Buschow Henley’s Grover Close is that rare thing – generous and well-detailed social housing. But, argues Crispin Kelly, high-density developments may be depriving tenants of a real home. Photography by Andy Stagg
Buschow Henley’s Grover Close, 56 flats in four blocks on the edge of Hemel Hempstead’s old town, is dense and bold, built on the site previously occupied by just eight police houses. It’s an ambitious project; one a less talented practice would have struggled to push through a nervous planning authority for client Hightown Praetorian and Churches Housing Association.
The placing of the blocks has a Scandinavian resonance, like pavilions in a park. Pairs of blocks form L-shaped entrance courts, marked with brick. Timber cladding covers the remaining elevations, gently holding the communal gardens.
Walking round the flats, it strikes me what a good deal tenants are getting. Rooms are filled with natural light; facades are chequered with French-door windows. Rising up the blocks, apartments have views over Hemel Hempstead’s roofscape and wooded hillsides. Stair cores are brought to life with generous glazing in the short sides of the butterfly roofs. And while I abhor most government rules, space standards on which a 25 per cent grant depended make for generous, civilised flats. Particularly striking are the second bedrooms and bathrooms: most private sector developers would have halved their size.
This is housing that has been sincerely thought through and invested in. In order to achieve 144 rooms per hectare, parking is underground – a chunky, concrete world that a private developer might have engineered out. All in all, this is affordable housing that the private sector couldn’t afford.
Brave and unambiguous, the scheme’s progress through planning was typically slow. Planners panic when confronted with something different, unless a starchitect is involved. So, ‘discussions’ over more than a year produced some painful compromises, like the ‘corner feature’ on Allandale Road. When will design officers have corner features excised from their brains? Intense argument about brick and frame colours seems to have had less damaging results.
For the well-intentioned client, the delays, added to the rising cost, meant the figures were all going the wrong way. The market for shared equity, originally pencilled in for a quarter of the units, fell off a cliff: none were sold. The temptation to cut some costs was irresistible. As usual, landscaping suffered most. The sore thumb must be the bin stores, right at the block entrances. When you omit half the enclosure, you soon know too much about the rubbish. The shared ground needed a landscape architect to fulfil its potential, not just handfuls of grass seed, and the open vents of the car park and the point-scoring water butts are too blunt.
These blemishes could be addressed in due course, but what about the wider architectural ambition of placemaking? For the client, the ‘boxing and coxing’ of getting the scheme delivered (with which I am all too familiar) was enough of a challenge. For Buschow Henley, the approach to how a community might emerge from 56 flats seems a sensitive subject. I detected a shyness in project director Gavin Hale-Brown’s feelings about the standard accoutrements of benches and play spaces. There aren’t any. Nowadays children are in their bedrooms with their Gameboys, while adults are out at work. People are too busy for caring about sharing.
I have spent the past couple of years revisiting suburban communities that work well – from Port Sunlight to Corner Green in Blackheath, via Letchworth and Harlow – and shared spaces are always a key, unifying element. It’s not that communal space isn’t practical anymore, but we need to make sure it’s managed. That means someone paying for services, and the affordable housing sector isn’t well-equipped to do this. You either need to be outrageously well-endowed, or have private owners to cough up the service charge.
A less troubling ambition for most architects is saving the planet. If the old community dreams are evaporating under the advance of 3D electronic gizmos, at least some solar heating can be arranged. Grover Close offers above-standard insulation too. But the level of density achieved is the core of the manifesto: 56 units instead of eight. Multiply that around the country, problem sorted.
But this makes me nervous. Perhaps it is an efficient use of energy and materials to build densely. But is it sustainable over the long-term to give occupiers something most don’t want: flats. German architect Hermann Muthesius, in his great work Das Englische Haus (1908), said that our greatest contribution to European culture was the modest house and garden – what William Lever, at his Port Sunlight garden village in the Wirral, called ‘the cup with its saucer’. The house gives privacy and a sense of quiet independence; the garden provides a vital connection to nature.
Are frustrated flat dwellers, deprived of a special sense of home, going to hold us responsible for foisting these dense apartment developments on them? Half of all new housing is now flats. My guess is that the communal space at Grover Close will provide a barometer over the years of the wisdom of the density strategy.
Think tank Policy Exchange has done some work in this area. The usefulness of the greenbelt has been brought into question, regarding its role as a traffic generator: as developments are forced beyond the belt, so commuters have to make the drive in to work. The gardens cultivated by homeowners also provide astonishing biodiversity in comparison to public parks and communal gardens. Maybe if architects returned to volume housing, and did it better, the public would be more willing to have more land developed. But that’s another story.
