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Raising the game: Bell Phillips’ housing in Thurrock

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Two public schemes, The Echoes and Bracelet Close, have created exemplars for the Essex borough, says Robert Bevan


The opening of the London Gateway deep-water port in Thurrock won’t, by itself, reinvigorate the brackish, low-horizoned world where Essex meets the Thames. Automation and containerisation mean that the vanished jobs that left waterside towns like Grays deindustrialised and eviscerated haven’t returned in great numbers. 

In 2012, Thurrock came bottom of the government’s national survey of well-being. Residents often didn’t consider their lives worthwhile. Anxiety levels were among the highest outside the capital. 

To build here in the hope of making a difference is challenging. Architecture can create or hinder the conditions for robust communities to emerge but it can’t substitute itself for a community. Unemployment may be falling but remains multi-generational, and Brexiteer bitterness and anti-immigrant sentiment is rife. UKIP is strong locally and loves to fly the St George’s flag at any opportunity.

Better affordable housing is a more useful response and the council is one of a number – mainly in London and the South East – that has set up development companies to circumvent central government rules that militate against council house building or to step in where rock-bottom land values mean the private sector turns its nose up or tries to get away with the shittiest design quality.  

Nearby Barking & Dagenham is planning more than 42,000 homes over 15 years through its various delivery vehicles. Neighbouring Newham has set up Red Door Ventures. 

Thurrock’s housing projects have as their starting point existing estates whose urban design is problematic and wasteful

Thurrock has a target of 1,000 new affordable homes a year for five years. It already owns more than 10,000. At St Chad’s, Tilbury, the council’s publicly-owned development arm, Gloriana, has employed architect Bell Phillips to build 128 new homes for sale and rent in a series of terraces and courtyard houses that are now on site. 

It wasn’t a commission that came out of nowhere. Under its innovative housing director Barbara Brownlee (who has since moved on to the City of Westminster), Thurrock had already commissioned Bell Phillips (pre-dating Gloriana) to undertake a series of housing projects that have as their starting point existing estates whose urban design is problematic and wasteful. 

Bell Phillips director Melissa Dowler explains that the baseline was the practice’s survey of 67 estates and sites used to create a matrix that determines which sites, using a combination of land values, unused garage blocks, accessibility and other indices, were the best candidates as exemplars for change. 

The Echoes project on the Seabrooke Rise Estate near Grays station came out top. It is one of two very different recently completed courtyard schemes.

Apart from some point blocks, the late 1960s estate is, for the most part, a series of parallel blocks; bungalows alternating with double-decker maisonettes with derelict garage blocks at right angles. Brown brick and weatherboard make a mockery of the Essex Design Guide. Site cabins served as a community centre. It is a mess of front-back conflicts and unclaimed space. There’s barely a proper street anywhere. 

After successful consultations with the estate tenants, who persuaded the council that a new community centre should form part of the brief, a garage block and the site cabins have been replaced with 53 affordable dual-aspect flats contained within three London stock brick blocks that form three sides of a gated courtyard in a move to create three public street frontages. The development is of mostly of three storeys, rising to four in part. The final side of the courtyard is the boundary fence of a railway cutting on the line to the port. Questionably, the decision was taken to animate the courtyard by accessing the ground floor units from that side, rather than to activate the street frontages with front doors – a change in level was in any case tricky to deal with. 

Despite spare budgets, money was ring-fenced to maintain a certain crispness, protecting key features such as the anodised and perforated fronts to the triangular balconies and the brick soffits and reveals to doors and windows. 

Inside, cost and service charge demands mean there are no lifts, but on the upper floors duplexes with commanding river views inhabit the gestural asymmetric roofs and gables that seem to echo the gables of the bungalows for the elderly nearby. Bathrooms are a thought-through step up from the usual, with tiled floors, Roca fittings, and carpeted stairwells. ‘Affordable’, here, is 70 per cent of the market rate (which is already low in the area). 

Twenty minutes away through a flat Essex landscaped punctuated by dock cranes and church towers is Corringham. The Saxon origins of this parish have been overwhelmed by a low-rise, rambling early 1970s housing estate with a weird layout of pinwheel-planned housing groups, multistorey garage blocks and alleyways running along the back garden fences of short terraces. It feels like someone gave up on a Radburn plan half-way through. As at Seabrooke Rise, front-back confusion abounds, and grim, unclaimed patches of grass and random hardstandings dominate. Some views are filled with houses but barely a window is visible in a misguided attempt to prevent overlooking. 

But this unpromising environment is comfortably-off, compared with Seabrooke Rise and many homes have been privatised under Right to Buy. 

It is projects such as these that give you hope for the future of public housing

The redundant garages made it to the top five of the Bell Phillips matrix and were initially earmarked for a shared ownership scheme before 12 affordable houses were agreed. 

Here too, with its Bracelet Close development, the practice has deployed a courtyard layout. With houses, rather than flats, set around it, it is of an entirely different character to Seabrooke Rise. The courtyard is partly sunk into an existing slope with terraces of two-bedroom homes to one side and three-bedroom homes facing each other across the private internal court. The three-bedroom houses are entered on the middle level with stairs down to double-height living areas and up to bedrooms. Two large, single-family homes make up the third and fourth sides. Upper floors have private, set-back balconies and massive picture windows with views to distant hills. 

There’s a generosity to these houses inside and out that mark them out as a cut above. Active frontages have been created by the many front doors, animating once-dead spaces around the perimeter. 

Their residents love them but they are taking more time to get used to the communal courtyard beyond the low planting beds demarking private outdoor space. Curtains are closed behind the French windows onto the court during the day. This reticence may change as the weather warms and toddlers roam safely in and out. Hopefully this architecture is supporting an incipient community. 

