DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Housing

How shuttered airports could be brought back to life to tackle UK's housing crisis

The idea of transforming the old Robin Hood Airport into a housing estate has been shortlisted for an architectural award. We check in with the minds behind it to see if the idea can take off or if there is too much baggage

Alma-nac's vision for Robin Hood Airport

Alma-nac's creative vision for Robin Hood Airport includes recycling a plane's cockpit and nose cone as a climbing frame but highlights the natural light of the terminal building if it hosted a co-living community. Image: Alma-nac

Doncaster Sheffield Robin Hood Airport closed its doors in 2022 when its owners said it was no longer commercially viable. It is on track to reopen after a 125-year lease was signed in March.

But perhaps some more blue sky thinking could see the space and buildings utilised in a different way: what if the shuttered airport could be used to tackle the housing crisis instead?

That’s the challenge that a group of architects, academics, gardeners, structural and aerospace engineers have set themselves.

Their solution involves transforming the old Robin Hood Airport into a co-living space with room for 15,000 homes – a housing estate complete with ‘streets’ inside a terminal building, homes utilising old aeroplanes, a climbing frame made out of a cockpit and rewilded runways.

Robin Hood Airport is one of the airports considered for the idea
Architects, gardeners and engineered used the closed Robin Hood Airport to make the case for a radical reimagining they believe could deliver thousands of homes. Image: Ben Sutherland / Flickr

The proposal is one three up for architectural award The Davidson Prize with this year’s theme focused on rethinking homes through adapting and reusing existing materials.

While the idea is still taxiing, there are hopes it could take off in the future, offering a solution to the climate and housing crises as well as the uncertain future of the UK’s regional airports.

The Big Issue spoke to Alma-nac architects Chris Bryant and Rachel Foreman about the plans to see if they can get the idea off the ground.

The pair worked with structural engineer Brian Constant, University of Westminster gardener/architect Eric Guidbert and aerospace engineer Mark Blackwell to create a transformative vision for the 300-hectare site of the former airport in Sheffield.

Bryant says the combination of big buildings, lots of space and excellent transport links made airports an excellent choice for housing estates.

Alma-nac's vision for Robin Hood Airport
The site map shows plans to rewild the runways and sustainably grow materials to build homes. Image: Alma-nac

“Airports are well connected. They’re pretty soulless places, but there’s also huge amounts of land,” he says.

“The infrastructure we have now will not be the infrastructure that we need in 25 years. So we are going to be left with airports and airfields.

“Commercial airports tend to be very well connected to city centres, have large areas of flat land, they have big sheds which are brilliant to use either to create really interesting housing or to create community spaces or a space to build new housing.”

Bryant believes advances in aviation technology could mean shorter runways are needed for drones and fixed-wing aircrafts and self-driving cars could make the infrastructure around airports more efficient over the next 25 years. 

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

That means some much-needed space to build could be opened up without using the green belt or the grey belt, as Labour is targeting. 

But it is not as simple as just throwing up as many homes as possible and calling it a day.

The proposal calls for a shift in how people live too, growing materials sustainably on site and repurposing redundant aircraft as part of the process.

Insulation from planes could be recycled and incorporated into homes, parts of the aircraft could be used to create balconies in transforming the terminal building into a community and living space and so on.

Chris Bryant turning airports into housing
Chris Bryant says reimagining the role of airports is essential as technology and the climate crisis risks rendering some redundant. Image: Alma-nac

“We’re suggesting self-build communities,” says Bryant. “You’ve got all these great big air hangars, you could grow hemp and native timber species in the land, you could build your own home over generations.”

It’s not for everyone, Bryant and Foreman admit, but they are working to make it a cost-effective way of living for people who are locked out of the housing market.

“As a younger person I think it’s really hard to buy a house now,” says Foreman. “Even just getting on the property ladder at all I don’t see how it is getting better without a sort of shift in either the way that we live and the way that we share and the way that we invest together.”

