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Cemetery Road, Sheffield, by Project Orange

[Building study + images + drawings] Project Orange’s Cemetery Road scheme is clever and beguiling, writes Richard Waite. Photography by Gareth Gardner

The ‘coat’ of Project Orange’s award-winning housing scheme in Cemetery Road, Sheffield is interesting enough. The exterior of the £3.2 million development is certainly leagues ahead of the decrepit shell of the former Unison building, with its mock-Corinthian portico, which once stood on the site.

Yet the real substance of this project, with its nine townhouses, six flats and a 180m2 penthouse, is on the other side of a gated entrance. Once beyond this, it becomes clear the London-based practice has designed a real cracker.

‘You wouldn’t have a clue from outside that the monolithic stone exterior gives way to a semi-Mediterranean heart,’ says Cristian Sinclair, director of developer Neaversons, referring to its courtyard layout. Born and bred in Sheffield, Sinclair has already worked with Project Orange across the city on its celebrated 266 Glossop Road project with its ‘challenging’ black brick cladding.

This latest surprise package sits on a sloping site between the fading comet’s tail of the city centre and the start of the leafier residential suburbs and Nether Edge. Approaching the hilltop plot from town, you pass tatty terraces, a decaying church, a fading monumental Egyptian gateway and a car lot before you reach the building’s eastern facade, which overlooks Sheffield’s verdant General Cemetery.

This elevation is the weakest element of the development – the stone cladding suggests it has been a victim of value engineering and the design constrained by conservation-area demands. But it is saved by the huge windows, which from the inside allow views onto the peaceful treetops of the cemetery park. ‘I hate small windows,’ says project director Christopher Ash, admitting he and fellow Project Orange director James Soane were influenced by the expansive glazing typical of Dutch housing.

The front of the building is sweeter with its two black balconies and a pair of ground-floor shops. The gated entrance and ramp down to the cleverly hidden underground car park have been dealt with as best security gates and garages can be. But the decision by Sheffield’s transport authority to put a bus stop directly outside was cruel. The western edge, which houses the largest four-storey homes, is more expressive with its large grey overhangs, black timber and white render.

The real joy is in the inner world. The planning of the townhouses around the courtyard and the interior layouts are imaginative, beguiling and yet still homely. It is hard to disagree with the judges of the 2010 RIBA Yorkshire White Rose Awards who applauded the ‘intelligent handling and arrangement of internal spaces,’ lauding the scheme as a ‘residential design masterclass’.

In the eastern wing the stairs run from the front door almost like a heavenly escalator up to the massive lightbox of a window at the top. More internal drama is created by differing ceiling heights which, for instance, delineate the lounge and kitchen on the open-plan first floor. Ash says, ‘Architects aren’t always so concerned with the interior environment. Some are interior architects; others see themselves are as pure form-making architects. But they are not mutually exclusive.’

There are further surprises in the homes on the western boundary, with their stairs tacked onto the courtyard-facing facades in black timber sleeves. This both addresses any ‘goldfish bowl’ overlooking issues and allows for large floor space.

An example is the spacious dining room on the first floor, which boasts impressive double doors – a feel of pared-down Dynasty for Yorkshire’s Steel City. In the bathrooms, floors and walls are tiled the same – ‘a weird fixation of mine,’ admits Ash. Such twists and turns never feel tricksy or forced. The flats in the front block are filled with light – even the halls.

Yet these homes, billed as ‘contemporary townhouses in a secure courtyard setting’, have not been quick to sell. Echoes perhaps of the avant-garde Park Hill, currently being renovated by Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West. Sinclair sums it up: ‘People here don’t get these townhouses. What we have done is way ahead of where Sheffield is in terms of housing. The city may never catch up, in fact we may never sell these houses, but even if we don’t, it was important we gave it a go.’

Credits

Start on site January 2009
Completion March 2010
Gross internal floor area 2,889m2
Form of contract Bespoke Management form using a combination of JCT05 IFC and JCT DB 05
Total cost £3.2 million
Cost per m2 £1,108
Client Neaversons
Architect Project Orange
Project manager JPMooney
Structural engineer Project Design Associates, Elliottwood
M&E consultant Shearstone Mechanical, Cuba Consultants
Quantity surveyor Armsons Darwent Shaw
Planning supervisor PRLC
Annual CO2 emissions 50.9 tonnes

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