News Manisha Patel: ‘I knew that housing design needed to reflect social change’

Manisha Patel on designing Chobham Manor: ‘I knew that housing design needed to reflect social change’


January 18, 2023

It has been a decade since Senior Partner Manisha Patel returned from maternity leave to head up the architectural team at PRP competing to design the first Olympic legacy neighbourhood. Ten years later, she reflects on how her own background impacted the design of Chobham Manor and how the project in turn has impacted her.

Commissioned by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), who entered into a development agreement with Taylor Wimpey and L&Q, Chobham Manor provided east London with over 800 new homes modelled on the capital’s traditional family neighbourhoods. PRP was part of the original competition-winning team, with the practice designing a series of mews, terraced houses, townhouses and multigenerational homes, in addition to delivering the scheme.

‘I’ll always remember standing on top of a hill in the Welsh countryside to try and get signal whilst waiting for the call’, said Manisha, recalling the build-up to LLDC’s announcement that PRP’s team had been selected. As the first Olympic site to be developed, she was very conscious of the project’s significance. ‘It felt like quite a responsibility. We knew all eyes would be on Chobham Manor. It would set the precedent and standard for future homes in the Olympic Park.’

LLDC’s carefully honed brief evidenced their commitment to implementing exemplar design standards and creating a truly inclusive, sustainable new community. The high percentage of women heading up both the project’s client and design teams, which Manisha noted was quite rare at the time, was another reflection of these values.

‘I was very proud to be part of the team…being able to draw from different perspectives was great,’ she said. ‘It was clear from the outset that the LLDC were looking for innovation – however, we didn’t yet know that Chobham Manor would become one of the most inclusive developments in the world.’

‘My background, together with over 25 years of experience (or 15 years at the project’s outset) in regenerating sites across the capital, gave me a good understanding of how people live and work in London. I knew that housing design needed to reflect social change. This is one of the reasons I pushed the concept of the multigenerational home. It wasn’t a typology known in the UK at the time, but forms of multigenerational living were already happening illegally – there was clearly a need.’

In 2012, the UK was witnessing already-escalating housing and affordability crises with profound impacts on ways of living and family structures as the country continued the recovery from the financial recession of 2008-2009. Nursery fees increased as funding for social services and pensions were cut, so all generations were hit. Young adults were unable to move out, elderly people became dependent on the care of younger generations and new mothers struggled to return to work due to the cost of childcare often exceeding take-home pay.

‘As a young child, I shared a bedroom with four others within a home that housed five nuclear families. My first bed was the bottom drawer of a wardrobe, so I know the true meaning of overcrowding,’ Manisha recalls. ‘This definitely impacted my belief that everyone deserves access to decent housing, and my determination to ensure Chobham Manor includes accommodation options that meet London’s varying, evolving needs.’

A vital part of Manisha’s design approach was to elevate the importance of accessible amenity and the quality of public realm within the masterplan. To realise her vision, the PRP design team undertook an in-depth study of how parks, typologies and public spaces across London worked to ensure they didn’t create something that felt ‘transported from another European destination.’

‘The Victorians and Georgians did it really well; we wanted to bring elements of their design principles into the masterplan whilst also reflecting how east London has evolved over the years’, said Manisha. The resultant multigenerational typology comprises a three-storey townhouse connected to a separate two-storey annexe via a courtyard – offering flexibility, independence and the option for growing families to stay together, and the dwelling, wherever it occurred, would overlook a new linear park at the centre of the masterplan.

The opportunity to develop this new architype had a significant impact on Manisha’s own approach to design. ‘It gave me confidence that you can bring new concepts to the market and make it work…an understanding of the political issues you face to bring things forward that aren’t seen as the norm helped me to develop designs that truly reflect communities and social change.’

‘The project also taught me a lot about the value of collaboration between large, small and micro studios – the design debate becomes richer when working together…I really enjoyed the process of working with different perspectives and incorporating the benefits that can bring; it brought together designers as a unit. Just because we are in competition, this doesn’t mean that we can’t share good practice – I think this is something we should do more of as an industry.’

Whilst working on Chobham Manor, Manisha was introduced to Blueprint for All (formerly known as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust) for the first time. PRP began providing regular paid internships for the young people the charity works with, with some talented individuals going on to join the practice on a permanent basis.

‘This experience was a real catalyst for our work improving access to the profession. Lots of people don’t have the exposure or opportunity needed to pursue architecture as a career…The only professionals I knew growing up were my doctor and my dentist. If you’re from certain areas, you’re not likely to get that exposure – not just to professionals in the building industry, but to professionals in general.’

Despite this, Manisha was always interested in design and how people lived. She was raised in a diverse area of London and spent summers with her grandparents in India as a child, and noted that this ‘probably contributed to my thinking, but I didn’t want to do what was expected of me and become a doctor, accountant, or something else seen as a “safe” profession.’

‘I was always fighting a battle in terms of women being equal to men (as my parents would tell you!), from arguing with my brother to ensure he did the washing up exactly 50% of the time through to being the only girl at school doing design technology. People thought the only reason a girl would choose it was to be with the boys.’

Manisha went on to win a place at the University of Greenwich to study architecture, but remembers feeling ‘a bit like a fish out of water.’ The already limited number of women doing the course dropped off quickly and, together with a ‘lack of exposure to the profession, [her] ethnic background and a comprehensive school education’, she was ‘on a bit of a back-step on all fronts.’

‘After competing my studies, I sent off hundreds and hundreds of applications. I had no contacts at all in the industry, so it was the only way I could get a job.’ PRP’s current work improving access to architecture aims to enable young people to pursue a career in the industry regardless of their background. The practice now provides regular opportunities for students at schools in lower-income areas of London and living in the housing estates regenerated by PRP, which Manisha highlights as something that she is ‘very proud of.’

Manisha recently returned to Chobham Manor for an NLA tour, and reflected on how the new community – a true exemplar of inclusive design – has evolved. It ‘still reflects the ideas and concepts we first envisaged ten years ago’, she says. ‘I think it is a real success.’

Manisha Patel, Senior Partner at PRP