Magazine Article

How the Be First Design team created a truly community-led vision

25 June 2024
Amandeep, Anna, Jacob and Betty, Be First ©️Benoît Grogan-Avignon

This case study is informed by the Be First team’s open call submission and interviews with Amandeep Singh Kalra and Betty Owoo to understand more about their process, challenges and achievements.

The Becontree Design Code and Retrofit Guide are two innovative pieces of retrofit guidance, created under the stewardship of Be First's Design Team, focusing on inter-war housing stock in the historic Becontree Estate in London. The challenge of retrofit is vast. Civic Square has highlighted through its work on ‘Retrofit Reimagined’ that we must retrofit ‘one home every 20 seconds for the next ten years’(1) to meet the UK's legal climate targets.

In the era of the controversial demolition of inter-war housing estates such as Robin Hood Gardens, Public Practice chose this project as the flagship for Be First’s approach to managing and maintaining existing housing stock by working proactively with the resident community while addressing the environmental issues associated with older housing.

Be First is a regeneration company solely owned by Barking and Dagenham Council. The Be First team brings together key departments within the council, including planning, regeneration and design, and is commissioned by the council to deliver homes across the borough. Its mission is to accelerate regeneration in Barking and Dagenham, delivering 50,000 new homes and 20,000 new jobs by 2037.

The Becontree Design Code was written and produced in-house at Be First, drawing on the skills of its design team, the Planning Consultancy and external agencies Archio and Urban Symbiotics. The code provides guidance on tackling emissions through targeted retrofit, increasing biodiversity and promoting sustainable transport across the estate, aligning with the sector’s growing emphasis on sustainability and carbon reduction. Funded by The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), the site-specific code also seeks to incentivise retrofit-focused householder alterations to the existing housing in the Becontree Estate. The Retrofit Guide, stewarded by the design team and produced by Archio, provides costed examples of retrofit interventions that residents can use to improve the energy efficiency of their homes and simplifies the planning process to make it easier for them to make sustainable alterations.

Betty and Amandeep ©️Benoît Grogan-Avignon

Becontree Estate

At four square miles, Becontree is the UK’s largest council housing estate, with around 40% of the borough's population residing there. A centenary programme was launched in 2021 to mark 100 years since the estate was built by London County Council (now the Greater London Authority, GLA) at the peak of public-led housing development, and the Becontree Forever Programme, an artist-led group that runs in collaboration with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has recently been commissioned to install commemorative pieces across the borough.

Aside from its local significance, other more recent factors have made Becontree a particular location of interest from a planning perspective. For example, there have been increasing concerns about a loss of heritage within the estate, leading to calls for it to become a conservation area.

When the estate was built, the designs were pioneering, helping to clear inner city slums and offering residents inside toilets, gardens, and a sense of pride in their neighbourhood. However, the estate’s historical significance sometimes fails to be recognised, and preservation of it has not always been prioritised.

Aerial view of the Becontree Estate. Photography by Kirk K

Fast forward 100 years, and our daily habits, including how we live, move and travel, have changed significantly. There is now a high degree of fuel poverty in the area, travel around the estate has become dominated by motor vehicles, and the public realm has deteriorated due to car ownership. Each factor puts undue stress on the estate, and these health, well-being and heritage issues all influenced Be First in choosing this location for its design code.

The Be First Design Team faced a crucial challenge at this project's inception: securing funding and defining the project outputs before key stakeholders running the Becontree Forever programme left their roles. Matt Weston, a Public Practice Alum, became a driving force for getting the governance over the line and allowing the team to hit the ground running when the project was approved. This collaborative effort with the council demonstrated the importance of having key project champions in various departments.

With their support, in 2022, the Be First Design Team submitted a proposal to DLUHC’s Pathfinder Pilot Programme and secured £120,000 to create the Becontree Design Code and Retrofit Guide.

Due to the scale of the project and the historical significance of Becontree, it was essential for the Be First Design Team to actively engage the senior leadership team and ward councillors to understand any concerns at the outset. The Becontree Estate is so large that it impacts almost 70% of the ward’s councillors and their constituents. Councillors were initially unsure about what the design code could offer, but through engagement, its value became abundantly clear, and the support from councillors was overwhelmingly positive.

With the funding in place, the team began to define its vision for the Becontree Estate. The project's innovative approach lies in its community engagement process, and the team recognised that capturing and prioritising residents' views should be at the heart of the guidance. The code needed to consider how householders would use it to make alterations to their homes, and the residents’ lived experience was paramount to this.

The Becontree Residents’ Forum. Photography by Be First

The Becontree Residents’ Forum

The team established the Becontree Residents’ Forum, with workshops facilitated by Urban Symbiotics. The Forum was made up of a small group of diverse residents demographically representative of the people who lived in the area within the different housing types and tenures. By consulting with these residents over several months, the design team developed the Residents’ Charter, a vision list of priorities for the area. This allowed the community's insights to shape the Design Code, ensuring it genuinely addressed their needs and preferences.

