Jay Merrick discovers that this London co-housing scheme makes a mockery of faux-luxurious ‘architect-designed’ housing
London is speckled with hundreds of small urban lacunae, virtually locked-in by back gardens and the rumps of houses, or clogged by garages and lock-ups. Henley Halebrown Rorrison’s Copper Lane co-housing scheme, near Newington Green and reached down little more than an alley, is on one of these sites. The development is the first of its kind in a city whose human, home-hunting pips are being squeezed ever further outwards by the remorseless crush of the property industry’s real-estate juicer.
The project’s formal and material qualities are admirable in view of the size of the building plot, the construction budget, and the communards’ challenging involvement in the design process. They had jointly bought the site without confirmed planning permission for housing; the architect fully expected to become designer, seminar participant and, occasionally, metaphorical dog to be kicked.
All very worthy and Guardianesque, you might think as you sip your flat white in the Belle Epoque artisanal café on Newington Green, while toying with the image of a Unité de la Mise en Commun, inhabited by British versions of the characters from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoon-strip. But that’s a weak satire. A better one is that the current demographic-cum-property situation seems eerily equivalent to the 18th-century Highland Clearances, teeming three centuries later with the revenants of evicted crofters peering hopelessly into the windows of London estate agents.
Most co-housing is separate houses with one communal space
Simon Henley has designed six dwellings that express and serve what he calls an ‘intentional community’. It’s true, of course, that his clients could afford to live in what their concise expression of interest described as ‘a small community’, and they could select one of Britain’s most interesting practices to design it.
The architectural precedents that propelled the scheme included the ‘immense generosity of space’ of Jørn Utzon’s housing. More central, intellectually, were ideas about communal or compressed habitation: Bertrand Russell’s 1935 essay Architecture and Social Questions; Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo; and the 50m2 housing designs recently sponsored by developer Pocket (AJ 16.01.15) – Henley’s own obdurately idealistic Pocket offering managed to be micro-Palladian. Russell suggested that groups of families living communally could share tasks, freeing women to find work and meaning outside the home. The horizontal silos of the Capsule Tower were simply a Fordist demonstration of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ prescient 1959 New Babylon vision of permanently nomadic urban living.
But the Copper Lane scheme must also be seen as being under the foot of the elephant in the room: the housing situation in London, and other cities and towns pervaded by surging property prices, which Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, fears will trigger new swathes of urban slums; or perhaps clumps of flatpack existenzminimum units descended from the ‘healthy dwellings’ scheme proposed by the 1919 Weimar Constitution.
The Copper Lane tableau is an objection-cum-alternative to new-build homes whose passively accepted marketing transmutes the domestically huddled masses into bit-part players in a desirable lifestyle options scenario. Henley’s scheme is a business-not-as-usual counterfactual in the housing market; an equitable, architectural articulation of space and key details, which has set a socio-architectural benchmark for the other London co-housing schemes that are following it.
‘We won the job because we said we would make the whole thing speak of communality,’ says Henley. ‘Most co-housing is separate houses with one communal space. It’s got nothing to do with being together. This whole process has been a fantastic example of human nature – everything from selfish to selfless.’
Henley, intent on maximising internal light and outlooks, anchored the homes to three communal elements: a central upper courtyard; a shared activity and washroom segment beneath it on the ground floor, toplit from two glazed upstands in the courtyard’s brick paving; and a girdle of open space around three sides of the building. Ergo, two kinds of outlook for each home, and two kinds of communal space.
Pairs of three-level homes are set at the north and south corners of the building, with the two-level homes at the east and west corners. This produces two raised corner elements, with flat and pitched faceted roofs facing each other diagonally across the brick-paved courtyard deck. Both the two-level homes have angled light-cannons at the outer corners of their roofs – something of a Henley trademark, which can be traced back to his 2002 prison proposal, and his 2004 extension of Caldicott prep school in Buckinghamshire.
The scheme has been assiduously ‘de-blocked’, with elevations that segue from angular to rectilinear, and from brick to timber in a plan without long external walls. The outward-facing elevations, clad in narrow, heat-cured vertical timber boards, are divided into three horizontal segments by two timber cornices – viva Louis Kahn’s Fisher House.
The timbering switches to wider vertical boards and oversized 44 x 44mm battens on elevations facing the courtyard. This more relaxed treatment contrasts strongly with the chalky Wienerberger brick elevations, particularly as seen from the lane alongside the western house, which is hunkered into the sloping ground. From here, two small details literally stick out: the bottom two steps of the stairs protrude into the alley; and a concrete window shelf for plants runs beneath the full width of an upper window.
The courtyard is reached by steps up from the lane, or from the landscaped ground on the east side; the shared internal ground-floor activity space is entered from the alley or the east side of the site, and from the ground floors of the six homes. Despite its unremarkable materials, the courtyard generates a modest gravitas: alternate brick and timber elevations rise from it, there’s a curved metal perimeter railing along the western edge, and carefully inflected house-to-house viewing angles.
