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Cracking the code

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Jon Moen, with brother William, provides the vision behind the awardwinning Newhall development in Harlow, utilising design codes to bring quality to housing

John Prescott described it as having the 'wow' factor that so many housing developments lack. As the complex of 2,700 new homes at Newhall in Harlow, Essex (Timber in Architecture, AJ 27.5.04) slowly takes shape, it is apparent that this is no ordinary mass-housing scheme. Early phases by Proctor Matthews Architects and PCKO have picked up numerous awards and houses are selling fast. So what is the secret of its success?

While refreshing architecture and innovative urban design clearly play an important role, they would not have been able to flourish were it not for Jon Moen, 'hands-on' landowner and visionary who, along with his brother William, took the decision to divide the 81ha site into 10 separate plots, and put each one out to a designer/developer competition within the framework of an overall masterplan - an approach that is widely used for greenfield development in the Netherlands. The aim was to produce a varied but coherent development with a range of outstanding architecture. 'What we have done here is to free up the architect. They are usually quite shackled in conventional house development - it is a very developer-dominated environment, ' says Moen.

Originally owned by his grandfather, the site, in the guise of Newhall Farm, has passed down through the generations. The Moen brothers feel a strong connection with the land and a sense of responsibility for the development currently under way.

Their first foray into development was disappointing but arguably it was this experience that was to become the catalyst for Newhall. Ten years ago the family sold an option agreement to a developer for part of the adjacent Church Langley development. 'We had very little room to manoeuvre under this agreement, no input to the design. The result was very ordinary, not at all what we had hoped for, ' he says.

'The developer's focus was on speed and cost, not quality.'

Along with the depressing realisation that it was the 'accepted norm', Moen was particularly disturbed to find out how far down the pecking order the architect had become in the traditional arrangement. He was concerned that many developers paid scant regard to plans prepared by the architects they employed.

Often they were used as mere 'guidelines' and were simply a necessary evil to obtain planning consent.

'Newhall gave us a second chance and we wanted to make sure we really got it right, ' he says. 'We teamed up with Roger Evans, who did the masterplanning.We all inspired each other to try and be as daring as possible, to do something different.'

The Church Langley episode had not only sparked the inspiration but also provided the resources to fund the years of planning. 'Trying to push unconventional ideas through the system was extremely time-consuming. We were starting to use design codes before they were being talked about.'

While the combination of wealth and vision may portray Newhall as a kind of 'utopian playground' for the Moen brothers, it is not that simple. Jon and William are not the only landowners: 'In fact, eight members of the family and five trusts have an interest in Newhall, so we need to demonstrate that we can get the same value from the land by doing good design. If we can't demonstrate that, we will have failed.'

So far the build costs have been about 10-15 per cent higher than a conventional property in Church Langley but, says Moen, 'we have been consistently selling at 10-15 per cent higher, so the developer margin is retained. We are learning a lot about how to achieve this.'

What separates Newhall from more conventional projects is the adoption of design codes rather than house types. 'It makes more work for the architect and developer and stretches the ability of the workforce, compounding the already severe skill shortage. It can be costly, both in the organisation and actually getting it done.' But it is this very element that enables Newhall to stand out. One town square, for instance, will link four parcels of the development, bringing together four differing designs from four architects. This could be the recipe for a textbook hotchpotch but for the design codes, which incorporate a colour and materials palette derived from local sources, bringing continuity through the differing styles.

Moen expands: 'It depends, of course, what you mean by design codes. Our design codes are quite general in some ways but are very specific in areas where they need to be specific. On the other hand, we give complete freedom to the architectural design.'

Another challenge is the rate of build.

'We have done very well in getting the kinds of design we want, but we have done rather less well in increasing the rate of build. And we have to. We have to meet certain schedules set by the Local Authority. If we can't meet the targets there is a lot of pressure on the authority to grant permission to other developers to make up the shortfall.'

However, despite all the pressures of managing a project of this scale, the Moens are planning to get even more involved in the next phase by creating their own development company and essentially taking complete control. 'Even with our exhaustive selection process it has been a constant battle to get the developers to buy into the philosophy of what we are doing here.'

Asked whether he could envisage the success of Newhall being rolled out to other developments, Moen explained: 'We are working with CABE and are participating in a series of workshops to try and draw conclusions from sites that have used design codes - but it's not just using them, it's more about how you monitor and enforce them. It might not be that a private landowner would want to, or even have the resources to, get involved in the way we have. I think that there are lessons that can be learned and there are, of course, obvious opportunities for institutional landowners, hospitals, schools, etc, who could perhaps enforce design codes by writing them into the sale agreement.'

Newhall is a success - a fact reinforced by the recent 'Planning for New Neighbourhoods' award from the Royal Town Planning Institute. Having clearly found his mission in life, Moen concedes that his new life is a far cry from his training and upbringing on the farm. As if to underline this he muses: 'If I could come back again it would be as an architect.'

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