Back at Seabrooke Rise, the very process of creating the more conventional Echoes has reinvigorated the residents for whom Bell Phillips has built a handsome new Community House in the form of an archetypal house with a large picture window onto the street. The idea is that the centre can become financially independent by hiring out rooms for parties and catering for off-site events in its large commercial kitchen. But it has been sitting completely empty for many months while the council wrangles over the lease. 

Lease issues aside, it is projects such as these that give you hope for the future of public housing. It can be done and done well. More housebuilding and less flag-waving, please. 

Kilo 0198 0009

Kilo 0198 0009

Source: Kilian O’Sullivan

The Echoes

The Echoes – project data

Start on site Summer 2014
Completion February 2016
Gross internal floor area 5,695m2
Form of contract NEC3
Architect Bell Phillips Architects
Client Thurrock Council Housing Department 
Structural engineer Morgan Tucker
M&E consultant Atkins
Quantity surveyor Measur
Service engineer Atkins
Landscape designer Anna French Associates
Sustainability/code ssessor Atkins
Arboricultural impact assessment D F Clark Bionomique
Project manager Faithful and Gould
CDM co-ordinator Faithorn Farrell Timms
Approved building inspector
Thurrock Council Building Control Department
Main contractor Wilmott Dixon
CAD software used Bentley MicroStation

Architect’s view

The Echoes is the first development in an ambitious new housing program for Thurrock Council which aims to provide exemplar new homes as a catalyst for the regeneration of Thurrock’s housing market, increasing the quality and quantity of development by illustrating the high standards that can be achieved.

Situated in Grays, bounded to the north by a railway line and to the south by an existing estate, the site – formerly occupied by garages – presented a number of constraints on development. The building footprint and form is derived out of a direct response to these constraints. Fifty-three flats are arranged in three linear blocks across the site, pulling away from the railway line to reduce the acoustic impact and create a secure communal garden, while pushing tight against the southern and western boundaries of the site to create an active two-sided street with the existing estate.  In elevation, the playful roof form ducks and climbs – creating a distinctive architectural language while ensuring that existing properties receive adequate daylight.

A pared-back palette of materials is focused on quality and durability; London stock brick brings texture and variation, contrasting with anodised aluminium balconies. The warmth of the zinc standing seam roof complements both the brickwork and the balconies. 

In addition to providing affordable homes, the brief was expanded, through consultation with existing residents, to provide a new community centre to replace the inadequate site cabins that the local community group occupied on site. The new centre was given a location at the north-west side of the estate, elevating the prominence of the building by creating a physical presence both within the estate and the wider townscape. It was an important move both in terms of the integration of the estate with the wider community and also for ensuring the future financial security of an important community asset.

Melissa Dowler, director, Bell Phillips Architects

Landscape designer’s view

The courtyard garden provides a calm and peaceful space for relaxing and informal play. The planting is a mixture of native and non-native grasses, perennials and bulbs to provide a naturalistic woodland-style planting scheme. Italian Alder trees were selected as street trees for their tall, upright shape, drought-resistance and year-round beauty. Native shrubs around the boundary of the site provide food and shelter for birds and insects.

Anna French, landscape designer

Balcony detail

The echoes balcony

The echoes balcony

The distinctive triangular balcony design, the topography and the height of The Echoes allows the development to look over the existing estate to the Thames beyond, and to express a connection between the building and the river.  

The cantilevered concrete balconies are clad in perforated and corrugated anodised aluminium panels. The perforations allow for the balcony appearance to constantly shift from opaque to translucent as you move around the façade, whilst the corrugations add visual interest and give the aluminium a greater rigidity ensuring that the panels are durable and robust. The cladding panels are mounted onto a galvanised steel frame fixed at the base into the pre-cast concrete slab. Rainwater drains freely through the timber decking and is directed away from the building façade via a continuous cast in channel in the slab to a fabricated aluminium spigot at the front of the balcony.  An anodised aluminium soffit panel is fixed to the underside of the slab to complete the balcony design.

The distinctive colour of the balconies was carefully chosen to complement the colour of the brickwork whilst the anodised smooth metallic finish is designed to contrast with the rough textured finish of the brick façade. 

Bell Phillips Architects

Bracelet Close – project data

Start on site May 2015
Completion December 2016
Gross internal floor area 1,182m2
Form of contract NEC3 (with traditional procurement options)
Architect Bell Phillips Architects
Client Thurrock Council Housing Department 
Structural engineer Morgan Tucker
M&E consultant Atkins
Quantity surveyor Measur
Service engineer/Sustainability/code assessor Hilson Moran
Development consultant Pod Partnership
Project manager Faithful+Gould
CDM co-ordinator Faithorn Farrell Timms
Approved building inspector
Thurrock Council building control department
Main contractor Wilmott Dixon
CAD software used Bentley MicroStation and Autodesk Revit

Bracelet close 1

Bracelet close 1

Bracelet Close, Thurrock

Bracelet Close – architect’s view

These new homes for affordable rent have been designed around the community’s demand for houses, rather than flats. Two and three-bedroom homes have been set out in a courtyard arrangement, providing active frontages and passive surveillance to the surrounding streets and pathways. Each has a private patio, upper floor terrace, and access to a large communal courtyard. 

The principal material is brick, selected to give a real sense of permanence and articulated in bold, cubic forms, with variation of colour and texture to give richness and visual interest. Large picture windows are set within deep reveals, providing excellent daylighting and views to the countryside beyond. Windows, rainwater goods, terrace screens and wall copings share the same dark grey colour, emphasising the scheme’s simplicity. 

Jamie Campbell, associate, Bell Phillips Architects

Bracelet close siteplan

Bracelet close siteplan

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