Rachel Foreman turning airports into housing
Architect Rachel Foreman says space like the closed Robin Hood Airport offers an opportunity to help people on to the housing market. Image: Alma-nac

The housing crisis facing Gen Z is one of the criteria in mind for Davidson Prize judges.

Alice Finney, a journalist on the judging panel, tells the Big Issue that the radical nature of the proposal impressed judges, who will announce a winner on 19 June.

“We were looking for really robust, radical approaches, perhaps using spaces that we haven’t considered before,” says Finney.

“It’s a topic that, I think, aligns really nicely with the focus that we had on Generation Z and their housing crisis and is tied really nicely to the climate crisis.” 

Alma-nac's vision for Robin Hood Airport
The proposal includes using old planes in a variety of creative ways to cut down on waste. Image: Alma-nac

The climate crisis means the tide is turning against airports in the future too.

France has already banned short-haul domestic flights under 2.5 hours and Spain looks likely to follow suit.

While there is no indication that will be replicated in the UK anytime soon, the race to limit carbon emissions to reach net-zero is likely to see fewer flights in the skies.

“There are quite a few airports in the UK currently that just fly to Scotland, for example – we believe that shouldn’t particularly be a thing in the future,” says Foreman.

The Travel Foundation, a group advocating for positive tourism, found only one scenario for the tourism sector to achieve net-zero by 2050 while also allowing for growth.

It called for less of a focus on offsetting carbon emissions and instead focusing on decarbonisation and capping the number of long-haul flights at 2019 levels – about 120 million return trips.

Long distance trips make up just 2% of the total journeys but contribute the most pollution. If they continued at this pace, they would account for 41% of the tourism sector’s total emissions by 2050 compared to 19% in 2019.

Meanwhile, regional airports have been facing an uncertain future since Covid hit the travel sector hard.

One former regional airport that shut its doors in 2011 could even see homes built on the site in the near future.

Sutton Harbour Group – the owner of the former Plymouth City Airport site – is reportedly eyeing the possibility of building after an order from the government’s planning inspector protecting against development lapsed this year.

If this is a sign of the way of travel for the future, the Robin Hood Airport proposal is looking to spark conversation now on how the opportunity can be harnessed to tackle the housing crisis.

Alma-nac's vision for Robin Hood Airport
The designs show how self-build communities will be developed over time. Image: Alma-nac

Beyond The Davidson Prize, Alma-nac plans to convince the government or other organisations to back them to explore the idea of using airports for housing.

“We understand the short-term economic gains and if there’s a job shortage, it will generate jobs. We understand that mayors are there, elected every four or five years, to do that. But it’s not a long-term solution and we do need to have some long-term thinking about what we’re going to do with this infrastructure,” says Bryant.

“We understand that people will reopen airports but we also need to have visions about what we are going to do in 15, 20, 25 years and we need to have these conversations now because it takes that time to have huge strategic change.

“Investing in time and effort now in these ideas means that as it changes, and it will change, that we can implement these ideas and aren’t just left with all this land and it becomes a race to build whatever we can.”

If the idea takes off, perhaps it could play a role in landing the homes Britain desperately needs.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'It's crisis point': Social housing waiting list will cost next government £205bn to clear
building social housing
Social housing

'It's crisis point': Social housing waiting list will cost next government £205bn to clear

Should we end Thatcher's Right to Buy? How scrapping scheme could help solve UK's housing crisis
Andy Burnham has differing views to Margaret Thatcher on Right to Buy
Right to Buy

Should we end Thatcher's Right to Buy? How scrapping scheme could help solve UK's housing crisis

'Next government must fix our broken rental system': Political leaders told to stand up for renters
renters are demanding the next government protects them from poverty
RENTING

'Next government must fix our broken rental system': Political leaders told to stand up for renters

Is there really a 'clear plan' to tackle UK's housing crisis? Five things we learned from Tory manifesto
Rishi Sunak ahead of the Conservative Manifesto launch
General election 2024

Is there really a 'clear plan' to tackle UK's housing crisis? Five things we learned from Tory manifesto

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know