Croydon: Forget skyscrapers, why not build down?

By - Monday 13th April, 2015

Skyscrapers be damned, says Jonny Rose – the future is underground

Wellesley Road, Croydon.
Photo by @CroydonPhotos, used with permission.

There’s a desperate need for housing in Croydon

Recent figures from Shelter show that over 2,500 families are currently without permanent residence in the borough.

This reflects a wider British malaise: there is an affordable housing ‘crisis’ – rents have shot up and we are building less than half of the affordable housing we need.

The response to this in Croydon so far has been to build up. All over Croydon high-rise schemes such as IYLO and Altitude25 are springing up to cope with the demand (for a comprehensive list of Croydon’s residential structure, go here).

People dislike skyscrapers

Tom Lickley made an excellent case for why Croydon developers’ predilection for the altitudinous is a good thing. He argues that all significant cities are characterised by semi-obscured skylines, that skyscrapers often display the best of human engineering and endeavour, and these structures place fewer restrictions on space-scarce town centres.

Yet not everyone shares his fervour.

The Menta Scheme – a 54-storey mixed use tower proposed for Cherry Orchard Road – is often disparagingly referred to as ‘Mental’ by local residents who object to it being built. Their concerns include the permanent lack of sunlight, no increase in parking facilities and the wider infrastructure concerns that come with any increases in population in a densely-populated area.

High-rise living in and of itself has many cons:

  • evacuation concerns – if you live in a high rise apartment, you’ll face a harder challenge trying to evacuate due to emergencies, such a natural disaster or fire
  • moving heavy items – it’s challenging trying to move or remove furniture up and down stairs in high rise buildings, and the space of hallways and corridors can be small
  • limited gardening – options for gardening are very few in a high rise apartment, and in some cases, there are none
  • nuisance neighbours – with that many people living together in a building, you’re bound to have a noise nuisance from neighbours directly under, above or next to you
  • limited outdoor communal space for recreational and social purposes

So, whilst high-rise living is a pragmatic way to solve housing shortage in dense areas, it’s certainly not without attendant problems.

The rise of underground living

Recently, I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of London billionaires and their subterranean extensions. Perhaps it’s the Bond villain in me – but the thought of having an underground cavern with all the mod-cons of a two-up, two-down has always struck me as quite appealing.

Underground construction is not a new industry, but in Britain it seems to be overlooked as a design strategy for sustainable building that can meet affordable housing needs.

Such ostentatious lairs are not just the preserve of the mega-rich – however they remain largely a rarity. At last count, there were fewer than 100 underground homes in Britain, many of them found in avant-garde eco-communes, such as Hockerton Housing Project just outside of Nottinghamshire. On that count, Britain is well behind the curve on underground living; across the world, there are entire underground cities such as Montreal’s RESO and Tenjin in Japan.

Tenjin Underground City.
Photo by JKT-c, used under Creative Commons licence.

Underground construction is not a new industry, but in Britain it seems to be overlooked as a design strategy for sustainable building that can meet affordable housing needs. The myriad examples across the globe show that well-designed underground homes can be a stylish, comfortable, secure, bright and inspiring place to live. Moreover, they can be an excellent example of the eco-home ideal: demonstrating energy efficiency, low-impact design and harmony with natural surroundings.

Croydon is already the largest town in Europe and is set to grow even more over the coming years. With the increasing demand for more development sites and ever-diminishing green spaces, the question emerges: if Croydon cannot build out or up anymore, will we eventually build down?

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Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Bob_G

    I think the level of the Croydon water table might limit underground options here… Most of the area between East Croydon and Waddon was swampy ground until the 1800′s. The old town was a rare dry area. It dried out a lot in the mid 20th century with extraction but is now rising again.

    • Jonny Rose


      I wonder if the cost of another bout of extraction will soon be considered worth the money vs. the impending time-bomb of no space left to develop (up/out)…

  • Reena

    In Spain we live in blocks of flats, not houses with gardens, and nobody has died or had a terrible childhood. If there is a lack of housing, gardens are not a priority. Just invest in public parks and playgrounds.

    • Anne Giles

      Everyone I know in Spain has a house though, except in the big cities.

      • Reena

        Retired Britons in villas don’t count. Normal Spaniards can’t afford houses (chalets as we call them). We’ve all grown up in 3-4 bedroom flats, something that Croydon lacks

        • Anne Giles

          I wasn’t talking about retired Brits. I have met many Spanish families who live in houses. They are quite normal.

          • Reena

            Very normal. Thanks Anne. I’ll throw now my Spanish passport and my 24 years living in Spain down the toilet. Is very normal indeed. Those are not the privileged.

          • Anne Giles

            Obviously, they don’t live in the same area as you do. It’s the same in any country. Some people live in flats and some in houses. Nothing to do with privilege. It’s often to do with working hard. In Buenos Aires, those of my friends who live near the city centre live in large flats. My relations in the suburbs live in houses with gardens and often swimming pools as well.

          • Reena

            Swimming pools in a country that every summer has draughts. If those are not privileged then I must be in the poverty line. Keep amusing me.

          • Anne Giles

            I can’t be bothered. You have obviously got issues of some sort.

          • Reena

            No you’re right, the way to go for Croydon is houses with gardens and swimming pool. I’ve been trying to find a large flat in Croydon to start a family and there aren’t any.

  • Tom Lickley

    As always, an interesting article Jonny. A few points I’d like to pick up on:

    – People dislike skyscrapers – certainly those who are directly impacted by the tall buildings which affect them do not like skyscrapers. The 4 million+ annual visitors to the Empire State Building may disagree. Of course, New York City isn’t Croydon, but having a public viewing gallery on top of one of the new skyscrapers may prove attractive, given the potential views over London and stretching considerably far south on a clear day (to the coast?). A tourist attraction in its own right as well as providing homes.

    - Clearly there are practical issues with inhabiting tall buildings, although I’d say being able to take heavy furniture up in a service lift is considerably easy than shimmying it around a narrow staircase in a traditional home. A lack of garden may inadvertently increase use of the many parks and allotments Croydon has to offer. Nuisance neighbours could be just as much of a problem if living in a terraced or semi-detached

    - Underground living, particularly by the wealthy owners of basement extensions has created a number of problems, not least causing structural damage in neighbouring buildings ( The expense of building down instead of up has the potential to be considerable.

    A final point – would those complaining of their light being impacted by tall buildings be willing to bunker down into a gloomy underground lair instead?

  • Anne Giles

    I think that an underground home would be rather dark and depressing. No sunlight whatsoever.