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Bridging the divide

In the first of a two-part examination of innovative social housing we look at two urban projects in north London: Shepheard Epstein Hunter's redevelopment of Stonebridge Estate; and a hostel and flats for the Peabody Trust by Fraser Brown MacKenna

The road to hell is, famously, paved with good intentions.The Stonebridge estate at Harlesden, in the north London borough of Brent, is, if not quite hell, a distinctly unsatisfactory habitat. Its 22storey, system-built towers and deck-access slabs have degenerated into a no-go area - 'neglect is everywhere', commented the local press - 'rotting, empty buildings, out-of-order lifts and a reputation for drugs and guns'.More than 30 years ago, the politicians, planners and local authority architects who created Stonebridge acted with the best of intentions, but now the whole estate,1,775 units housing more than 4,000 people, is being progressively demolished and replaced by 1,450 new, low-rise (no more than four storeys) residential units, the last of which is scheduled for completion in 2007.

The saga of Stonebridge, both tragic (in terms of the enormous waste of resources and the human misery which the place has generated) and optimistic (given the determination of everyone to make the area work this time), has been politically fraught.Some 76 per cent of the local population is black, the architects selected for the massive project were perceived as white. Five years after its appointment at Stonebridge, however, having weathered the furore, Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH) feels that the completion of the first, 178unit phase of its work there is a cause for celebration. 'It's certainly been a struggle, ' says SEH's d i re c to r in ch a rge , A la in He ad , 'bu t we 're beginning to get very positive feedback from the residents, who see themselves increasingly as the clients.'

SEH's formal client is the Stonebridge Housing Ac t ion Trust (HAT), which appointed the practice, in collaboration with planning consultancy Terence O'Rourke, to masterplan the redevelopment project.After a separate appointment process, SEH and AFH Shaw Sprunt were appointed as lead architects for the new housing - other practices have been brought in to design elements of the project.

SEH's completed first phase lies along the southern edge of the Stonebridge estate, where surviving late Victorian terraces formed a context of sorts - 'but, in effect, we had to create our own context', says Head.A prime objective in the masterplan was to inject variety and identity into the development, a sharp contrast to the repetitive monotony of the 1970s blocks - and, indeed, of much of the nineteenth-century housing which they replaced.

Repairing the damage done by failed Modernist experiments cannot be simply a matter of reinstating the old urban pattern. 'But we found that the typical London 16ft frontage, which is common to so many Georgian and Victorian terraces, was ideal, ' explains project architect Clare Devine.'So, in a sense, we were returning to tradition.'

The terrace form, with parking on the street and every house given its own back garden, is fundamental to the new housing, part of a strategy of breaking down the negative image of Stonebridge as a place apart from surrounding streets - a ghetto - and is described by Head as 'neither reactionary, nor trying to be leading-edge, but more a matter of pushing back the boundaries'.

Deep-plan terrace houses make a lot of sense in energy terms and proper front doors, on the street, encourage a sense of security which many locals crave.The requisite element of diversity and individuality was achieved by capitalising on economies of scale and rejecting standardised doors and windows in favour of a system of specially fabricated modular facade panels, part of a kit of parts developed for the project. The success of this approach, according to Head, 'shows that manufacturers are keen to be involved in this sort of exercise - and we've provided generous window openings, not like the mean efforts seen in so much housing association work'.

Red and blue brick, white render and steel roof coverings, a stylish choice, form the other ingredients in the materials mix. The houses are timber framed, with brickwork cavity party walls as the only load- bearing structures.Within the timber studwork, internal walls can be removed or inserted to reflect the changing needs of residents. As built, all the houses conform to one of three standard plans. (Not all the units in phase one are houses. Flats, which are not intended for family occupation, have been designed by SEH, Proctor Matthews and Anne Thorne Architects and add a vertical emphasis to the new terraced streets. ) SEH's aim of 'evolving a modern domestic urban architecture which uses streets, squares and open spaces as the urban syntax but uses a contemporary language for the individual dwelling' seems to have struck a chord with residents. Eighteen months after the first tenants moved in, there is a marked sense of renewal and even pride of place. If the emphasis so far has been on safety first, SEH's phase two promises more adventurous architecture and a bolder approach to form. A degree of caution in a project of this kind is understandable - Stonebridge is Brent's regeneration flagship and imbued with national significance.

STONEBRIDGE STRUCTURE The phase one design solution was load-bearing masonry, with precast concrete floor in the flat blocks and timber floors in the houses. As part of the HAT's approach to sustainability, clear spans were required within all the units to allow internal modifications in the future without the need to carry out structural engineering works. The development of housing in terraces is in itself an environmentally-sound building form, but the HAT set standards of thermal and acoustic insulation above Building Regulation standards and installed passive stack ventilation in all units.

CREDITS: STONEBRIDGE

CONTRACT TYPE Design and build

START DATE December 1997

CLIENT Stonebridge Housing Trust

JOINT MASTERPLANNER Shepheard Epstein Hunter/ Terence O'Rourke

ARCHITECT AND LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Shepheard Epstein Hunter: Alain Head; Clare Devine; Lee Allen; Naveeta Brar; Adam Cornish; John Curran; Denise Devine; James Gregory; Mark Howard; Keyvan Lankarani; Rekha Mistry; John Ongom; Claire Robertson; Lyn Russell; Graham Ryder; John Thacker; Richard Tovey; Neil Allfrey; Henry Bird; Kerem Cengiz; Andy Chaplin; Stuart Cooper; Charles Dokk-Olsen; Sian Gripaios; Daniel Meek; Jan-Marc Petroschka; Chris Whitman; Cecilia Gorla; Dana Walker; David Duca; Paul Swann; Paul Campbell

STRUCTURAL, MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL ENGINEER Oscar Faber

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Dearle and Henderson

CONTRACTOR Lovell Partnerships

CONTRACTOR'S ARCHITECT Vincent and Gorbing Architects

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS timber infill panels Blair Joinery; rooflights Velux; terned stainless steel roofing Uginox; Warnham stock bricks James Taylor; windows Arden; lifts Stenna; lighting Marlin; rainwater goods Marley Alu-Tech; ventilation Passivent; entrance canopies Pilkington; steelwork Hammerite; concrete block edging Marshalls Mono; concrete slabs Charcon

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