DSDHA’s community-minded development combines intelligent landscaping with good house design
‘Buildings have a public responsibility to belong, to create some kind of dialogue with where they are,’ declared Kevin McCloud in the opening minutes of last week’s inaugural episode of the Grand Designs: House of the Year series. That’s exactly what DSDHA’s 78 homes on the outskirts of Stroud in Gloucestershire do. Rather charmingly branded in developer speak as Applewood to evoke harmony with nature, the project is the latest completion by Haboakus, a joint venture between McCloud’s development company HAB housing and the RP GreenSquare Group, the same team that delivered Glenn Howells Architects’ The Triangle in Swindon (AJ 10.11.11).
Applewood is a far cry from Grand Designs’ grander architecture. These are modest houses – 50 per cent offered at market rate and 50 per cent earmarked as affordable for local people – as noteworthy for their site planning as for their design. And they are unassuming: if you weren’t on the lookout, you might drive right by them.
But several tell-tale signs – handsome and gracious 2.4m-high oak front doors with vertical sidelights, oversized dormer windows and carefully stepped brick walls which follow the rise of the street and define the front gardens – reveal that something more is going on.
Applewood occupies one of those nondescript edge-of-village sites that HAB director Isabel Allen terms ‘a threshold site’. Such sites abound in the UK countryside and are often scarred by soulless subdivisions which feel tacked on to the edge of the village. Not so here.
Located one mile west of Stroud town centre, the site was formerly occupied by the late Victorian Cashes Green Hospital, derelict since 1993 and acquired by English Partnerships in 2005. The architects and developer worked closely with the Homes and Communities Agency and the Cashes Green Community Land Trust to develop the scheme. Local consultation quickly made apparent the community’s attachment to the nurses’ home and keeper’s cottage on the site, and these two buildings – also late Victorian – have been incorporated into the scheme, becoming key drivers of the site layout and architectural language.
Applewood is an intelligent exercise in sensitive, landscape-led masterplanning that deserves to be emulated. Abandoned allotments have been reinstated. There’s lots of talk of badger setts and bat boxes. A new allotment building for community use (which uses bricks reclaimed from the site) incorporates a purpose-built bat roof; and a colony of slow-worms that had to be relocated and safeguarded during construction has been reinstated in a permanent wildlife corridor.
But, frankly, though care for wildlife is an indispensable part of environmental best practice, the birds and the bees are not the point. DSDHA founding director David Hills observes, ‘It’s about the basics of engaging with nature to feel a sense of wellbeing; and creating good environmental awareness in terms of design, such as looking at where the sun rises and falls, or where the shadows will be, in order to define good spaces to sit and socialise in.’
The strategic move at Applewood, as at Haboakus’s Triangle scheme in Swindon, is the creation of a public square at the heart of the project. But at Applewood the plan is inverted. Back gardens enclose the square, making it feel quite private. And a lesson learned at the Triangle has been heeded here. When I revisited The Triangle recently I found the shared spaces at the corners of the site intended for community use were underused and unloved. At Applewood all shared spaces have a purpose: they are either landscaped or left unmanicured and wild.
An emphasis on sharing and fostering community remains evident, but the approach is more pragmatic. The brief called for a new community centre. Instead, the team advocated the refurbishment of a deteriorated community centre over the road, improving the neighbourhood and channelling the savings back into a communal allotment building on the site. Providing tool storage and WCs for allotment holders, it also has a kitchen that could be used for community gatherings.
Environmental charity BioRegional’s One Planet Living philosophy, adopted in particular by the contractor, underpins the project. A One Planet Living induction was compulsory for all labourers. The houses meet Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 with a mix of double and triple-glazed windows, mechanical heat recovery ventilation systems and efficient condensing gas boilers. Above-standard ceiling heights of 2.7m and typical window head heights of 2.4m – both precedents established at The Triangle – have been imported here and contribute light and spaciousness to interiors.
Both at the Triangle and at Applewood, HAB partnered with housing association GreenSquare Group for delivery, seeing its own strength in the design and vision for the projects, according to HAB director Isabel Allen. When construction problems emerged at Applewood, ranging from poorly installed windows to central heating systems which did not confirm to gas regulations, HAB had no legal standing to intervene and the critical role of construction skills and buildability became apparent. Though the snagging issues at Applewood are now largely resolved, the experience has prompted HAB to form its own construction arm which is currently on site with five houses near Oxford and will also build its upcoming 50-unit project in Kings Worthy, Hampshire. Although taking construction in-house increases financial risk, it also enables ‘a more seamless integration between designer and builder which allows more R&D on innovative products, something we are very keen on,’ says Allen.
Applewood units sold significantly faster and for at least five per cent higher than comparable nearby developments, according to Allen, a promising indicator. Before heading back to Stroud railway station, we walked down nearby Springfield Road, where Applewood’s mix of brick and rendered houses seemed right at home, in dialogue with their neighbours.
Applewood Housing by DSDHA
The HAB pipeline
Isabel Allen, HAB design director
We are currently working on The Acre, a cluster of five large, detached, family houses in Cumnor Hill, a leafy and well-to-do Oxford suburb, and on Lovedon Fields, a development of 50 homes at Kings Worthy, Hampshire, spanning the whole range from one-bedroom affordable flats through to five-bedroom family homes. Both projects have been designed by John Pardey Architects.
The Acre, which is on site, has pushed us into considering how we apply our core values at the more luxurious end of the market. It has allowed us to explore innovative sustainable construction systems. We built The Triangle from Hemcrete but were only able to make the sums work thanks to a government grant to encourage the use of sustainable materials. At The Acre we are using the next generation of hemp-based building technology, HempCell, a factory-made panel system that uses hemp lIme and natural fibre insulation.
Lovedon Fields, which has detailed planning consent and is due to start on site just before Christmas, has allowed us to further our approach of embedding our developments within a wider environmental and urban context. We are working closely with the local parish council to deliver not only housing but extensive landscaped public space, including cycle tracks, a wildflower meadow, allotments and space for natural play. Like Applewood, Lovedon occupies an edge-of-settlement position, between the village of Kings Worthy and the South Downs National Park.
We also have two much larger projects under way in less affluent urban areas, though are not in a position to go public yet. These are an exercise in using design and ingenuity to get the best results out of a very tight budget. With architect Mark Hines we are developing a range of super-efficient standard house types which offer maximum flexibility for the lowest possible cost. Whatever our wider aspirations, we are mindful that affordability is the single biggest issue for most potential residents.
Applewood Housing by DSDHA
Source: Tim Soar
Start on site April 2012
Completion April 2015
Total project cost per m2 £1,300/m2 including landscape and all external works
Executive architect Quattro
Structural engineer Curtins
M&E consultant Brooks Devlin
Landscape architect Studio Engleback
Executive landscape architect Reckless Orchard
Project manager DBK
Main contractor Markey