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Alison Brooks' tenure-blind housing in South Kilburn


Alison Brooks Architects’ RIBA Award-winning Ely Court sets a precedent for the rest of the masterplan to follow, says Laura Mark


The South Kilburn Estate in the London Borough of Brent had been failing. It had a reputation for high levels of crime, taxi drivers refused to go through it, and it was once home to Man Booker Prize-winning author Zadie Smith, who dubbed it ‘an area where the only constant is change’. A sea of prefabricated concrete towers and bland low-rise blocks, it wasn’t a walkable estate. Many of its original roads had become blocked off by ill-thought-out consequential development and vast areas had turned into no-go zones.

But now, through a 15-year-long regeneration scheme, the council and its team of masterplanners – including the likes of PRP Architects, Alison Brooks, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands – are trying to bring back the street. They are trying to create places where people want to be and, in the words of the council, ‘create a real sense of place and belonging’.

The council is demolishing old blocks and selectively replacing them with new. It has an appeal that would go far with organisations like Create Streets – championing high-density low rise over the Modernist tower blocks of yesteryear. The higher densities employed here mean they can build more homes than before and support the financing of both replacement and new socially rented housing with homes for market sale. According to the council, no tenant will have to move out of the area.

The latest part of the estate to complete is Alison Brooks Architects’ £8.2 million 43-home scheme, which mixes tenures and rehouses some of the estate’s existing tenants in a subtle series of blocks that border the South Kilburn Conservation Area. The scheme comprises four typologies. A terrace, facing out onto the main street and responding to the mid-19th-century Maida Vale villas opposite, contains two-storey maisonettes. These are aimed at families, intended for private sale, and situated on the ground floor with apartments above. Next to this, a four-storey link block turns into the mews and faces a newly created street behind. These eight two- and three-bedroom houses – South Kilburn’s only terraced housing to be built in years – are to be socially rented. On the corner of the site, next to a locally listed former pub is what Brooks calls the ‘flatiron building’, filled with social-rented apartments.

The blocks are all low-rise in a move that Brooks says she couldn’t repeat today: ‘If we were trying to get this through now we probably wouldn’t be able to work at this height. They would want us to build up.’

The new scheme restores the streets that were missing 

Where the new yellow/white-hued Dutch brick blocks now stand were once post-war generic council housing blocks which themselves had destroyed the street pattern of the terraces that went before them. The new scheme restores the streets that were missing and has, in turn, created a neighbourhood. The layout draws people through what had become an under-utilised public area between tall slab blocks creating a thoroughfare leading to the station and high street. Children play on the street and large windows and garden spaces overlook, giving a sense of security.

The flats, be they private market homes or otherwise, are generously sized and, with ceiling heights of 2.6m, go over and above London housing guide requirements. It feels like a return to the Parker Morris standards of a bygone era. The whole scheme is well considered and tenure blind so you are not left feeling that anyone may have scrimped on the social housing. Brooks says the scheme is mainly the same throughout: ‘The market sale homes have different materials for floors’, she recalls, but from the outside – if you ignore the garden furniture – it is difficult to see a difference.

The development has also gone down well with residents. One social housing tenant from the gridiron block, Nathalie Botwe, is ecstatic about her new home. She moved there with her four children after being rehomed from another part of the estate and says she ‘couldn’t believe her luck’.

‘I can’t believe this is from the council,’ she tells me. ‘I feel so lucky. It’s so light and we have so much space. It’s nothing like what we had before’.

As we stand on the balcony from her bedroom and look out over the estate, Botwe adds that the view has given her a different perspective. ‘I can see all the way over there to where they are working on other parts of the estate’ – she points to Gloucester Court where Alison Brooks is also working. She tells me how she plans to use the council’s right-to-buy/shared ownership programme to buy her home.

What is most remarkable about this whole development is that it is being led by a local authority, not developers or housebuilders. It would be wrong to ignore the aspect of gentrification or, as the residents’ association has termed it, ‘social cleansing’. But the social tenants I spoke to are happy to be rehoused. That is understandable – they tell me the conditions of the flats they lived in before were damp and cramped. So, on the whole, they are happy to have a new home but the changes that come with that – the Waitrose and Marks & Spencer supermarkets and the outpricing they could face in the future – don’t quite appeal.

All in all, Brooks’ practice has created a sensitive, well-considered scheme and, with her involvement in a future three developments on the estate, the success looks to be continued. Ely Court sets a precedent for the vast aspects of the masterplan still to follow.


Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects


Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Client’s view 

The regeneration of South Kilburn is a 15-year programme that is approximately halfway through. It aims to transform the area into a sustainable, mixed neighbourhood and create a real sense of place. It will rebuild around 1,200 affordable homes and deliver another 1,200 market homes which will help to cross-subsidise the building of the new homes for existing secure council tenants.

The council’s objectives are to provide new, high-quality homes that produce value from market sales to maintain the viability of the regeneration programme in the long-term, and to achieve a substantial improvement in the living conditions of existing secure council tenants. We are very clear on our vision and objectives for high-quality design and architecture, and ultimately the execution of it. As project managers, to achieve and maintain our high standards, while keeping the overall vision in focus, we prepare detailed briefs that clearly outline our scope of works, key milestones and desired outcomes and benefits.

The entire programme aims to deliver:

  • 2,400 new high-quality homes, of which 1,200 will form social rented accommodation for existing South Kilburn secure tenants;
  • a new, larger, high-quality urban park;
  • a new local primary school;
  • new health facilities;
  • improved environmental standards;
  • improved public realm;
  • a site-wide energy solution.

It’s inspiring to work with award-winning architects like Alison Brooks who understand the vision and execute it so well. They work very hard with our stakeholders, residents and the project team to ensure the designs fit the urban context and wider public realm. The external façade, materiality, internal layouts and specification are all thought through carefully to be the best they can to remain viable and sustainable. This creates a real sense of ownership and place for the community, which makes the process even more rewarding.

Richard Barrett, director, Regeneration, Brent Council

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Source: Paul Riddle

Project data 

Start on site September 2012
Completion December 2015
Gross internal floor area 6,509m2
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost £8.2 million
Client London Borough of Brent/Catalyst Housing Group
Executive architect Hester Architects
Structural engineer WSP/Tully De’Ath
M&E consultant Norman Disney & Young
Quantity surveyor Arcadis/Willmott Dixon
Landscape architect Churchman Landscape Architects/Adams Habermehl
Project manager Brent Council/Catalyst Housing
CDM co-ordinator Arcadis
Approved building inspector Brent Council
Main contractor Willmott Dixon
CAD software used Vectorworks/Revit
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 44kg/m2 

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Source: Paul Riddle


External masonry

65x215mm facing brickwork, Mystique with natural coloured mortar joints; 150mm Ecobead cavity insulation with 100mm concrete block inner leaf construction

Windows and doors

Aluminium/timber composite glazing, Ideal Combi finished in RAL 7006


50x15mm steel flat bar balustrades at 100mm centres, finished in RAL 7006

Metal porches

Aluminium cassette cladding mounted on plywood backing with steel frame structure, finished in RAL 7006


50mm pressed aluminium coping/sill on metal cleats fixed to brickwork, finished in RAL 7006


40mm rounded aggregate layer laid on 235mm expanded polystyrene fully bonded rigid insulation. Hot melt tanking system plywood substrate on timber I-beam roof structure


Timber frame roof upstand with brick slip cladding


Engineered hardwood floor, laid on 70mm screed with 10mm resilient layer. 150mm precast concrete slab

Recessed balcony 

External hardwood decking on timber battens on 100mm expanded polystyrene fully bonded insulation. Hot melt tanking to 150mm precast slab with 100mm insulation to underside 

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Ely Court by Alison Brooks Architects

Source: Paul Riddle



Readers' comments (3)

  • Another misleading puff piece. When will you actually talk to those who live in the area rather than those who impose their schemes on us?

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  • Very handsome building. But it seems Brits don't like closet space -- from the floorplans it looks like bedrooms have small wardrobes in place of closets.

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  • ‘It would be wrong to ignore the aspect of gentrification or, as the residents’ association has termed it, social cleansing.’

    Laura Mark showing, once again, that the AJ has its finger on the pulse of London architecture. Opening with every cliché about council estates (failing, high crime, bland, a no-go zone, and a good trashing by Zadie Smith), this one sentence is the only reference to any resident opposition to this development. Ignoring it is exactly what Laura Mark does, and she's right, it is wrong. And the one thing missing from the list of project data and specifications, as always with articles in the AJ, is the cost of the new apartments. But a 2-bedroom apartment was being advertised off-plan last year for £900,000.

    Elsewhere in the AJ the tenure mix for Ely Court is listed as 25 for market sale and ‘18 social affordable units.’ Which is it: social or affordable, or don't you recognise a difference? Disinformation, a mouthpiece for Brent Labour Council and Catalyst Housing Association: the architectural profession in summary.

    If this is Britain's foremost architectural magazine, no wonder architects know nothing about the social consequences of estate regeneration.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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