When assessors visited Grover Close, drawing up the shortlist in the East region for this year’s RIBA Awards, there was a feeling that the shape-making wasn’t distinctive enough for a gong. Thank goodness. Buschow Henley’s work seems to be quietly maturing so that the shapes made are piano rather than forte. With four substantial blocks to arrange, the need on this project was for clever manipulation of dormers, balconies
and rooflines, not spaceships. Although I’m not quite sure about the proportions of the butterfly roofs, the design feel considered and rooted rather than wilful. The public gets some language with which it is comfortable
– brick, tiles and timber, straightforward built forms – even if it’s shifted and slipped to larger-than-familiar scales.
Grover Close knocks the spots off private housing. It is far better than its peers, and continues the proud tradition of superior social housing that Dickon Robinson led so fruitfully at the Peabody Trust housing association. But we need to explain vigorously why Grover Close is much better than OK, and underline the benefits of good design.
Though often a fan, I don’t follow Prince Charles’ claim that there is a ‘modernist paradigm’ in current housing development. On the contrary, most of what is built today shows a top-down insistence on the neo-vernacular, with its tricks and treats of little gables and character detailing. All is not lost, however. A tenant at Grover Close told me he hoped to buy his flat when economic conditions improved. The place passed his ‘Marmite test’ – it was sufficiently different to be either loved or hated. After all the travails of its birth, we need more people to understand why this project should be loved.
Crispin Kelly is chief executive of Baylight Properties and a former president of the Architectural Association
- To submit projects for consideration, email information and images to AJbuildings@emap.com
The brief called for a variety of one and two-bedroom flats for between two and four people, with a mix of tenure – social rent, key-worker rent and shared ownership. The client asked for maximised density, modern methods of construction and an Ecohomes ‘Very Good’ rating to secure funding, with 10 per cent renewable energy use.
Four detached pavilions are arranged in a chequerboard pattern. Contrary to common practice, which seeks to define place with tightly defined streets, here place is derived from the land itself – from the topography and the trees. The arrangement of the pavilions creates forecourts and rear courtyard gardens, marking out clear defensible space.
The blocks vary in height: two are three-storey; the other two are four-storey. Each stands on a different contour, with their height, position and roof-form creating a complex, continually changing roofline. Inside, each 18 x 18m block has four flats per floor, accessible from the car park below ground. Roof forms are predicated on the roof space being inhabited behind steep mansards linked in section by a butterfly roof, visible in the other two gable elevations.
Each block is clad in brickwork on two elevations, and in vertical timber boards on the other two. The placement of timber windows follows a pattern similar to that used to plan the scheme. Butterfly roofs conceal solar-thermal heating panels, which provide hot water on site.
Negotiations with Dacorum Borough Council continued for one year. Planners were wary of the project’s density, building heights and parking strategy. They requested a feature on the corner with the main road; a palette of materials sympathetic to Hemel Hempstead’s nearby old town; and retention of the site’s tree-lined boundary and hedgerows. Materials and colours were debated and resubmitted to planners many times before the current palette was accepted.
Method of construction
The scheme was designed to be of engineered timber panel construction, and designs were developed using the Finnforest Merk system. This offered the benefits of simple detailing and a quick programme to get weather-tight. Once on board, the management contractor changed the method of construction to loadbearing blockwork and cavity-wall construction. Floors were therefore constructed in precast concrete, with the roof a timber-rafter construction. Cavity walls are full-filled with insulation. Facades are brickwork and vertical-painted tongue-and-groove Thermowood (ultra-durable heat-treated wood). All elements achieved 15 per cent better U-values than required by the Building Regulations.
Start on site date May 2007
Completion on site November 2008
Contract duration 18 months
Gross external floor area 4,590m²
Form of contract NEC Construction Management – no main contractor
Total cost £6.57 million
Cost per m² £1,564
Client Hightown Praetorian and Churches Housing Association
Architect Buschow Henley
Structural engineer Aventus Design
Services engineer Van Zyl & De Villiers
Quantity surveyor/planning supervisor GDG Management
Annual CO2 emissions 28.8kg/m²
Dormer detail, Grover close, Buschow Henley
The design for this project utilises the full volume of each building, locating flats in the attic space created by a mansard butterfly roof. Full-height dormer windows are used, opening out on to small, private external areas between the dormer cheeks.
Dormers are an extension of the brick elevation below; facing brickwork carries up the front and wraps around the cheeks. This works to suppress the height of each building, which was an important criteria for planning. The inside of each dormer is clad in timber, with a timber deck offering external space.
To create a brick envelope supported by the timber roof structure, a timber frame is strengthened with plywood and clad in a proprietary insulated brick slip system. The flat roofs have a bitumen membrane and small aluminium copings, with openings to drain rainwater back on to the main roof. The local bricks used on lower elevations were cut down to create slips. These bricks proved quite soft, so cutting down pistol slips for the corners was a challenge.
Top-floor flats inhabit the full depth of the eaves, with ceilings stretching up to the roof ridge. This gives an exceptional volume to small flats, and allows plenty of space for storage. The dormer construction is key to ensuring the fabric’s performance is continuous across complex junctions between roof and dormer.
Claire Lützow, project architect, Buschow Henley