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Home from the office

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A pioneering project of high-density key-worker housing by Hawkins\Brown looks set to make the most of its tight site and budget

These 208 key-worker flats comprise the first major scheme to go ahead (just starting on site) under the Housing Corporation's Challenge Funding Initiative for key-worker housing. The flats are for rent or sharedequity acquisition, a mix of one third one-bed and two thirds two-bed units.

Located at Whyteleafe in Surrey, where average house prices approach £1 million, it is one of the most problematic areas nationally for lower-paid people to find a home. In this scheme the NHS has 70 per cent nomination rights, Tandridge District Council 30 per cent.

The site lies in a valley between the main A22 road and a railway embankment, at the transition between detached houses on one side and offices on the other. It contained offices built between the 1950s and 1970s, but there is a surplus of office space in the area and these offices had been unoccupied for three to four years. By a roundabout process, the initial commercial developer retains a 0.3ha roadside plot for a budget hotel while Acton Housing Association has become the registered social landlord for the rest. Fortunately, it has been agreed the hotel will have the same external treatment as the houses, rather than being in that style that gives prefabrication a bad name.

A first planning permission had been obtained for converting the offices to 206 flats but it was an ill-fitting use for the buildings. However, this did provide the precedent for a dense, medium-rise use of the site - the council's planning guidelines for residential use pointed to 60 detached houses in such circumstances. And the 'threat' of actually implementing this inappropriate conversion scheme appears to have made people more open to the higherquality new-build scheme Hawkins\Brown is implementing. The architect particularly praised the support from the council's planning officers. In the area generally there was a certain incomprehension about how the other half lives - for example, how the occupants would manage with a car parking ratio as low as one car space per dwelling.

Site layout is much shaped by its immediate surroundings. The railway embankment is in fact more of a railway along a hillside, with dense mature trees higher than the fivestorey blocks that will back onto it, facing away from its noise.

The other blocks, of three storeys, are mostly set side-on to road and railway with their noise, opposite faces of these blocks oriented north-east and south-west. With outline dwelling plans double-banked along spine corridors, only bathrooms will miss out on good outside contact on one of these two orientations.

While this is a dense development of the 1.25ha site, block-spacing is greater than minimum and structured to give some courtyard feel to block grouping. This should be much helped by some of the existing mature trees and the landscaping plan to introduce rare native trees plus bushes and shrubs of the North Downs.

Generally, blocks are to be finished in white insulated render. Five-storey blocks will be reduced in apparent scale by the trees on the hillside behind when seen from within the site, and by their top two storeys being clad in timber boarding.

The whiteness will be relieved both by the landscaping and by coloured render at circulation nodes, faced with a filigree of horizontally slatted boarding. This will partly reveal the colour by day and be illuminated from behind by the circulation lighting at night. Roofs will be finished in sedum, softening the roofscape prospect for those in the upper floors of the fivestorey blocks.

From a tight site and a tight budget, a civilised environment of real quality appears to be emerging.

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