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Urban pioneer

NEWS: Cartwright Pickard's Murray Grove housing in Hackney caters for professionals with modest incomes and sets new standards for modular construction

The most celebrated aspect ofthe Peabody Trust's Muray Grove housing scheme in north London - and it has already received much press attention - is its use ofa modular construction system combined with high levels ofprefabrication.

In the aftermath ofEgan,the idea that a completely furnished,ready-to-occupy dwelling can be craned onto a prepared site in a matter ofweeks is appealing,ifa little novel,for our house-building industry.

Despite being commonplace in Japan and Scandinavia,where purchasers can order a customised new home from a catalogue ofcomponents,modular construction has not achieved universal acceptance.

However,it is fairly common for certain specialist applications - the Travelodge variety of'family hotel'and the drive-in fast-food outlet.Greenwich's Dome may be the largest enclosed space in Europe,but not to be outdone,McDonald's has built the largest fast-food restaurant in Europe just next door (2200m

2in a period ofjust 15 weeks) using modular construction.The arguments for modularisation are persuasive - speed ofconstruction,quality control through off-site production and economy, providing there is sufficient volume.But so far,design awards for modular buildings have been rather thin on the ground.

Along with the public acclaim for the Muray Grove project there have also been the inevitable doubtful murmurings - didn't we make terible mistakes in the past trying to industrialise the supply ofsocial housing?

For two reasons these comparisons are inappropriate.Firstly,although there is a high degree ofexperimentation at Muray Grove,the end users can choose to live there or not.This is cost-rent housing aimed at

'key workers'with stable but modest incomes (teachers and perhaps nurses) rather like the early philanthropic housing which met the needs ofthe industrious classes ofartisans rather than the desperate homeless (who were at the mercy ofthe Poor Laws).Secondly,the architect, Cartwright Pickard,has produced a credible piece ofarchitecture that does more than just demonstrate the possibilities ofbuilding as 'production'rather than 'construction'.

The site organisation is obvious and straightforward.The accommodation is arranged in two simple bars along Muray Grove and Shepherdess Walk.Living spaces look south-east and south-west into a landscaped courtyard.At the corner,the lift and single stair form a dramatic,ifslightly overscaled,tower which marks the entrance and

gives access to three flats on each wing of the building.From the base ofthe tower there are glimpsed views into the courtyard, which is just visible through a portal in the etched glass enclosure to the lift.Flat entrances,bathrooms and kitchens are on the street side,offering a degree ofacoustic protection to the living space from the street and the short external access galleries.

The building was reduced from six storeys to five during planning consultations,but still has a scale and presence on the street that matches the robust quality ofthe surrounding buildings but with added lightness and refinement.

The flats themselves are formed from room modules constructed as a steel monocoque with prefinished internal walls and injected insulation between plasterboard on the inside and galvanised steel sheet on the outside.The one-bed flats are assembled from two modules;the two beds have a third module in the centre,which provides the extra bedroom and a more generous kitchen space.

The modules were delivered with all sides enclosed,though with a temporary weathering to the partially open sides that straddle the kitchen space.The modules themselves form the structure ofthe building being simply stacked one upon another on top ofa simple strip footing.The lightness ofthe overall structure provides significant savings to the substructure.

At the upper landings,storage spaces are provided for prams,bicycles or even a spare bed,hopefully ensuring that the balconies are enjoyed for their intended use as additional living space.This attention to layout and detail is carried through the whole scheme where every component (from light fittings down to the ventilation grilles) has been selected and placed with care.

The modules are clad on the courtyard side in red cedar and with teracotta panels to the street;but the external gallery structures and the balconies are constructed separately,by more traditional means,albeit with a high degree ofprefabrication.The modules,which constitute about 50 per cent ofthe total cost,are effectively 'wrapped'in conventional architectural treatment.The external galleries also provided construction access for fitting the external cladding on what was largely a scaffold-fre site.

The galleries are supported on slender columns with a lattice ofdiagonal stainlesssteel bracing.Though much smaller in scale, the whole composition is reminiscent of Arup Associates'Finsbury Avenue office building and its progeny at Leeds City office Park ( AJ 12.10.95),where horizontal sunshades are supported in the same way.James Pickard,who worked in Peter Foggo's office on the Leeds building,has applied the disciplined thinking ofmodern office design, where the planning grid imposes a strict repetitive rhythm,to housing.There are sensitive acknowledgements ofhuman experience,but the whole resists tame domesticity without being mechanical or repetitive.The development process is also borrowed from office experience with the architect,principal contractor and special-ists,particularly module-fabricator Yorkon.

