my design project in the real experiences of the town. The genuine warmth we received in Llanelli was a truly impactful experience in our creative journey.”

Anna Drost, student

…and solutions

From the research, prepared and presented in groups, a design brief was developed. The students created a ‘placeplan’, appropriate to the local context and community. A place-plan need not just be physical intervention, but a mechanism, framework or toolkit to embed meaning and activity in its physical setting. This could be a series of events or connecting organisations across several spaces.

Working in pairs, the students developed their place-plans further to include design interventions, landscape and building proposals, building reuse and revival, activities, events, and the development of amenities – small projects with the potential to make a substantially larger impact.

While a traditional imposed masterplan typically involves little feedback or follow up with the community, leading to fatigue and cynicism, the place-plan approach is radically different. It allows the participants and others to continue the conversation, which might ultimately lead to real action and communal activity.

To this end, we returned to Llanelli a few months after our first engagement to put on a pop-up exhibition in a community venue and then display the students’ responses in an empty shop unit in the town centre. The students gave feedback on the consultation, heard more ideas from the exhibition visitors, and contributed to the ongoing discussion about Llanelli by its inhabitants.

Following this, the students’ work will be compiled digitally and passed back to those that engaged with us to serve as a set of ideas that can spark conversations for the future.

Example student project

Students: Alexia and Alfie

Project: Hadu (to bring forth or grow seed, multiply, become fruitful)

Llanelli’s covered market was once the heart of the town. But in recent years it has seen dwindling numbers of visitors and many of the stalls are becoming empty. Historically, the stalls and cafes in Llanelli’s covered market provided social spaces where regular customers came to see familiar faces and chat.

By building upon the multi-storey car park above the covered market, our proposal aims to reinvigorate this existing hub of the local community.

The under-used top two floors of the carpark would be reappropriated as spaces for learning, up-skilling, and food production. The fourth floor would provide youth-based workshop spaces, as well as sound studios. This would help address a desperate need for a free place where young people can meet, while also encouraging skills training. The top floor would be used as an allotment and teaching space, where training and volunteering would help promote a local network of healthy food production. Local commercial and market food waste would be recycled through anaerobic digestion to make digestate for fertiliser and biogas for cooking.

This new mix of activities, built upon the covered market, would hopefully bring renewed interest to the centre of Llanelli and provide a noncommercial space to socialise, learn and grow.

Project: Hadu (to bring forth or grow seed, multiply, become fruitful)

About the course

The MArch Sustainable Architecture course is accredited by the Architects Registration Board as a part 2 of the professional route to qualification as an architect. The course builds on CAT’s 50 years of experience in sustainability practice, enabling students to investigate a different approach to architecture that confronts issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation at every level of architectural thinking.

The way the course is designed requires students to attend CAT for one week each month. In between the on-site weeks, students work from home and collaborate with tutors and each other online. The ‘teaching’ weeks on site are immersive, intense and stimulating. Students work collaboratively on design projects, engage in workshops covering a wide range of activities, and attend lectures, seminars and presentations from expert contributors.

About the authors

Gwyn Stacey is a Senior Lecturer on the MArch Sustainable Architecture course. He is a former student of CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture and now, alongside his role at CAT, is developing his practice work with a community focus in rural Wales, and working with and supporting conservation organisations.

Dr Carl Meddings is the Programme Leader for the MArch course. He is an architect and educator with a passion for educating architects in a rapidly changing cultural and professional environment. Before teaching at CAT, he was the Subject Leader for architecture at the University of Huddersfield and has taught at all levels from first-year undergraduate to final year at masters and beyond.



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