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Skyhouse - Dead But Not Forgotten

For years now one of the most eagerly talked about potential developments that could be seen in British architecture has been Skyhouse, a resolutely modernist plan by London Eye architects Marks and Barfield to try and tackle housing shortages with affordable homes in the sky.

The project has undergone numerous launches since the first murmurs of it floated at the end of the last century to try and secure private financial backing for it, something deemed vital after decisions by a number of London councils, Housing Associations and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that towers are unsuitable for families and people like bungalows.

The award winning design team the plans featured three independent towers in the shape of three spokes rising up from a central point stepping in height. The three flanks are designed to manipulate the wind flow and share a wind turbine that will utilise the increased drafts they create.

It pioneered the environmentally aware design that is becoming more standard in today's tall buildings with solar power, wind turbines and sunk boreholes to provide water. At the centre of the modernist manifesto it adheres to are the sky gardens that would run up every ten floors providing communal space for the inhabitants.

Despite the best of efforts, no financial backer has come forwards and it appears now even when the 2003 re-launch reduced proportion of affordable housing to 35%, a level competitive with some of the most prestigious private developments. The Skyhouse Group had originally hoped to sell one bedroom apartments for 75,000 and two bedroom apartments for 115,000.

It's now clear the project has been shelved. At the heart of the problems that the scheme has experienced were a number of financial issues caused by a mixture of high quality design, the refusal of the architects to value engineer and socially responsible aspirations of it.

Firstly, the green technologies did add to the cost per floor, even if not prohibitively but when you're dealing with project values in the tens or hundreds of millions a percentage point becomes big money. More recent buildings have found these place less financial strain on them as they are cheaper now than five years ago but in 2000 these were radical and much more expensive.

The height at the time hadn't helped. The original design was 50 floors tall, although in 2006 we are now seeing 50 floor residential towers being built in London in 2000 this was substantially taller than anything that had been built and presented a major risk to developers who were thinking more along the lines of Montevetro. Even when the height was eventually reduced to 24 floors there were still no people prepared to put up their money.

The demand to provide a large amount of social housing had placed extra budgetary strains on the plans and would have severely reduced the profit level of any developer had the scheme actually gone ahead. The need for a private developer was essential thanks to opposition to the scheme from local levels of government, the other people who could potentially have made the idea go ahead. There lacks in the Blair government any political willpower however for a large-scale social housing project to rival that of the sixties despite demographic trends suggesting that London will experience rapid growth and massive housing shortages.

Most damagingly was the external envelope of 100% glass was prohibitively expensive with the bespoke specifications for it increasing the manufacturing price in a massive way. It would have had a double-layered skin that could provide natural ventilation all the way up to the top floor. The external balconies forced up the price further and if designed today would be dumped in favour of floor to ceiling windows, something much less modernist but a lot more commercially sound.

Sadly like many of the best ideas but ultimately unrealised ideas it was ahead of it's time as much as being a victim of a profit driven economy. The importance of Skyhouse however cannot be underestimated, it was floated at just the moment interest in tall buildings started to come alive again capturing the imagination and making it obvious to developers and the public alike that high-rise living can be sexy.

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