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mad about the house

At the Stonebridge Estate in north London Anne Byrne is applying the lessons learned from the housing experiments of the '60s and '70s to create a satisfying social environment that gets the thumbs-up from residents by isabel allen. photograph by robert g

As acting director of Stonebridge Housing Action Trust, Anne Byrne has been entrusted with a construction project on a scale rarely seen since the public sector building frenzy of the '60s and '70s.Her task is to oversee the phased demolition of an Estate of 1,775 units at the Stonebridge estate at Harlesden in the north London borough of Brent and the construction of 1,450 new, lowrise units.

The first phase of 178 homes is just finished (see pages 30-35). The remainder of the work is on a rolling programme due for completion in 2007. The London Borough of Brent is hugely supportive, the Housing Action Trust and the various architects are idealistic and committed.

But then so were the planners, politicians and architects who were responsible for the existing habitat: a cluster of system-built 22-storey towers and deck-access slabs which has been roundly dismissed as a disaster.

So what makes Byrne so sure that the current project will be a success?

She argues that there is much to be learned from the Modernist housing experiments. In fact, she says, most of the Stonebridge residents loved their homes, which were built to the generous space standards of the '60s and '70s.

'People say: 'I love my flat, I just hate everything else around it. If you could just move my flat to somewhere else I'd be so happy.'' As Byrne sees it, the challenge is to create an environment where residents are as satisfied with public and semi-public spaces as they are with their own homes. Common parts are well lit, and have been kept to a minimum: none of the new buildings will contain more than eight flats or be more than four storeys high.

Much of the rebuilt estate will consist of houses with private gardens, although Byrne is keen to rubbish the assumption that 'if you just give people a back garden and a front garden everything will be fine', arguing that 'if you look at social housing up and down the country most of the really bad stuff is houses with gardens'.

Questioning received wisdom about what does and does not work is an important part of Byrne's job. She is dubious about the commonly held view that people invariably prefer houses to flats, saying that 'quite often people who have lived in flats all their lives find the idea of strangers walking past their front door and window disconcerting'. There have been instances of people leaving their front doors open - a habit gained from years of living in a high-level flat with familiar neighbours.

Phase one at Stonebridge contains a mixture of flats - designed by Shepheard Epstein Hunter, Proctor Matthews and Anne Thorne Architects - and houses which have been designed by Shepheard Epstein Hunter and AFH Shaw Sprunt. The use of different architects and different building types injects a welcome element of diversity into the scheme: much of the dissatisfaction with the '70s scheme was to do with its stifling monotony.

Byrne hopes to commission more architects to take on the design of individual pockets of housing within the masterplan, as well as the project's new public buildings. There are plans to run an open competition for the design of a nursery, and Alsop & Stormer has designed a health and community centre which is due to go to planning in two or three months. Before joining Stonebridge two years ago (after Shepheard Epstein Hunter and planning consultant Terence O'Rourke produced the original masterplan) Byrne worked for Southwark council, and was on the panel which selected Alsop & Stormer for the design of Peckham Library.

She is a big Will Alsop fan, but is ambivalent about his recent Stirling Prize success. 'There is a perception in housing that an architectural award can be the kiss of death, ' she says, pointing out that projects which are lauded by the profession in their day often prove disastrous in the long term.

But if Byrne is wary of paying too much heed to prevalent architectural fashion, she is in no doubt about the value of the architect's role.

'Architecture is a very difficult profession because you have to be skilled in so many areas.'

Despite the fact that residents are becoming increasingly confident about their own taste - 'People spend their lives watching gardening programmes and television makeovers. . . and now people are talking about architecture'- Byrne believes that it is still 'such a leap of faith for residents to trust us'.

This makes consultation skills particularly important in project's such as Stonebridge, and she is full of admiration for the way Shepheard Epstein Hunter and Terence O'Rourke presented residents with various housing schemes in order to expose them to different ideas - Coin Street proved the most popular.

But she stresses that ultimately 'we use architects because they have design ability and design expertise. Do you want someone who is brilliant at consultation or do you want someone who is a good designer? In 50 years time will anyone care that the architect was good at consultation?'

Byrne acknowledges with pride that 'we got some brilliant architecture'. The project is a continuous learning process, and there are certain changes she would like to see in future phases.She would like to see more emphasis on environmental issues, and is keen to set up some demonstration projects. But on balance the first phase is a great success.

The residents approve, and Byrne reports that visitors routinely deliver what is, sadly, the ultimate compliment: 'I thought it must have been a private scheme.'

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