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Gut feeling: Mae in Manchester

Mae’s spacious affordable homes aren’t radical, but they work. James Pallister visits the latest arrival in Alsop’s New Islington. Photography by Tim Soar

New Islington is set on a 12.5 hectare piece of land in east Manchester, just a brisk walk from Piccadilly train station.

A rural area up until the late 18th century, it became part of Manchester’s expanding industrial heartland in the 19th century. Latterly it was home to Cardroom, a ‘sink’ estate with only half of its 204 homes occupied when it was demolished following its designation in 2002 as a site for the exemplar ‘Millennium Community’ programme.

Urban Splash and Will Alsop developed the ambitious masterplan for the area in 2002. Work has faltered in the economic downturn, but several schemes have completed, each a distinctive hybrid of familiar housing types.

On Guest Street dMFK took a difficult, narrow site and developed a new Victorian back-to-back housing in grey engineering brick. Alsop’s ‘Chips’ (AJ 22.05.09) used bright colours, supergraphics and three stacked volumes to mediate the vast massing of his nine-storey apartment block. FAT’s Islington Square souped-up flat-roofed courtyard blocks in white render with a jazzy brickwork facade, expressed sills and Dutch-gable style parapets.

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The Guts, New Islington, Manchester by Mae Architects

With ‘The Guts’, located just off New Islington’s causeway-like main road, Mae’s contribution has been to create a type of oversized normality. The two-storey homes are all front door, window and gable end; a cartoonish amplification of the platonic home. Perky and peppy, these are houses that want to be houses.

Mae was appointed in 2009 by Great Places, Urban Splash’s social housing partner on the New Islington scheme. The brief was for 18 units; a mix of houses for social rent and shared ownership with an emphasis on low-density and family housing. The majority of the social rent homes were for Cardoom residents with the right to return.

On Alsop’s masterplan, adjacent towers were planned for the vacant lot and Mae was desperate to get some height into the scheme, says practice founder Alex Ely. Accordingly, the two four-bedroom houses that bookend the scheme at its southern edge have a third storey. Their gables are rotated 90 degrees, on axis with the street, helping to reinforce a taller, slimmer version of the dramatic gable repeated throughout the scheme. As it happens, the masterplan looks like it may develop into a much more low-rise affair.

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The Guts, New Islington, Manchester by Mae Architects

Mae’s initial plan for the block on Weybridge road - two narrow terrace blocks - relied on having a road down the middle. This was dispensed with when a demanding budget kicked in; losing the road halved the project’s infrastructure costs. So two terraces of 10 houses were split into 10 semis, then rotated 90 degrees with the gables running perpendicular instead of parallel to the street. This gave more room for on-plot car parking and what Ely describes as the ‘slightly unusual but expedient typology’ of the side-by-side, back-to-back semis that emerged.

One of the downsides of the back-to-back arrangement is that the living rooms of the two-bedroom houses are single aspect and can get gloomy. The kitchen/dining areas, however, also look on to the street as well as the parking space, which most residents seem to use as a patio, comfortable enough with security to park their cars on the ‘kerbs’ of the shared surface roads. The window units throughout are generously sized at 0.9m per bay, though their shallow reveals make for a distinctively ‘flat’ elevation that may not be to everyone’s taste.

Ely says that Mae ‘wanted to create something which was robust enough to take a degree of personalisation’. This is evident already, even though residents have only been in three months, with clocks, planting and outdoor seating accessorising the balconies’ grey balustrades.

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The Guts, New Islington, Manchester by Mae Architects

Not that there would be much budget for fanatical detailing. The houses were built to £1,000/m² and the social rent units are priced at £135 per week (two-bed, three-person) and the shared ownership equivalent is at £135,000, for 2.7m ceiling heights and 94m² - 10 per cent bigger than required by the London Housing Design Guide.

Resident Georgina, 38, is happy with her new place: ‘I love it, you can’t hear anyone next door and it’s spacious with nice big windows. It’s like I’m on holiday.’

‘We put the money where the value was; in coming up with a very efficient layout which minimised circulation and maximised useable rooms, albeit with a good lobby,’ says Ely. The structure is traditional timber frame, with load-bearing brick in one colour on the ground storey and - in a nod to Fat’s and dRMM’s schemes - alternating between grey, ivory and red on the second storey.

All the houses meet Code for Sustainable Homes Level 3. Sadly the covers for the ground source heat pumps were omitted in the Design and Build process, so visitors to some houses can see the beige Mitsubishi-logoed apparatus in the front garden.

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The Guts, New Islington, Manchester by Mae Architects

Inside, the plan is partly dictated by the Manchester Accessibility rules DFA2, with each room accounting for the turning circle of a wheelchair. Thus, the downstairs bathroom is slightly bigger than you might expect, and there’s something afoot with the proportions of the rooms. It may be that so many dimensions in the rooms and corridors are derived from a turning circle of a particular radius, giving a subconscious, slightly jarring unity to the proportions. It’s worth noting that while minimum space standards are desirable, so is a framework that allows the architect some give in applying them, to guard against the occasional odd, unintended spatial consequence of the application of codes in a cost-sensitive project.

In Building Dwelling Thinking, Martin Heidegger worried whether ‘even [when] well-planned, easy to keep, attractively cheap, open to air, light and sun… do the houses hold any guarantee that dwelling occurs in them?’ Mae’s project certainly ticks off the first list, an unfortunately rare achievement in new housing and it has squeezed in enough flair within the design code requirements.

As for the dwelling, the reassuring size of the porch gives needed depth to the elevations. It looks like a good place to pull off some mucky shoes, prop up a bike or bring a seat from inside for a sit down in the sun. Prosaic, but important. It’s the sort of detail that raises the day-today quality of our lives, whether we realise it or not. Hopefully these type of cheap, compact, yet grand schemes will become ever more unremarkable over the next decade.

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of The Guts by Mae Architects

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