I was shown two of the three-level homes, and their interiors are well composed – locked around pale high-skirted ‘object’ staircases in plywood and oak. The rooms’ proportions and qualities of light are excellent, and the use of re-tailored sections of well-made Scandinavian patio door glazing units for the larger windows is novel and highly effective.
The architectural thoughtfulness of the scheme as a whole – in what is essentially an experimental self-build exercise – makes a mockery of the faux-luxurious mediocrity of most supposedly high-spec ‘architect-designed’ housing. Why can’t the Copper Lane homes be one intelligent, design-led model for land-efficient private sector housing?
A final, slightly surprising fact: Henley developed the design by working through iterations of plans and elevations; model-making was secondary. This makes his ability to imagine 2D outlines as 3D outcomes impressive – but, ultimately, intensely and ambitiously rational.
‘To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation,’ said Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy, ‘is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.’ He also said: ‘Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.’ Simon Henley’s design for the Copper Lane settlement, and those who live in it, constitute a small but resonant object-lesson in the constructive powers of those oscillating conditions.
Our clients shared an interest in a way of living that would allow them as a group to have more interaction with each other than was afforded by regular terraced housing, where the public sphere ends at the front door. They sought companionship, mutual support and refuge from the alienating effects of modern life. The six homes range from 70m² to 155m², along with a laundry, workshop, 50m² hall for parties, yoga and workspace, and communal gardens,which they would plant, on a 990m² site. The scheme as a whole is 795m².
- Simon Henley, HHbR
The ground conditions presented a challenge for the foundations for this project. The site investigation revealed a significant thickness of loose made ground close to 4m in depth above the medium dense Hackney gravels. As is to be expected for made ground on a site that had previous industrial use, there were also elevated levels of contaminants in the ground.
The initial site investigation recommendations for foundations were to excavate down to the gravels for the foundations or to consider piling. Mass concrete strip foundations down to the gravels would have required excavation of a significant amount of contaminated ground, with the consequent environmental impact of transport and disposal as well as increased health and safety risks. Deep foundations would also have significant costs. This led to the search for a more economical solution.
The lower floor level is about 1.5m below the previous made ground level. This means that the made ground underneath is relieved of this load when it is excavated.
The building, although up to three storeys high, is of lightweight timber frame construction. The concern with foundations within the loose made ground is that there could be excessive differential settlement across the building which could cause distress to the superstructure.
A solution was sought which would add minimum weight to the base level, yet have maximum stiffness to allow for an even distribution of load. A cellular raft was proposed.
This consisted of a 400mm-thick reinforced concrete raft with 270mm-diameter Cobiax void former spheres in between two layers of reinforcement. This gives the stiffness of a 400mm-thick reinforced concrete raft with only the weight and material usage of a 270mm-thick raft. It also combines the function of the lower ground floor slab with that of the foundation.
This solution resulted in a net increase in average load on the ground at the founding level of only the equivalent of 600mm of wet soil. A settlement analysis was carried out based on data from the site investigation and maximum settlement values of 5mm were predicted.
The made ground is not a homogenous material and a certain amount of variability can be expected. A potential concern in such soft ground would be hard spots caused by obstructions, such as historic foundations, or buried structures.
To minimise this risk and to test the variability of the made ground, further dynamic probe testing down to the level of the gravels was carried out. This revealed no hard spots and generally uniformly low blow counts down to the depth of the gravels. In order to minimise short-term settlement on loading, the formation level was also proof rolled prior to blinding and waterproofing for the raft.
A thorough investigation of the fill material, a light but stiff cellular raft, a partly buried lower ground floor and a lightweight superstructure came together to allow for an economical raft foundation solution with minimum embodied carbon.
- Carl Bauer, Rodrigues Associates
We sought a typology that could manifest the idea of communality.
We were acutely aware of the extent to which housing, at least in the UK, was only talked about in functional terms. So, we were keen to design interiors that were for habitation pure and simple.
We explored many typologies. The first covered the site with a ‘mat’ from which courtyards were carved. The second scattered pavilions in an open garden. The third, a ‘villa’, envisaged a Gordian knot of multistorey variously orientated and interwoven apartments. All spoke of communality, but only rhetorically. Another envisaged a ring of cells – one for each in the group – around the edge of the land. These framed a central garden in which, attached to the ring, stood six ‘living’ houses. Finally, we settled on the cluster – an arrangement that placed dwellings around a raised court and sunken hall. This, in particular seemed to reflect more accurately the emotional needs of individuals who, in a group, might congregate at a centre and withdraw to a perimeter.
The two two-storey houses were located east and west of the hall, the four three-storey houses north and south, reconciling the discrepancy between the orientation of the site and the path of the sun. We then asked the group to decide who would live where, and only then designed the houses.
The project is a built piece of research. It is an amalgam. Six houses, one building, sharing the qualities of the site in a negotiated form of egalitarianism.
- Simon Henley, HHbR
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