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Discordant murmurs trouble Accordia’s idyll

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The residents association at the Stirling Prize-winning Accordia housing development is looking to protect its architectural integrity against extempore changes, writes Merlin Fulcher

It was only five years ago that Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Alison Brooks Architects and Maccreanor Lavington won the Stirling Prize for their redevelopment of a leafy ex-Ministry of Defence site on the city’s fringe.

With only its first phase complete, Countryside Properties’ scheme was commended as ‘high-density housing at its very best’, proving volume housebuilding could combine profit and quality.

‘People talk about Accordia a lot,’ says Hilary Lowson – a European urbanism expert and joint secretary of the residents association. ‘They talk about the park, the trees, the shared green space and the community.’

Today, the 9.5 hectare regeneration has fleshed out – the later phases completed by Redeham Homes – and is occupied by more than 1,000 residents, spread across 378 privately owned, shared ownership and socially rented houses.

But do the highly paid professionals and the social housing inhabitants endorse the citation which made their homes a showcase for modern communal living? And why are some residents seeking to have their homes protected by an Article Four directive?

Described as a ‘post-Thatcherite development that is not afraid of communal aspirations and aesthetics’, by the Stirling Prize judges, research by Jamie Anderson of the University of Cambridge concluded that Accordia residents were more likely to know their neighbours by first name and associate community with wellbeing than inhabitants of a comparable estate nearby.

We know more people here than we did after 25 years living in the suburbs

Lowson agrees: ‘We know more people here than we did after 25 years living in the suburbs in London. People talk to each other and everybody you pass will say something.’

Community activities promoted by the residents association have included a cycle-powered cinema, a ‘green gym’ patrol gardening the site’s periphery and the transformation of a World War II pillbox into a bat habitat.

‘Getting people involved is a good way of saying this is our environment and we own it,’ explains Lowson. ‘We don’t want graffiti on [the pillbox] anymore; we want it to be a bat hotel.’

Retired structural engineer Nigel Harris suggests residents consciously ‘buy into’ the area’s communal ethos and are ‘all outgoing and social, not territorial people’. Despite this, the residents association – comprising mostly homeowners – admits it has failed to engage affordable housing residents in its activities.

Robert Parkinson, a resident and historic buildings architect with English Heritage, suggests non-participation indicates happiness with the status quo but also blames the ‘dominance’ of some association members for affordable residents’ ‘reticence’. An unnamed private resident suggests a more entrenched divide: ‘Some of the best and most decent people live in the social housing side. The anti-social residents are the people playing classical music at three in the morning.’

There is a bit of an “us and them” situation. It’s a different type of people and I suppose money comes into it

Despite some mixing, tenure groups remain separate at community events, observes Jane, a mother who moved into Accordia’s affordable housing from a small home above a shop on a busy road. She says: ‘There is a bit of an “us and them” situation. It’s a different type of people and I suppose money comes into it.’

Nevertheless, most residents praise the neighbourhood’s large, green, open spaces, described by the Stirling judging panel as ‘a new model for outside-inside life’.

On the day of my visit, despite the freezing winter, schoolchildren play in the mews streets as early evening dusk falls.

‘It is nicer and safer for children,’ says Jane. Her neighbour Nathalie, whose partner is practising electric guitar, agrees: ‘It is like a little bubble, there are a lot of parks for children.’

Since its phased completion between 2006 and 2011, property prices have soared. Stewart Chipchase of Savills claims this is due to Accordia’s large space standards, proximity to Cambridge station and local independent schools.

He says: ‘I sold two town houses there last year for £1.1 million and £1.15 million. That’s a 45 per cent increase in value.’

Private residents say the quality of the design and the build represents value for money. ‘For accommodation and fittings and location it’s a pretty good deal,’ says one. Another adds: ‘They’ve gone up in price, and that speaks for itself.’

Residents in ‘affordable’ dwellings were more critical of build quality.

Jimmy Simpson of Cambridge practice 5th Studio complains that his shared equity home – completed in a later phase by Redeham Homes – loses heat quickly.

The bathroom started leaking just after the defects period finished

He adds: ‘The bathroom started leaking just after the defects period finished and some neighbours have had some problems with steam in their attics, which caused mould.’

‘To be honest the places are not that much better than elsewhere,’ says resident Stephanie Brook. ‘The walls are paper-thin and I get noise from neighbours. The boiler plays up a bit.’

Her neighbour, Jane, adds: ‘The outlook isn’t very exciting, with a bin store opposite.’ The council now supplies four wheelie bins, compared with two when Accordia was designed. Commenting on the design, Jane adds: ‘We are overlooked in every window, the kitchen and a bedroom and at the back into a bedroom and the living room.’

