The government's housing target is to achieve 4.4 million new households between 1991 and 2016, only 40 percent of which will be permitted on greenfield sites. This presents the formidable challenge of maximising the re-use of brownfield locations to accommodate the remaining 60 per cent. David Levitt of Levitt Bernstein Associates, a practice with many years' experience in housing design, believes that a recent scheme of affordable housing for rent, designed by the practice at Blackstock Road in Finsbury Park, North London, for a local housing association, offers some useful guidelines.
The site was occupied by a warehouse belonging to the removal firm Pickford's. Levitt Bernstein originally intended to demolish the warehouse, but this would have resulted in a new development subject to the local udp (Unitary Development Plan) yielding only 20 low-cost units (two bedrooms on average) on a relatively expensive 3ha site. Levitt believes the udps governing issues such as density throughout the uk need 'serious updating' because of their uniformity and inflexibility, regardless of local circumstances.*
In this case, by applying for planning permission for 'conversion' of the existing premises at Blackstock Road, it became possible to retain certain sections of the outer shell of the warehouse as a four-storey block of maisonettes, thus avoiding the udp's constraints on height and density and, most importantly, the distance between principal windows of different dwellings. An open part of the site, close to the road, was developed as a mixture of single houses and small flats, the shape of the block being determined by daylight and sunlight criteria in relation to surrounding houses.
This 'radical conversion' approach enabled Levitt Bernstein to retain the existing walls of the warehouse and to build single-aspect blocks up against the site boundaries (permission for a new building contiguous with the boundaries would not have been granted). The residents of houses backing on to the site were opposed to the scheme initially, but could hardly object to the existing warehouse walls within which all the housing was fitted. The very few windows in the rear boundary wall are angled away from adjoining gardens, and stairwell openings are infilled with opaque glass blocks. Building within these existing boundaries creates a sense of enclosure, increases security and, most importantly, saves space.
Conventionally, udps set the distances between facing windows at approximately 22-25m but, by producing a notional conversion, Levitt Bernstein was able to reduce this distance to 18m in crucial places and Levitt would not regard even this distance as sacrosanct. He points out that in many highly valued parts of London - Hampstead or Soho - houses were often set far closer. At the Royal Free Square development, also in Islington, Levitt Bernstein produced an award-winning scheme containing a short street section between three-storey houses only 8m apart.
Lifts are a constant source of problems in housing. Here, access to upper maisonettes in a four-storey block (intended for use by couples without children) is via shared external stairs. However, dwellings designated at planning stage for families which include members with disabilities have been fitted with private lifts. This arrangement spares tenants the expense of lift service charges.
The scheme provides one-bedroom flats for single tenants with special needs who share a communal laundry supervised by a caretaker - another saving of space and fit-out cost. Given the length of the borough's housing lists and the popularity of this urban location, there is no danger of any of these specially designed units becoming redundant or hard to let even when the present tenants move.
The housing at Blackstock Road is of a high standard, especially bearing in mind the use of a design-and-build contract. It has balconies or patios for all units and thoughtful detailing of individual elements; single houses close to the road are stepped on plan for privacy, and the rear elevation of the former warehouse retains industrial echoes of its former use. In style the client wanted a design which would prevent vulnerable and disadvantaged people from feeling like architectural guinea-pigs, as has so often happened with local-authority and housing-association housing in the past.
Government housing grants have dropped by as much as 30 percent in recent years. In many cases this has led to a decline in quality and the standard of housing association developments. Levitt believes it is sensible to increase density on brownfield sites such as Blackstock Road, thereby enabling the client to spread the site cost among a larger number of dwellings and gaining more to spend on design and construction. Here, the normal maximum permitted density of 250 habitable rooms per hectare has been increased by almost 50 per cent to 366 hr/h. Thus Blackstock Road has achieved almost 50 percent more accommodation than the udp norm, a total of 38 units. Levitt believes that local authorities should draw lessons from this project for future developments on other brownfield sites.
*Density in Land Use Planning, by Llewelyn-Davies, architect, planning & health consultant, published by detr, 1998.