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Has Hawkins\Brown's St John's Hill created a new London vernacular?

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BUILDING STUDY: If this new housing development for Peabody is what its meant by ‘biscuit architecture’ then its popularist Britishness makes it a Jammy Dodger, says Tamsie Thomson 


At the AJ100 Awards dinner last month Peter Cook, doyen of 1960s neofuturistic architecture, made a speech in which he referred to ‘biscuit buildings’ designed by ‘biscuit boys’. His speech was a rebuke to what he sees as the mundanity of current British architecture, its uninspiring ordinariness. I suspect this new housing development at St John’s Hill in London’s Clapham Junction was just the sort of building he had in mind. Constructed with ‘crumbly’ brick facades in various shades of brown, the buildings are indeed reminiscent of Hobnobs or digestives. The buildings neither shout their presence nor noticeably push the boundaries of current European architecture. 

Designed by Hawkins\Brown for Peabody, the two new buildings completed and now occupied are the first phase of a total demolition and rebuild of an existing Peabody housing estate. According to the housing association, the 1930s estate was no longer fit for use, due to its small rooms, inconvenient layouts and problems with damp and condensation. The new development, when it is complete, will provide 528 mixed-tenure new homes for both rent and sale. 

If we are to provide homes people want, then this reinterpretation of housing traditional typologies may present some answers

The site almost felt like an island, situated between Wandsworth Common to the south and Clapham Junction Station to the north, with multiple train lines creating an impassable barrier to the west. The original estate created a disruption of the Victorian street plan and effectively blocked the route between the station and the common. While technically open to pedestrians, it felt closed, due either to its layout or to its typology, and people choose to walk a circuitous route around it rather than cut through. The new masterplan for the site remakes these connections, allowing pedestrians to walk through and opening up the estate to the surrounding neighbourhood. The effect of permeability has been further enhanced by a reimagining of the traditional London street with townhouses occupying the first two or three storeys, and then flats above. The design of the elevations, with front doors on to the street and the front gardens providing defensible space, creates a route that feels and looks like the surrounding streets. Nicholas Boys-Smith of the think-tank Create Streets quotes a Mori poll that found 89 per cent of the British public prefer to live in streets as opposed to ‘towers’ or ‘modern loft apartments’. These new blocks seem successful in creating a street while achieving increased densities that will assist with current housing targets. If we are to provide homes people want, then this combination and reinterpretation of housing traditional typologies may present some answers. 

This modern reimagining of the Victorian and Edwardian typologies of terrace house and mansion block is further enhanced by the use of that ‘biscuit boy’ brick. The original 1930s estate was also predominately of brick and so it may have seemed the obvious choice; but here in its new settings it is skilfully used to create patina, interest and a sense of place. The architects have selected a range of brick types, giving each block its own identity. The block facing the railway is dark engineering brick with a more industrial feel, while the larger block facing the common is a softer toffee-brown handmade brick, with cream bricks for the window reveals and a buttery cream on the inside reminiscent of custard. Each core has its own entrance and lifts all covered with glazed bricks in a range of glossy, jam-like hues. Like much Victorian housing, this scheme has an elegant robustness that is rarely seen in modern housing developments. 

The bricks have also been used to create public art reflecting the estate’s history. Sculptor Rodney Harris has been commissioned by Peabody to create four brick sculptures based on residents’ memories, which are embedded into the fabric of the buildings. These recall the history of the site through objects such as tools, a washroom sink and clothing – a line of children’s clothing hangs slightly eerily as though emerging from the wall.

Peabody and Hawkins\Brown have worked hard to maintain the existing community within the estate. All the existing tenants will be offered a home at the same tenure within the new development. Phase 2 of the development has been subject to a revised planning application to ensure the right accommodation mix across the site for the returning tenants and, with the exception of those who lived within Phase 1, there is a commitment only to move residents once. Alongside the provision of the new homes there will be a new community centre, café and learning space within the later phases to provide social space as well as opportunities for the residents to meet. 

The development as a whole, and these blocks in particular, seem to be an attempt to create a new type of London vernacular reminiscent of the Victorian and Edwardian streets that are so popular with the public. Enhanced by brick detailing, front gardens and street layouts, these feel very much like homes, rather than housing. While some might deride this as boring, what we are creating with developments such as this is townscape and homes. If this is what is meant by biscuit architecture, then this development is definitely a Jammy Dodger. Biscuit-coloured and crumbly, but with a smooth custard interior and a shiny, jammy core. Unrepentantly popularist and quintessentially British like the Jammy Dodger, this development will be the stuff of many childhoods to come.

Architect’s view

The scheme will be delivered in three phases. Phase 1 is now complete and Phase 2 is due to start on site this year. 

The new design opens the place to its surroundings. A pedestrian avenue crosses the site, linking the station to Wandsworth Common via a new public square. The new public space sits at the development’s heart, with a community centre and Peabody offices opening on to it. At the avenue’s station end, commercial units bring the existing high street into the site. This new commercial space provides a transition from the busy town centre to the quieter domestic development. 

