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Greengate residential development, Salford, by White Arkitekter

Social housing When Salford wanted healthy lifestyle housing, Swedish practice White Arkitekter was well equipped for the challenge, writes Felix Mara

‘Residential developers are terrible at communal space,’ says White Arkitekter’s Geoff Denton. As international director of their Stockholm office and former project architect for Ralph Erskine’s Greenwich Millennium Village, he has a valuable perspective on phase 1 of the Greengate residential development in Salford, which White Arkitekter is now developing to detailed design after winning the House 4 Life international design competition last April.

It was hardly your typical residential open design competition brief, which might call for a blend of efficient planning, environmentally responsible design and marketable imagery. Clients Salford City Council and NHS Salford wanted an environmentally intelligent masterplan by an architect-led consortium which would provide affordable family housing, promote well-being, and enhance the long-term life of the local community. The findings of the 2010 Marmot Review which was commissioned to investigate health inequality in Britain and advocated healthy, sustainable places and communities, were at the heart of the brief.

As a Swedish practice, White Arkitekter was well equipped for this challenge. Social equality, well-being and healthy lifestyles are an integral part of Swedish society. ‘For example, the English education system encourages competition,’ says Denton, ‘whereas Swedish pupils wait for slow learners to catch up’. He acknowledges the creative dynamism of Britain’s development environment, which has layer upon layer of competing interest groups, standards, quangos and regulators. But, he suggests, perhaps Sweden’s state-reinforced homogeneity and consensus, and its relative freedom from excessive commercialisation and economic and social hierarchies, has something to offer us as a critique of our system. Although the Greengate project is something of a maverick, whose progress has been impeded by land purchase complications, it is a fascinating case of ‘what if?’

Landscape design is an integral part of White Arkitekter’s proposal, which divides the brownfield site into zones corresponding to its three phases. Each has a large and distinct central communal space, enclosed by various residential building types. White Arkitekter avoided gated entrances to these courtyards, and their University of Manchester-trained landscape architect Jake Ford proposed large greenhouses within the courtyards and at their perimeter, where they act as gateways.

‘We don’t do Secured by Design in Sweden, because crime is less of a problem here,’ says Denton. ‘We didn’t want fences and cameras as at Greenwich Millennium Village.’ The greenhouses and courtyards are intended to be communal gardening spaces, places where residents can meet, as well as individually and collectively cherish their environment, rather than being confined to defensible spaces.

Phase 1, word-pictured as ‘The Copse’, has a biodiverse courtyard and an Evelyn Grace-style running track (Ford used to work for Zaha Hadid Architects, as it happens). Phase 2 is aptly called ‘The Orchard’ and has a grass tennis court amid the fruit trees. And in phase 3, ‘The Pitch’, residents can participate in ball games on the  roof of a large car park, with ample capacity for residents’ changing mobility requirements. The mix of housing types, from 1 to 5-bedroom flats to two-storey terraces and 2 to 3-storey townhouses, also caters for choice, flexibility and visual diversity, in stark contrast to the homogeneity which developers usually require for this type of development.

In spirit, there is an element of continuity with Greengate’s surroundings and its past. Although White Arkitekter has scarcely replicated a world of two-up, two-down terraces, backstreets and pigeon fanciers, they have introduced touches such as the proposed pub in the corner of phase 2. Their name for the project is ‘Goods and Leadbetters’, a reference to the characters in 1970s sitcom The Good Life, which pokes fun at a couple who aspire to self-sufficiency. White’s design approach is also informed by the Hammarby Sjöstad project in Stockholm, where the practice has paid careful attention to the district’s public realm.

‘Balconies create the architecture at Hammarby,’ says Denton, ‘but Greengate’s developers said they didn’t really like balconies.’ Although Britain has a milder climate than Sweden, balconies are regarded as insecure, and White Arkitekter addressed this concern by pulling them back behind the building line. This enabled them to provide private external spaces, the norm in Swedish apartments, although it does present an awkward detailed design challenge.

