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Story of a remarkable community shed approaches final chapter

Students with robot at architecture showcase

Community collaboration builds hub from the ground up

Long before social distancing was a common phrase and a national imperative, social exclusion, isolation and loneliness was an everyday phenomenon for many older men in East London.

Tackling this blight on a housing estate in Barking has drawn together a wide range of diverse talents – including those from the University of East London - and has empowered residents to shape their own solutions.

Ultimately, part of the answer came in the form of a shed, that habitual retreat for men of a certain age where woodworking, crafts, mugs of tea and conversation have always found a natural home.
The shed in question is no common-or-garden wooden hut but a stylised and stylish one designed specifically for a community in Barking and offering a welcoming and functional communal hub for people of different generations.

The Shed-Life project, launched in 2018 and with funding from the National Lottery and others, was brought together by resident Pam Dumbleton, the Thames View Tenants Association and Susie Miller, artistic director of engagement enterprise Humourisk.

But, the business of designing a next-generation super shed space fell to teams from the University of East London.

MA architecture students from UEL’s School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering, designed the shell in 2019 under the leadership of Alan Chandler, research leader for architecture and the built environment at UEL.

Chalk drawings

In October 2020, the MA Interior Design Urban Livingroom Studio, led by Dr Anastasia Karandinou, started the designing process of the interior with concepts developed in consultation with the local community, the shed’s eventual users.  

The next, and vital, step is the build due this summer, if funding can be assured and Covid-19 doesn’t further hamper the collaboration.

Practising architect and MA Interiors course leader, Dr Anastasia Karandinou said, “The coronavirus and the lockdown truly gave us a sense of the damaging impact that isolation and loneliness can have on people and put our work into an important context. 

“Loneliness and social isolation, however, is not a new issue, and designers have the responsibility in taking it into consideration when designing places in an urban context.”

Certain stages of the consultation process between the locals and the MA interior design team took place in open air spaces, due to the pandemic restrictions.

At one stage, designers drew chalk drawings on the pavement as a tool to make their ideas more accessible. Passers-by stopped and joined a conversation about the project, adding to the notion this was, literally, growing from the ground up.

Dr Karandinou said, “When we set about the challenge we collaborated with residents and put them at the centre of the process and ultimately we designed a space that they can transform into a gallery with exhibition walls for artwork, into a workshop with worktop surfaces or into a more relaxed meeting place for them to share a cup of tea.”

The MA Interior Design students went out and explored the notion of social inclusion, exclusion, isolation, loneliness, participation and empowerment. Eventually four shortlisted projects were selected by a panel involving representatives of the residents, Susie Miller from Humourisk, Alan Chandler, Anastasia Karandinou and a team of academics.

The best ideas from these shortlisted proposals were developed further and led refined scheme which was sent to the group of locals and their representatives who will oversee the construction phase.

Dr Karandinou said, “The result is a flexible multifunctional space which has been designed in close conversation with the group of locals. Our studio considers design as a medium for social change, with the potential of empowering communities and allowing them to express.

“We hope that residents take as much pride in their involvement in this project as we have done. This truly was a team effort.”

Amazing experience

Susie Miller Oduniyi, artistic director of engagement enterprise Humourisk, said, “Collaborating with UEL’s students and their lecturers has been an amazing experience for the Shed-Life steering group, giving us the opportunity to co-design an inspiring and ambitious ‘shed’ that exceeded our expectations.  

“This project engages many who have not had very positive experiences of formal education; co-designing the shed with UEL has exposed the group to an academic environment and given them an understanding of the complexity and considerations of user-centred design. 

“UEL listened and respected the expertise of the steering group as local people and the process has kept the project alive and vital during a very challenging year.” 

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