This contributed to the detailed discussions about fabrication and installation.

Cartwright Pickard had already spent time with Yorkon developing ideas for modular housing and this helped secure its appointment in a competitive interview against practices with conventional housing experience.

Viewed from the streetside,the module is clearly expressed and there is a rewarding overlap and interplay between the light external structure with its own logic,and the rhythm ofsolid panels,which is finely judged.On the side ofthe courtyard,however,the cedar cladding runs as a continuous skin over the joints between modules and the structural clarity evident at an intermediate construction phase has been lost.The quality appears in the generous floor-to-ceiling glaz-ing to each living space,but the cedar boarding makes the elevation seem less precise.

The well-lit and spacious living rooms are cleverly tailored to young,working people's needs.The double-bed flats are flexible enough to accommodate three flat mates in a bed-sit arrangement or a young family with small children.Internally the flats are finished to a high standard and all ofthis is provided within the cost constraints established by a social-housing provider,albeit operating in this case without public or housing-corporation subsidy.

Dickon Robinson,the director ofdevelopment at the Peabody Trust,provided the main driving force for the project.He has impressed his own urbane outlook,believing that one can retire from the hectic city by getting up above the bustle towards the views and light.He recognises that young people do not necessarily want to commute,but would rather be close to the workplace and the life ofthe city.

Muray Grove demonstrates that even in a scheme offlats,there is scope for outdoor living (each balcony is large enough for a table and four dining chairs) and flat entrance doors can safely be left open to the gallery.Dickon Robinson's ambition,in the pioneering spirit ofthat organisation's early patrons,is to advance at least one issue on each new Peabody scheme.

The pressing issues for the early pioneers remain the same today,as the earnings gap and spiralling house prices mean an increased demand for affordable rented accommodation.One ofthe earliest schemes for self-contained dwellings at Streatham Street in Holborn attracted the following comments in the Labourer's Friendwhen it was opened on 20 May 1850:'... plain but, handsome and massive... wonderfully compact,and the rents at which wholesome,airy and convenient premises can thus be let, lower than the average sums paid for the airless,lightless and fetid rooms in which are lodged so great a proportion ofthe operative classes ofLondon and England.'

Streatham Street - with its open balconies to prevent the spread ofdisease and its remarkably compact floor plan aimed at the problems ofsmall-scale urban living - is now managed by the Peabody Trust.It was an experimental scheme and well ahead of its time.In the years following it,the 'associated'tenement type with shared washing facilities predominated - but it anticipated future trends and continues to provide decent,affordable flats.

The Peabody Trust is committed to a development programme that will achieve the real benefits ofvolumetric construction.

It is apparently confident that by refining the Muray Grove type and by learning lessons from what is essentially a demonstration scheme,modular housing can match the cost oftraditional but with increased quality, faster and safer construction and less disruption and construction noise,making modular techniques attractive for both new-build and refurbishment projects.By achieving high standards offinish and design,Muray Grove will have countered what might be termed consumer suspicion ofthe technique.

The next challenge will be to provide as much variety and invention with a larger project.

Costs Costs based on contract sum.The costs outlined here are some 15 per cent higher than the target cost, primarily because this was a pioneering project to a high specification,and the client sought to maximise the opportunity for demonstrating good design with innovation in construction practice.In undertaking a similar project at a future date it should be possible to iron out certain inefficiencies,and to deliver a similar product for the target cost.

Actual completion November 1999 GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 2150m 2approx.

FORM of CONTRACT Negotiated design-andconstruct with Client standard amendments negotiated and agreed with Contractor.

JCT 81 with Contractor's Design TOTAL COST £2,315,514 CLIENT Peabody Trust ARCHITECT Cartwright Pickard Architects:

James Pickard,(project architect),Peter Cartwright,Jeremy Emerson,Umesh Luharia M&E ENGINEER Engineering Design Partnership STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Whitby Bird & Partners COST CONSULTANT MDA MAIN CONTRACTOR Kajima UK Engineering MODULE MANUFACTURER Yorkon SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS structural steelwork and metalwork Advanced Fabrications;

precastconcrete access decks SCC;

Argeton terracotta tile cladding SJW facades;

cladding installer Baris;

windows Velfac;

ro offinish British Steel, light fittings Marlin & Wila;

carpets Lano;

kitchens Hapworth;

perforated-aluminium balustrade/cladding Ash & Lacey;

ironmongery Allgood;

western red cedar cladding Castle Timber;

structural glazing T&W Ide;

external floor finishes Marshalls;

fireboard Fermacell Costs supplied by Keith Bowler, The MDA Group

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