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Courtyard housing by Patel Taylor

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With waiting lists for social housing growing and capital spending stuck in an austerity rut Patel Taylor’s new elderly housing scheme is a breath of fresh air, says Owen Pritchard

There are 1.7 million people waiting for social housing in the UK. The Guardian has reported that by 2018 there are going to be a million fewer affordable homes than in 1980. In London, more than 4,000 families have been waiting more than two years to get a permanent home.

The borough of Barking and Dagenham owns about 20,000 properties – one of the highest stocks in the capital. And yet Freedom of Information requests revealed that more than 15,000 people were on the waiting list for council housing in the borough.

Last year the Labour council voted to implement a 10-year residency qualification for anyone wishing to buy a council-owned property – described by housing and development officer Darren Heneghan as ‘a necessary last resort’.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People published a report in November 2014 that presented some startling key findings: some 8 million people over 60, in 7 million homes, were interested in downsizing.

This isn’t just good council housing, it is good housing

If half did so, then 3.5 million homes – of which two-thirds are family homes with two or three bedrooms – would become available. However, the number of homes built specifically for older people has decreased from 30,000 a year in the 1980s to about 8,000 a year today. Eighty-three per cent of over-60s are owner-occupiers and the report went on to detail how the housing market might be cajoled into freeing up these larger homes.

Barking and Dagenham council’s solution is to provide new homes for older people, relocating within the borough tenants who occupied larger family homes into purpose-built, one and two-bedroom properties on brownfield sites, thus freeing up stock for families. Architect Patel Taylor was commissioned to produce the first developments, providing 40 properties across two sites, with more to follow.

The architect has designed two ‘settlements’ of council houses. The largest occupies the site of the former Wood Lane Sports Centre complex and provides 27 dwellings based on a density of 21 units per hectare. On ths site there are 10 one-bedroom properties, 16 two-bedroom properties and one three-bedroom family dwelling. All of the homes are single-storey bungalows with monopitched roofs arranged around a private courtyard, most of which open out onto a shared communal garden.

The arrangement is inspired by traditional almshouses. The layering of communal and private space will allow residents to retain a level of privacy but the architect hopes that the common landscaping will be used to engender a sense of community.

The use of brick throughout gives the development a collegiate feel, something like a gentler, less monolithic version of Harvey Court by Colin St John Wilson in Cambridge but there is also a Scandinavian flavour: architect Andrew Taylor admits Jørn Utzon’s housing in Fredensborg was an influence. It’s through the clever reinterpretation of a simple spatial strategy across the whole development that this project works.

Harvey Court, Cambridge by Colin St John Wilson

Harvey Court, Cambridge by Colin St John Wilson

Each house is wrapped in an ‘L’ shape around the private courtyard. The inner wall is glazed and can open up, should the weather allow. The roof, pitched at 30°, provides a sawtooth rhythm over the site and each house is distinguishable from the its neighbour, despite the tight material palette. During the consultation residents were keen to emphasise that they should be able to identify each house as their own.

On the extremities of the development, where oversized entrances are punched into long brick walls, a vertical recess indicates where party walls lie.

The flexible plan allows the configuration of each unit to be flipped and turned to take best advantage of sunlight and to allow living spaces to face the communal landscaping. The sense of domesticity is heightened by prominent chimneys, which are used for stack ventilation, and a large window to the living room that provides a view beyond the boundary set by the courtyard. Each unit has a generous living/dining space, separate kitchen, bathroom and either one or two bedrooms.

The use of brick throughout gives the development a collegiate feel

On a smaller site, formerly a council depot, is The Lawns. Here, Patel Taylor has used the same designs and materials but, to fit onto the tight site, the houses are offset slightly from each other in plan, so each is readable as a distinct unit, rather than sharing uninterrupted walls. Access to the site is restricted by a security gate, but the bungalows face inwards, away from the busy road to the south, and this heightens the sense of security. This isn’t just good council housing, it is good housing. The space standards are generous, though, most likely due to budget constraints, the interiors lack character.

The scale and massing is sensible. The sense of enclosure in the individual plots and across each development must be reassuring for the residents. The heavily insulated and robust units will, once the landscaping matures, become softer. This is, in Taylor’s words, ‘an attempt to make bungalows work as piece of urbanism’.

With two further developments in the works, using similar tactics, this is not a solution that will of itself solve the housing shortage in the borough, let alone the UK, but it does illustrate the role that architects, and thoughtful architecture, can play in addressing one of the key challenges of the housing crisis.

Architect’s brief

Patel Taylor was commissioned by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in August 2012 to develop a housing typology particularly suited to the needs of the over-65s on two vacant sites within the borough.

The brief was to design one and two bedroom houses that should be affordable while being owned and managed by the borough. All were required to be fully wheelchair accessible and to comply with current national and local planning policy guidance, including the Local Development Framework, HCA DesignQuality Standards, Lifetime Homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 and with the stipulation that 25 per cent of energy was to be provided by renewable sources.

As some of the first capital-funded local authority elderly persons’ housing being built for a generation, it was critical that the developments set a high benchmark for future housing within the borough.

All the residents of the new development have downsized from a larger property. A number have given three or four-bedroom houses back to the council and in some cases these have undergone adaptions. So different sectors of our community – the elderly, residents requiring family housing and those in need of an adapted property – are catered for by this development.

The homes have been built with residents’ future needs in mind. Should they at a later stage in their lives need to use a wheelchair,  they will not need to leave home. As all properties are fully accessible, this will allow the resident to have full use of their home and give them a better quality of family life for the entire tenancy of the property.

  • Marcia Kirlew, principal regeneration officer, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham

Architect’s view

There are two key components. First, the housing surrounds a communal garden or landscaped courtyard – areas of lawn and mature specimen trees. Second, the architecture is of an intimate, human scale. Dwellings are typically one or two storeys high and are given a personal scale by the ground-floor fenestration, which forms a connection to the communal spaces.

Adopting the conventional almshouse layout, we proposed a communal garden surrounded by mostly single-storey accommodation, creating a sense of community and encouraging a feeling of ownership over the public area. The landscape design integrates high-quality materials and small-scale planting of an intimate measure to soften the boundaries between the communal and private gardens. The houses were designed to be small both in mass and dimensions, and the L-shaped plan provided accommodation around a small, private courtyard.

The courtyards are typically southfacing and are punctured by a timber gate and trellis, which provides residents with a visual connection to the gardens while retaining an air of privacy. The single bay window and chimney create an impression of domesticity within and help to identify the individual homes.

The developments contrast hard external elevations with softer interiors to suggest security, while dissolving physical boundaries between dwellings to promote a sense of community.

The houses are well insulated and have been constructed form high-quality, traditional, robust materials to give a sense of permanence. The dwellings are energy-efficient, achieving Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4, and include integrated photovoltaic cells, which provide a renewable energy source for each dwelling.

  • Andrew Taylor, director, Patel Taylor


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nice to see Owen Pritchard so praising of this Patel Taylor housing typology which is so refreshing to see in the AJ. Sane and sensible and modest. The fact that the house form and clustering is almost exactly that of Utzon sixty years ago is only to Patel Taylor's credit. The prototypes were called 'the most humane 20thC housing in Scandinavia," and my experience of frequently visiting friends in one only echoes that praise; well done Patel Taylor and Barking & Dagenham for revitalising a classic.

    Why, however, your review illustrates as precedent the irrelevant if lovely Harvey Court rather than Utzon (or a traditional almshouse or Scandinavian farmstead etc), is incomprehensible.

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