Each of the buildings is stylistically distinct, creating individual buildings that sit together to form a collective whole. 

Throughout the design process we have engaged with the residents’ steering group, which represents the existing community, and whose input has informed the design process. We also held a number of community consultation events with the surrounding community. From 2007 to the initial planning submission in 2012 we had regular meetings with the steering group. Since achieving planning, we have continued to meet the group and the surrounding community to discuss the scheme’s progress on site. 

Peabody and Hawkins\Brown understand the importance of maintaining, protecting and extending existing successful communities though considerate regeneration. This commitment was shown in 2015 when Peabody realised that the proposed housing mix, appropriate in 2012, could no longer accommodate the changing circumstances of the existing community. Following Peabody’s instruction we redesigned a number of the buildings in the scheme’s second phase to ensure this evolving community can remain. 

Iain Cochran, associate, Hawkins\Brown

St John's Hill by Hawkins\Brown

St John’s Hill by Hawkins\Brown

Engineer’s view

Max Fordham’s work included strategic and detailed design advice for MEP, acoustics and sustainability. 

Peabody’ 21st-century vision puts a climate change mitigation strategy at the heart of all new construction and refurbishment projects. St John’s Hill embraces this aspiration and includes a sustainability agenda that pushes past regulatory minimum standards; all homes achieve Code for Sustainable Homes level 4. A key focus of the site’s energy strategy was to reduce utility bills and so minimise the risk of fuel poverty. 

A centralised energy centre incorporating combined heat and power (CHP) generates heat for the entire site, distributed through a district heating network. This has been designed to minimise distribution losses, while the CHP has been sized to ensure its economic viability. A significant proportion of electrical demand will be supplied by large arrays of roof-mounted photovoltaic panels. 

The site is next to the busiest railway line in Europe, with more than 2,000 trains passing each day, causing very high levels of noise and vibration. A key challenge for our acoustic team was to deliver acoustic comfort within the homes adjacent to railway. Following extensive noise and vibration surveys, Max Fordham established the enhanced requirements for both facade performance and building vibration isolation to meet the stringent planning requirements. We worked closely with the design team to develop bespoke, acoustically attenuated ventilators for facades most exposed to train noise. These allow residents to benefit from free cooling while reducing external noise intrusion. 

David Sinclair, M&E engineer, Max Fordham

St John's Hill by Hawkins\Brown

St John’s Hill by Hawkins\Brown

Client’s view

At St John’s Hill we are opening up the estate to the surrounding neighbourhood and creating a new through route from Wandsworth Common north to Clapham Junction station. We have recreated the street by having two and three storey townhouses at ground-floor level overlooking the street, with flats above.

We worked closely with the architect to select the bricks; using a range of types to give each block its own identity. The townhouses have a separate identity, achieved by using cream brick around the window reveals, echoing the Victorian terraces of the surrounding streets. We used an engineered brick against the railway, giving a more industrial feel; and a softer handmade brick along the south side of the site facing the common.

It was important to reflect the estate’s history, which is why we commissioned brick sculptures based on residents’ memories, which have been embedded into the fabric of the buildings. We also wanted to maintain the community on the estate, and make sure all the existing residents could have a home in the new development. To achieve this we worked with the architect to submit a revised planning application for Phase 2, to ensure that we had the right accommodation mix for our residents.

Cathy Bacon, senior development manager, Peabody

St John's Hill by Hawkins\Brown

St John’s Hill by Hawkins\Brown

Phasing plan

Hawkins brown phasing plan

Hawkins brown phasing plan

Phase one plans

Hawkins brown phase one plans

Hawkins brown phase one plans


Hawkins brown facade detail

Hawkins brown facade detail

Project data

Start on site 2014 (phase 01)
Completion 2016 (phase 1), 2020 (all phases)
Gross internal floor area 14,500m² (phase 01), 58,700m² (all phases)
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost £40 million (phase 1) £120 million (all phases)
Construction cost per m² £2,400/m² (all phases)
Architect Hawkins/Brown
Client Peabody
Structural engineer Ellis & Moore
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Gleeds
Project manager Gleeds
CDM coordinator Baily Garner
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor John Sisk & Son
CAD software used Vectorworks, Sketchup

St John's Hill by Hawkins\Brown

St John’s Hill by Hawkins\Brown


Plot 01 brick
Vande Moorteel Oakwood, Wienerberger Staffordshire Smooth bricks and Wienerberger Glazed brick in red and orange with natural mortar M3AN000 from CPI 

Plot 04 brick
Janinhoff STP-UK-10C glatt with dark mortar M3PNX113 from CPI and Wienerberger Glazed brick in yellow with natural mortar M3AN000 from CPI

Plot 05 brick
Janinhoff STP-UK-8C glatt with dark mortar M3ANBFS022 from CPI and Wienerberger Glazed brick in salmon with natural mortar M3AN000 from CPI 

Landscape brick
Vande Moortel Septima Salvia with natural mortar M3AN000 from CPI 

PPC Aluminum composite windows with timber internal frame from Rationel 

Communal doors

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