Denton, who is Greengate’s project architect, relocated to Sweden to work for Ralph Erskine in 1999, and in this project will draw on his knowledge of the Bostadsbestämmelser residential design requirements which, for example, do not require fire lobbies at the entrances of apartments within four-storey developments. He’s determined to push this through Building Control at Greengate, bringing to mind Erskine’s ‘have a go’ approach. This worked for Erskine in Sweden, and will hopefully enable Greengate to proceed beyond critique and polemic.

The Marmot Review

In 2008, professor Michael Marmot was asked to chair an independent review to propose the most effective evidence-based strategies for reducing health inequalities in England. The report, ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’, was published in February 2010, and concluded that action was needed on six policy objectives:

• Give every child the best start in life

• Enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and control their lives

• Create fair employment and good work for all

• Ensure a healthy standard of living

• Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities

• Strengthen ill-health prevention

Architect’s view: Swedish housing

‘Architects in Sweden have much less power than in Britain. The City of Stockholm is very strong, with much higher planning staff levels. It has aggressively acquired land, so the most powerful developers have to do what it wants. Architects work very closely with planners, often on competitions. ‘Design and Build is the norm here, and Swedish architects are much better at spatial planning than detailed design.

They usually ‘let go’ after projects reach the equivalent of Stage D or E. The design of interiors tends to be determined by the market and residential design standards, and external walls – a very serious matter in Nordic climates – are left to structural engineers. ‘Although Sweden is relatively underpopulated, high-density apartment living is the norm in cities. Ralph Erskine exported the idea of the village green to Sweden.’
Geoff Denton, director, White Arkitekter

The Swedish Standards Institute’s residential design requirements

General principles: access for disabled visitors in all new living accommodation, rather than full handicapped provision throughout. Standards are dependent on the number of apartment occupants.

1.   Bathroom to be suitable for wheelchair access. Common bathroom to allow for laundry facilities

2.   Kitchen to have minimum work space length, cupboard provision and fridge-freezer space

3.   Space provision to ensure dining table does not interfere with disabled access to kitchen facilities and that all occupants can dine together

4.   Minimum length of storage for clothes hanging plus additional storage

5.   Master bedroom suitable for disabled access

6.   Provision for all occupants to have a seat in the living room for family gatherings

7.   All apartments to have private external space, large enough for entertainment

8.   Lift to be large enough for stretchers

9.   Requirements for smoke venting, fire-rated doors and lobbies more relaxed than in the UK

10.  Other required standards cover communal space, committee room, sauna facilities, cycle park, pram stores, refuse and washing rooms

Project data

Competition launched August 2010
Winner announced April 2011
Client Salford City Council and NHS Salford
Developer NorthernGroup
Housing association Great Places
Architect White Arkitekter
Structural engineer Stockley
Services engineer AECOM
Cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald
Masterplan site area 1.45 hectares
Approx no of residential units in masterplan site area 120
Phase 1 site area Site area: 3,075m2, Gross built area: 7,422m2, Total no of apartments: 47, Total no of houses: 12, Plot ratio: 2.4:1
Estimated annual space heating load Close to 15kWh/m2 Passivhaus target
Energy efficiency CSH Level 4
Renewable energy Approx 15m2 high-efficiency PVs on roof of each house. Small-scale low CO2 heat network means most homes will meet Level 5 standard
Energy supply Block-wide small-scale heat network. Phase 1 to have centralised boiler with small CHP plant, using gas or possibly biomass. Each dwelling to have consumer unit for heat exchange and metering, with integral PVs on roof and south-facing apartment block facade. Phase 2 housing block and Phase3 Eco Boomerang and houses to have small-scale heat network. Eco Boomerang roof may have wind turbines. PVs integrated into south-facing balconies. All dwellings could be switched to city-wide district heating.
Background ventilation Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR). Small apartments will not need radiators because high fabric performance and heating coils in MVHR will top up space heating.

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