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Stirling shortlist: Newhall Be by Alison Brooks Architects

‘Does Newhall Be have anything further to offer? Well, yes. For a start, it includes a new typology: the terraced courtyard house,’ writes Felix Mara

You have to go there. See Harlow New Town, one of Britain’s most successful - a post-war reconstruction project conceived as clusters, neighbourhood centres and green wedges, steered and lived in by its architect-planner Frederick Gibberd. On its outskirts, as you travel eastwards away from the nearby Essex-Hertfordshire border, you reach Old Harlow; then as you head south, trees lining fields on either side of the road reveal glimpses of the serrated skyline of a low-rise citadel, a patchwork of residential developments designed by Robert Hutson Architects, PCKO, Proctor and Matthews, ECD, ORMS and Alison Brooks Architects, whose Newhall Be occupies its south-west corner. Masterplanned by Roger Evans Associates, this 21st-century architectural zoo is collectively known as Newhall.

At Newhall Be, streets running north to south lined with villas and bookend apartment blocks are connected by east-to-west shared surface, terraced thoroughfares. The dress code for terraces and villas is black. They’re typically clad with stained softwood and have slate roof tiles, although some walls are buff stock brickwork, also used for the flats. Twenty-six per cent of the dwellings are affordable.

Alison_Brooks_Architects_Newhall_02_Courtyard_House_Terrace

With its density of 52 units per hectare and public realm thoroughfares, Newhall Be isn’t typical suburban housing. It follows Newhall’s promoters and designers’ strategy of retaining the existing landscape by building on constrained footprints at high densities and prioritising pedestrian and cycle access. While emphasising continuity with Harlow New Town’s original vision, their aim is to surpass its density, arguably one of the compromises that undermined the New Town’s success. It’s a complex subject. People migrate from more urban areas, perhaps imagining they are moving to ‘the country’, and many are content to be beer-gutted, car-seat potatoes. What Newhall’s promoters and designers are offering is a certain quality of life and environment.

‘It’s all good stuff,’ you might say, but how is Newhall Be unique? Like adjoining developments, it has its own dedicated design code, agreed with the district council to maintain quality and consistency. Other plots were developed to similar densities and include more typologies, while also aiming to provide adaptable spaces, ‘flooded with daylight’ that have ‘stunning views’, plus work areas. Everyone’s reciting the usual tedious platitudes about traditional ‘yet’ contemporary >> design, and ‘respecting’ the local vernacular but: ‘Oh no, no, it’s not a pastiche’. Does Newhall Be, inspired by Essex farmhouses and featuring a stock brick which seems to have been popular with the locals, have anything further to offer? Well, yes. For a start, it includes a new, or certainly very unusual, typology: the terraced courtyard house, with the same area as a conventional narrow, deep terrace unit but much more width, plus opportunities for interesting interlocking spaces and views.

Alison_Brooks_Architects_Newhall_18_Courtyard_House_Interior

Then there’s its holistic artistic vision and detail. The masterplan’s street layout is gently distorted, adding to the townscape appeal of its abstracted sculptural volumes, like Braque with parallax. This volumetric clarity is reinforced by the detail, with razor-slit junctions where nodding roof facets meet walls, brick to weatherboarding corners where neither material returns, near-flush glazing, and lintels and soffits barely expressed at wall junctions. There’s the occasional blemish: square columns hard up against glass corners. The cladding - including the roof - was to be Ipe, but the D&B contractor decided otherwise. None of this undermines Newhall Be’s sophistication and presence.

But it’s Newhall Be’s utopian social vision and what Alison Brooks calls its ‘cultural infrastructure’, with their attendant spatial qualities, that sets it apart: really big windows and split-level planning, thoughtfully designed, dedicated workspaces which enliven the public spaces they look on to, thresholds with the right balance of permeability and privacy, super-high ceilings and ready adaptability for occupants who want another bedroom.

Life is full of insufferable people. A site agent on a complex theatre project once told me: ‘You don’t need architects’. And an architect once told me his profession had no meaningful role in volume housing, the area in which he specialised. I’d like to send them both down to Newhall Be and see what they have to say.

Felix Mara is AJ technical editor

Q+A

Alison Brooks, founding director, Alison Brooks Architects

What was your initial concept?

To develop a dense, super-efficient suburban masterplan with generous house typologies tailored to contemporary lifestyles. This aspiration initiated investigations of square house plots with T-shaped and L-shaped plans, versus standard long, narrow plots. Compact footprints meant three-storey houses, and therefore rooms in the roof. We really fought for home workspaces. We wanted a total assemblage of sculptural, slightly abstract forms.

What elements of the surrounding context does the building draw upon?

Traditional Essex barns, with their monumental gabled geometries and huge roofs, and our experiment with the Salt House in St Lawrence Bay, also in Essex. Wider influences include Brancusi’s totems, MVRDV’s Patio housing, OMA’s Nexus housing and early European Modernists’ courtyard housing.

How has this project built on your experience at Accordia?

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Accordia masterplan has a fail-safe urban design approach: compact terraced housing blocks, streets and avenues in a generous communal landscape framework. Newhall follows the same principles. FCBS and Maccreanor Lavington’s courtyard houses proved roof terraces are more desirable and usable than traditional rear gardens. At Newhall, using prefabricated timber cassettes, we developed a smaller-scaled, lower cost variation on Accordia’s principles.

What is the most important lesson you learned?

To deliver great new housing in the UK you need: a developer client who trusts the architect and commits to the project’s ethos; enlightened landowners to support and defend development bids’ ideals; construction documentation by authoring architects; reform of property valuation to include area, volume, construction quality, daylight, energy consumption, storage and amenity space as mandatory mortgage assessment criteria.

Pushing yourself and your practice to the limit, while retaining social and architectural ideals, can feel reckless and is always costly, but ultimately what’s built and how it affects people’s lives reveals the effort and achievement.

Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?

At the time of Newhall Be we began ‘injecting’ elements of our formal and spatial house design experiments into new volume house-building models. Dynamic, non-orthogonal spaces, dominant roof volumes, material continuity/plasticity and transparency are embedded in our approach at Newhall. We hope Newhall Be’s achievements will show the profession and housing industry can deliver much higher standard housing: generous, sustainable, characterful and affordable - standards everyone deserves.

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