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A breath of fresh air

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Cherry Tree House brings new forms to a north London street. George Demetri reports

Rarely do you find as wide a range of architectural styles in a single suburban street as you do in Truro Road. At the top of this road in Bounds Green, north London, is a classical Victorian villa, further down a terrace of five Victorian houses, and still further along a large Arts and Crafts-style house divided into flats. Then comes a motley collection of more recent additions: 1960s low-rise apartments; some concrete-framed 1970s blocks; and a smart, crisp 1980s development, comprising steep roof pitches and brilliant white weatherboarding.

This eclectic mix of style and form must have seemed like a blessing to architect Sheppard Robson, commissioned by Metropolitan Housing Trust to design a sheltered housing scheme for Truro Road. Such a diversity of architectural references could either provide a rich stylistic source or justify a complete break with the past to produce something uncompromisingly bold and modern. The architect chose the latter option, giving Truro Road even greater plurality than before.

Sheppard Robson was awarded the commission as a result of previous work in the locality for Metropolitan in the early 1990s.

Completed last summer at a cost of about £2.1 million, Cherry Tree House comprises 27 sheltered flats and has already won a stream of awards. These include the London Borough of Haringey's Andy Ludlow Design Award; a 1997 Project Design Award; a 'Worth a Detour' award in the 2000 Housing Design Awards; and a 1999 Civic Trust Commendation.

Residents of Truro Road may have had a bit of a shock as Cherry Tree House gradually took form. The light, crisp building with its yellow brickwork, white render and roof terraces topped by aluminium butterfly roofs could not have contrasted more with its rather sombre neighbours in terms of scale, construction, massing, style or colour.

But in addition to a much needed breath of fresh air, the building also presents a typological dilemma, as its external expression is more that of commercial headquarters or an institution than of a domestic haven. Indeed, only the ubiquitous net curtains give passers-by a clue as to the building's domestic function. Inside, however, the story is very different.

Designed for community

The architect aimed to create a community within a cosy domestic environment, which also has slight institutional overtones to provide the elderly residents with a sense of security. Hence the outward appearance of the building.

Front and rear elevations are almost identical, apart from the three 'pavilions' that help sculpt the front: this was not possible on the garden side because of the need to accommodate an extra flat.

Plan symmetry is also broken up by the communal living space, a single-storey rear extension which has its own separate identity and serves as the hub of residents' social activities. Although formality and symmetry characterise the classical elevations, the main entrance is almost hidden in a recess on the far side of the building. Access from street level is via a Japanese-style gateway.

The elevations are so highly articulated that they seem unwilling to remain in the same plane for very long. Buff brickwork, white render and precast concrete lintels all occupy separate planes, generating shadows at every change of material. Central bays are recessed with exposed precast columns supporting the brickwork above.

Further modelling is provided by the dramatic butterfly roofs that represent the crowning glory of a richly modelled development. With their dramatic overhangs, they provide shelter from sun and rain and add a continental touch to the roof terraces of the second-floor penthouse apartments.

Spread over three floors, the spacious oneand two-bedroom flats provide the sort of accommodation that few of the residents could have found on the open market. This is particularly true of the 'penthouse' apartments on the second floor with their private roof terraces and pleasant views of the neighbourhood.

Corridors form the central backbone of each floorplate. The slightly institutional feel is mitigated by clustering entrance doorways at points where corridors widen out and by allowing kitchen windows to face onto the corridor. It all aims at promoting social interaction and gives a 'street' feeling to each level.

A continuous linear rooflight running the entire length of the building not only floods the second floor with natural daylight, but also the two floors below, thanks to inset glass blocks in the concrete floors which allow light to permeate the corridors of the lower floors. The resulting lightwells help create a light and healthy atmosphere, unfortunately rare in such schemes.

Construction materials

Walls are of standard brick and block cavity construction, except for the rendered areas, where blockwork replaces the external brickwork. Dark-grey powder-coated aluminium windows provide a stark contrast with the lightcoloured masonry construction.

The stylish butterfly roofs are clad with aluminium standing-seam roofing, and the soffits are of profiled sheeting. The thinking behind this construction was that the butterfly profile resulted in a lower roofline than that associated with a traditional pitch roof; this reduced the overall bulk of the building in relation to neighbouring properties and helped gain planning permission in what has been designated a conservation area.

Perhaps the greatest success of Cherry Tree House lies in the dynamic combination of an institutional facade with a sensitive, domestic interior. And even though it might pass as the headquarters of a pharmaceutical giant, the resulting architecture has already proved highly popular with residents. Not to mention the breath of fresh air it has brought to Truro Road.

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