Planning policy often encapsulates a moment, aiming to preserve the area's character, but when writing this policy, it was essential for the team to look forward as well as back. They asked residents what character they wanted this place to have in the future. Although residents loved some aspects of living on the estate, they also wanted to make the streets more walkable and more inclusive to differently-abled users, as well as providing warmer homes and homes more suitable for multi-generational families.

The Residents’ Charter became an integral part of the code and a guiding light for the design team to counteract the architectural and townscape perspective. Residents challenged Amandeep and Betty to reconsider some of their designs. For example, the Becontree houses have distinctive arched entrances covering a shared home entry. While the design team saw this detail as integral to the estate's character, for many residents, the arches didn’t support their needs. They were tight, making it difficult for those with mobility needs to access their homes. Being unable to adapt these entrances and add a porch left the houses vulnerable to the weather and elements. These comments challenged the team’s assumptions, encouraging them to reconsider what was important for the estate's future and ensuring they provided practical and valuable guidance for those who lived there. In the final code document, Be First featured the Residents’ Charter priorities on every page, putting these insights front and centre and using them to inform the policy in a unique way.

The Becontree Estate Arched Entrance Design. Photography by Be First
The Becontree Design Code and Retrofit Guide for installing a porch. Credit: Be First

Be First’s vision for the future of Becontree developed into a non-architectural illustration from the viewpoint of somebody who walks through the streets daily. Incorporating past and present photography, they created a truly community-led vision informed by the priorities of the Residents’ Forum.

The Be First team is particularly proud of the Residents' Forum’s positive experience of participating in the co-design process. The sessions Amandeep, Betty and Emma Elston ran were informative, fun and engaging and built the residents’ understanding of retrofit, coding, character and heritage. This was crucial in enabling them to critically assess Be First’s suggestions and build trust and confidence in their relationship with the council. In the words of Kirk, one of the Forum members: “We’re doing this together. Through these community experiences, you can impact what is happening. I feel very positive about my experience being involved in this.”

Amandeep ©️Benoît Grogan-Avignon

As well as consulting directly with residents, the team conducted in-depth research into the existing house types and the public realm. Betty reviewed over 1,000 original drawings, showing how the estate was built using post-war mass-building techniques and how a series of principles developed by Ebenezer Howard, which remain, inspired the house types.

They also reviewed recent household applications with the council’s Planning Consultancy and Planning Development Management team. This gave them an understanding of the alterations residents wanted to make to their homes, and they considered how these insights could be integrated into the code. This has enabled residents to make changes more sympathetic to the heritage and character of the estate. To make the homes more energy efficient, the team considered how residents could retrofit and future-proof their houses. Residents participated in workshops at a house on the estate, working with large-scale models to see the impacts of retrofit interventions on the different house types.

This type of engagement-led design code might be considered a luxury, but it can lead to valuable and cost-efficient outcomes. By providing residents with a clear understanding of the changes they can make to their homes, the code helps reduce the workload of officers who typically spend a large proportion of their time reviewing minor applications. At a time when there are Planning Officer shortages across the UK, it makes sense to simplify this process and free up officers’ time for more complex schemes or major applications.

Betty ©️Benoît Grogan-Avignon


One valuable lesson from Be First’s approach is the importance of actively involving the community in decision-making. By building knowledge with residents, they can have valuable input on policies that will impact them. This approach not only leads to more sustainable and impactful projects but also fosters a sense of ownership and pride among the residents. Be First is now working with Open Systems Lab to digitise the code using PlanX, making it even more accessible to residents. This will be a game-changing step forward in providing a digital-led solution to planning that is tailored to residents' needs.

From community-led interventions to national retrofitting programmes, looking forward, it’s clear we must take bold, multi-faceted approaches if we are going to meet our legal climate targets.

Core team

  • Amandeep Singh Kalra – Associate Director, Design Team, Project Lead (Be First)
  • Betty Owoo – Architectural Designer, Design Team (Be First)
  • Emma Elston – Associate, Design Team (Be First)
  • Anna Sinnott – Director, Planning Consultancy (Be First)


  • Matt Weston – Programme Director, Becontree Forever (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham LBBD)
  • Lewis Toumazou – Programme Producer, Becontree Forever (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham LBBD)
  • Jacob Willson – Head of Design (Be First)
  • Caroline Harper – Deputy Managing Director (Be First)
  • Cllr Cameron Geddes – Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Economic Development (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham LBBD)
  • Cllr Saima Ashraf – Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Community Leadership & Engagement (London Borough of Barking and Dagenham LBBD)


  • Urban Symbiotics – Community Engagement Specialist
  • Archio - Architect
  • Simple Works – Structural Engineer
  • Potter Raper – Quantity Surveyor
  • Humblebee (Florence Collier) – Sustainability Consultant

External Links

  • Becontree Estate Design Code

  • Be First website

  • Becontree Forever website


  1. ‘Retrofit Reimagined 2022’, Civic Square, July 2022

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Betty Owoo

Architectural Designer, Be First

Amandeep Singh Kalra

Associate Director, Be First

Benoît Grogan Avignon


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