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Essex and the city

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PCKO has designed timber-framed, innovative housing near Harlow in Essex, which aims to create the impression of living in London's Docklands - at a much lower price

Whatever the failings of Victorian houses, one reason that people love them is for their versatility. Generous proportions and a degree of over-design mean that you can knock holes through them, install modern services and, however much of a compromise may be involved, fit those buildings of the 19th century for use in the 21st.

More recent housing design, carried out by developers keen to shave every possible crumb off specification and cost, has been far more prescriptive, with buildings too often intended to suit the needs of a snapshot in time, with no concern for the future.

This may be blamed on the market, on purchasers' price requirements, or on the process of development.

Housing by PCKO, currently under construction at New Hall, near Harlow in Essex, demonstrates just how differently things can happen when an imaginative architect is teamed with a forward-thinking developer - and the restrictions that current methods of working impose.

The practice has a mixed portfolio that includes a fair slice of housing, and also projects such as the Swansea foyer scheme, where budgets are tight and the inevitable compromises of design and build have to be made. It is serious about environmental issues and, although it would not be foolish enough to commit itself to working always with one material, it has a good track record of constructing with timber and of researching new ways in which it can be used.

Hall or nothing It was appointed to design the third stage of housing at New Hall, following a competition. New Hall is a unique development in that it is a private scheme driven by an inexperienced but motivated client keen to see an imaginative and sustainable result, not just the largest financial return. The client in fact consists of 13 members of a family that inherited the land, now available for development.

In an approach that has won plaudits from government and from CABE, the client first of all commissioned a masterplan from Roger Evans Associates, which included a colour palette produced by colour guru Tom Porter. Not only were acceptable materials and colours determined, but the masterplan also took an unusual approach to road layout and planting, in an attempt to tame the dominance of the car. The concept behind the development is that it is for people who may aspire to live in London's Docklands but can't afford to do so, especially once they have families. Although the bright lights of Harlow scarcely compare to the best that east London has to offer, it is true that transport links are good and property prices relatively low.

The first part of the scheme was developed by Barratts, and included some twee pseudo-cottages that were certainly not in tune with the developer's vision. For the next stage it therefore held a competition, appointing Proctor Matthews and then Copthorne Homes to carry out the project.

For phase three it followed a similar procedure, this time selecting PCKO and marrying it with Cala Homes.

PCKO's commission is for a total of 74 dwellings, in a mixture of family homes, maisonettes, apartments and live-work units.

It has come up with a solution that offers a varied but harmonious scene, with a domestic feel but high density, plenty of balconies, and the delight of several high-ceilinged spaces and integral glazed conservatories.

Central to all this is a concept that PCKO has developed of the 'living wall'. This is the idea that all the service and storage elements should run through the building in one straight zone, making upgrading and replacement much simpler. The zone is in fact notional, rather than structural, although it is expressed on the outside of the building with dark blue-coloured metal panels running from top to bottom of the building, and with all flues exiting through specially designed fittings. Internally, the zone is at present occupied by boilers, pipework, fuse-boxes and generous storage space, some of which could be sacrificed if the user needed a much more highly serviced environment.

In addition to the metal panels, external materials are brick and render, selected in accordance with Tom Porter's palette, with roofs of natural slate or of zinc standing seam. Everything has been considered carefully, including the siting and detailing of the bin stores.

Towering achievement As part of its project, PCKO was asked to design a feature tower and this it has done, giving it a curved rooftop reminiscent of an upturned boat. This is the only structure that is not entirely timber-framed, with the builder unwilling to accept PCKO's assertion that this could be achieved, and opting instead for blockwork on the lower floors.

The top, however, which encloses a delightful penthouse apartment, is framed in glulam beams. Copper cladding has been used on the tower. Elsewhere on the project, PCKO's Peter Chlapowski takes it as read that timber frame should have been used. 'It is much more economical for articulated architecture like this, ' he said. 'It is so much more versatile.'

This is certainly a well-considered and imaginative scheme, and it uses some highquality materials, such as the metal cladding, the render, and Velfac aluminium and timber windows. But the architect has not been well served by the housebuilder. Whereas Copthorne seems to have embraced Proctor Matthews' vision wholeheartedly, Cala has dragged its heels. There are too many 'builders' details' where they have reinterpreted the architect's instructions in a clunky manner. Bathroom and kitchen fittings are unimaginative for what are supposed to be contemporary homes, and the builder has insisted on using its standard faux-historic staircases that look ludicrously out of place.

Unpainted handrail ends butt up against glazing, some floors are in appalling condition, and, in a misinterpretation of safety requirements, the builder has stuck rough-hewn timber barriers against the elegant windows.

But though this may involve a certain amount of making good, and sensitive buyers are likely to find themselves making changes that, under the architect's original specification, would have been unnecessary, this is still a handsome development and one to applaud.

In defiance of the mantra 'location, location, location' homes are selling at prices that, although far lower than London levels, represent a considerable premium over an adjacent scheme. The 'only' difference between New Hall and its Noddy-box neighbour is the amount of thought that has gone into layout and design. New Hall seems to be finally proving the point that good design can pay.

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