Interview: Alex Ely

Monday 21 Oct 2013

"Architects have a duty as authors of place"

As regular readers of WAN will know, we have been focusing our attention on one sector in particular over the past few months: Residential. In the lead up to and wind down from WAN’s World Architecture Day celebrations in New York earlier in October, we have been consulting a series of experts from around the world to get their take on the residential market and find out how architects can guide this area of design to the betterment of the end user.

Alex Ely is the head of mae, a modest London-based practice which specialises in residential architecture and has a plethora of affordable schemes under its belt. The firm’s website states that mae ‘was established to solve today’s urban, social and environmental challenges; finding new possibilities for how our built environment can contribute to life and society’, and after speaking with Ely for this interview, it certainly seems they have the right man for the job.

Formerly Head of Sustainable Communities at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE - an advisory body for the UK government now merged with the Design Council), Ely is experienced in looking at the wider picture when it comes to residential design.

The UK is currently dealing with an assortment of issues in the residential sector, from difficulty introducing first time buyers to the market to a housing deficit and the prospect of a price bubble. I ask Ely what he thinks the solution may be to this housing deficit; Pre-fab design? Vertical living? Standardisation of design?

He tells me that the answer is not in the style of abode as each has its place, but what we should be concentrating on is the spaces in between. Housing may be the bulk of the city fabric but more concentration is needed to stitch these elements together; it’s not just about the components of a space but how they fit together. Ely considers the creation of residential projects a prime opportunity to develop new parks and social spaces.

So how has the role of the architect in the residential market changed in the past 10-15 years? ‘Architects have a duty as the authors of place’, he replies, admitting that in recent times developers have become more aware of the value that architects can bring to a project. Previously, Ely tells me, architects were marginalised from housing projects but more and more developers are noting how involving an architect in their residential scheme can strengthen their planning application.

One of the key questions that we have asked many interviewees of late is ‘Who is leading the way in residential design?’ For Ely there are a number of locations that are getting it right, including the Netherlands whose balance of efficiency and quality the UK could do well to learn from, and Masdar City and Doha for their ability to address global issues while recognising local context. For Ely, there is a level of aspiration in many other countries that is rarely found in the UK.

mae is now involved in two charitable schemes: A Doll’s House with developers Cathedral Group for the charity Kids; and 10 x 10 with non-profit organisation Article 25. The former has seen mae design a pre-fab doll’s house for autistic children while for the latter Alex Ely will create an artwork of an area of London, giving his personal perspective of the space. Both items will be auctioned to raise money for worthy causes.

Sian Disson
News Editor

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