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Shouldn't we all be developers? by Roger Zogolovitch (2015-06-30) Paperback
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Shouldn’t we all be developers? (Artifice Books, 2015) provides a refreshing new angle on London’s development today and presents also a sound argument for why “we need more homes.” Where can these homes be build when space is so limited? In gap sites throughout the city. The book's cover defies convention by stating its premise up front, in bold letters: “We need volume, light, and character. We need liberated rules. We need imagination to unlock forgotten small plots,” asserts the author of this book, Roger Zogolovitch, who is an architect, developer, and founder of Solidspace. There would be no housing shortage, Zogolovitch has argued, if “we make the market easier for smaller independent suppliers; give good guys a faster journey through planning; stop delaying decent development through trifling regulation of details which are matters for the market rather than planning committees; and view the issues of supply as being more significant than fiddling with the design proposals of qualified professionals” (Foreword by Paul Finch).
There is nothing quintessentially evil or wrong with the free market but globalization has meant that the stakeholders are often scattered across the globe. In other words, “the land may be in London, the ownership in the Caribbean, the owner’s residence in Hong Kong and the sale made to a new owner in New York, without any of the parties ever having met. The home in question remains in London and its value is fixed to the London market” (47). Till April 2015, Roger Zogolovitch reminds us, offshore ownership was tax exempt; therefore, foreign investors flocked to London. Moreover, trading is exclusively on parcels of land; therefore, despite government consents, huge chunks of land remain undeveloped. As soon as development or construction starts, the trading has to end because the site is no longer saleable. What are some of the solutions to these seemingly insurmountable obstacles to development? To establish close relationships between and among the owners of the home and the small independent developer with vision; to look afresh at small sites, gap sites, and backland sites toward creating new living spaces; to explore the possibilities of abandoned sites, redundant sites, sites which were once commercial or industrial and to make them useful again. In large measure, Solidspace epitomizes the idea of Development as Art. (Think of Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.)
My favorite chapter in this book (Chapter 3: Design) has the following subtitle: “the developer as restauranteur and the architect his chef.” Roger Zogolovitch describes in detail how the LLC identifies gap sites, puts a bid on them, and then begins to design a dream, one which must be crafted by environmentally-conscious architects who can accommodate and translate the aspirations of those who will inhabit the space. Equally impressive is the chapter (7) on Materials. The metaphor of cooking persists in this chapter, as Zogolovitch reveals his love for the ingredients thus: “I think of building materials as a cook would their ingredients. My senses grow heightened at the sight of timber, bricks, tiles, sacks of cement and sand arriving on site. The smell of wet plaster is always a thrill” (110). Those tactile stimuli of constructing and filling gap sites with materials, smelling their rawness, and feeling their texture would seldom if ever be of interest to the commercial developer or conglomerate with an eye toward profits and market shares. Defying the alienation of big capital, this small developer says “There is something that remains childishly exciting about the builder’s lorry arriving, loaded down, with such anticipation” (110). He is willing to admit that subjective and objective reasons come into play in all decisions and processes of selection; but the ultimate goal is to destroy the divide between the home owner and the developer, between the home and its immediate environs.
Individual case studies of homes already built are a must-read. I have stayed in one of the homes built by Solidspace LLC: Zog House. Located in London’s Victorian and Edwardian northern suburbs, this home was built on a site which was “originally the garden of an adjoining property, used for parking and housed an electricity substation” (150). It is precisely the sort of gap-site home that Zogolovitch describes; here we have not just a theory of a possibility but a reality which is both comfortable and creative. We must all have a home and we all either have or aspire to have a home with “light and character.” For those who are interested in not just buying a house but in the art of living and creating in private space, in the philosophy of thinking big in artistic and environmentally-friendly space, I recommend very highly this book and its romantic as well as pragmatic approach to urban development and living in the 21st century.