Architect resident Paul Drew, with family and friends, ‘goes round wombling’ for want of council litter-picking services and he complains that without traffic wardens, the neighbourhood has become a magnet for free parking.

In addition, the cherished streets and parks are in a limbo of neglect, with the relevant local authorities still yet to accept ownership after years of wrangling over adoption.

‘They look like a prairie or marshland and are wrecked with potholes,’ explains Drew.

Meet the residents

Robert and Hilary Lowson

Robert and Hilary Lowson

Hilary Lowson and her partner Robert relocated from Kingston-upon-Thames and are joint secretaries of the residents association.

‘Sadly one or two people have varnished or repainted their wood thinking they were looking after it. But the architects wanted it to fade. We want to replace like with like. We want to set out what the specification is for windows [and other materials] so that there is a list residents can refer to and, hopefully, a list of suppliers which can be available to everybody. It is very vulnerable because the look of the place depends on the uniformity of the  features. Once they start to change, that degrades the visual impact of the place.


Nigel Harris

Nigel Harris

A former structural engineer and violin maker, Harris and his partner relocated from Islington to Accordia four years ago.

‘Some control is necessary to protect the design; it’s not important to protect the internal layout. It’s most important we don’t get to the stage where people decide to glass over their terraces and when wood on shutters starts to wear down we don’t get people thinking its scruffy and deciding to paint them. The painting of covered porches, glazing-in of balconies and terraces – it’s not inconceivable one can do it well, but you wouldn’t want everyone doing the same thing and having glazing companies putting up white plastic rooms.’


Robert Parkinson

Robert Parkinson

An historic buildings architect with English Heritage, Parkinson’s other home is a Grade II*-listed Augustinian abbey in Bicester, but he purchased an apartment in Accordia to be nearer his place of work.

‘In Accordia’s expensive houses, which are uniform, the owners feel no desire to personalise, which is quite different to social housing, where owners feel need to personalise and have chosen to stain the cedar boarding. This is quite subversive of the uniformity and unnecessary. We all have social customs which we signal to our peers. There are conventions too about how we use our houses and the spaces outside where we live. These are not shared by all of society.’


Jimmy Simpson

Jimmy Simpson

A job at 5th Studio’s Cambridge office saw architect Jimmy Simpson and his partner, a clinical psychologist, relocate to a shared equity home in Accordia.

‘We have a lot more space but the place is severely hyped and everyone knows it is because of phase one. The private dwellings have space at many levels which works well due to larger grain. But the social and shared ownership homes designed with the same idea feel less successful because of privacy and overlooking.  A lot of people are disappointed when they move here because it is actually quite ordinary as well as being exceptional. They are surprised when they realise there are some rough edges.’


Bruce and Sheila Stuart

Bruce and Sheila Stuart

Architect Bruce Stuart and his US-born partner Sheila Stuart – a Liberal Democrat councillor on Cambridge City Council – took up residence 18 months ago.

‘Moving to Accordia has improved our quality of life. It’s very much down to the architecture. We moved from a typical Victorian end-of-terrace house, which typically ate up a lot of energy. We feel that there is much more of a community here than in our previous neighbourhood. There is a sense of belonging here. You feel to some extent in control of your own environment, that you can make things happen and change things.’


The conservation debate

Residents of Stirling Prize-winning Accordia in Cambridge have mounted an audacious bid to list the housing development and win conservation area status

Source: Merlin Fulcher

Residents of Stirling Prize-winning Accordia in Cambridge have mounted an audacious bid to list the housing development and win conservation area status

Accordia’s original architects welcome the residents association’s bid to protect the development through stringent conservation area controls.

Richard Lavington of Maccreanor Lavington – which designed one quarter of the housing – says: ‘The community has great pride in Accordia and I think an Article Four directive is an interesting way of dealing with it.’

Cambridge planners wanted a development based on SPAN housing, where covenants controlled maintenance and changes, explains Lavington. ‘It’s quite reasonable there should be changes, but without doubt there should be some control.’

Alison Brooks – who designed four semi-detached villas and an apartment block – says that modifications and improvements were ‘inevitable’ but basic conservation area status should ‘control this process within reasonable parameters’.

She adds: ‘Perhaps the originating architects could contribute to establishing guidelines for both the Cambridge planners and the Accordia community.’

Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley – masterplanner and architect behind most of Accordia’s housing – argues the development was ‘reliant on a degree of architectural coherence’ and it was therefore ‘understandable that the majority of residents want to maintain this ethos and identity.’

Bradley says existing planning restrictions provided ‘enough opportunities for adaption and alterations’ adding that conservation status ‘could be an easier way’ of further protecting Accordia’s ‘special qualities’.

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