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The completion of the first phase of ECD Architects' social housing in south London is a good occasion to assess its aim of creating 'an exemplar of sustainable urban regeneration'

In 1999 the London Borough of Southwark decided to replace its housing at Cooper's Road, off the Old Kent Road. The decision to demolish rather than refurbish was partly due to the availability of funding for new build, and resulted in a joint venture with Peabody Trust, which will acquire and manage most of the new housing. Mostly, though, it was about the quality of the existing 1960s housing.

This was a mix of low-rise deck-access blocks and 11-storey towers, the grassed ground between them undifferentiated, some of its uses antisocial. Residents often felt vulnerable, insecure beyond their front doors, with little sense of community. Elaine Davis, from the tenants' steering group, commented that 'we lived here, but didn't know each other'. And for the new project, Brian McKeown said they 'wanted something communal that we owned'.

In the interests of conserving resources, replacement rather than refurbishment can be a step in the wrong direction. But David Turrent of ECD Architects, though not party to the decision, thinks it was the right one.

The project, he says, is now 'rooted in trying to create a high-quality public realm and a strong sense of ownership of it'. The beginnings of ownership came first with the regular involvement of residents, from masterplanning to the selection of kitchen units, tiles and flooring.

As well as a tenants' steering group participating in meetings and workshops, monthly development group meetings were set up locally to ensure all residents had a voice. Larger events were organised at key stages to include residents who had moved out temporarily during construction.

The masterplan for the 1.69ha site is focused on four courtyards, of which one and some parts of two others have been built in phase one. Residents were particularly keen on these, providing a clear definition of private, shared and public space. To the outside, the buildings redefine a street pattern to the area, with hard materials - the strongly coloured render a resident preference. A courtyard comprises around 40 dwellings: family houses to the south, and one-bed to three-bed flats and maisonettes on the other sides.

Each courtyard is security-gated, and also each floor, so the main courtyard space and deck-access are shared communal spaces, rather than open public spaces, as they were in the demolished housing. Courtyards are softer, dominated visually by the cedar boarding and the planted court. Houses and ground-floor flats have small private gardens front and back, with the remaining 34 x 21m central court space zoned for sitting out, play, gardening, cycle storage and rainwater harvesting for irrigation.

Using the courtyards as building blocks, the reformed estate will be linked to the street with clear sightlines, designed as Home Zones. In these zones, though they are not special legal entities, design priority is given to pedestrians and cyclists, aiming to connect the housing across the streets with social space, including children's play areas, rather than dividing them with a river of traffic (see www. homezonenews. org. uk).

At Cooper's Road, roads are to have narrow thresholds, set out in short runs intersected by squares and traffic calming, the focus on the space reinforced by planting using native species. This will include on-street parking in residents' bays (rather than general public parking, as was the case on the old estate), with up to 50 per cent of households having a space.

Another reason ECD supports the decision to rebuild is the difficulty of upgrading 1960s buildings to present, if not future, standards, and the potential to attempt some future-proofing in the new designs, as well as investing in elements that are difficult to upgrade later, such as insulation - it is not to BedZed standards, but then it isn't to BedZed's budget either.

Even so, ECD wanted to move in the direction of making the dwellings less dependent on mains-fuel connections. As well as the communal heating system, which the residents were highly in favour of, there is a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit (see Environment). Courtyards were designed with the help of a heliodon to maximise solar access, and the lower houses located to the south.

Many roof slopes are oriented for future photovoltaic installation. And the service ducts are sized for future services changes, such as photovoltaics, opening onto the access decks to avoid disrupting dwellings (see Working Detail, pages 34-35).

The hope of using a concrete frame to improve future flexibility fell victim to one of the cost-cutting exercises, as the D&B contractor offered the client a saving of around £500,000 for switching to load-bearing masonry. The design ambition is for much longer-life housing than its predecessor.

Other aspects of sustainability include a focus on lower embodied-energy materials, and encouraging the contractor to source materials from within an 80km radius. Some moves did not come off. FSC-accredited timber proved too expensive. Low-energy light sources have been used in communalspace fittings, but are not being installed extensively by the contractor in dwellings.

Refuse recycling starts with segregatedwaste units in kitchens and communal bins at lifts. There are no rubbish chutes (often blocked in the previous housing), so the caretaker will take bins down on collection days.

Cooper's Road was already a dense scheme and the new one is little changed, at 370 habitable rooms per hectare. However, the dwelling mix has changed, with more larger dwellings included, bringing down the total from 198 to 154. Their design to Lifetime Homes standards might be expected. What comes as more of a surprise, especially with such a tight budget, is the spaciousness of the dwellings, designed to Parker Morris standards; both civilised and reflecting a future in which people increasingly work from home.

The social story is mixed news. The residents' group remains enthusiastic, very hopeful of building a greater sense of community. But the project has involved decanting; while everyone is promised only one move, there is a two-year wait and inevitably people get wedded to their 'temporary' home, or their lives move on. Some 80 to 90 families planned to stay with the scheme.

One of the problems, Turrent points out, is that 'urban regeneration can be a long, hard process'. Planning approval, which involved the residents, came through in November 2001. They started on site in February 2003.

Phasing was set up to reduce individual disruption, but has lengthened the project.

Phase one was completed this year. Phases two and three have now been combined, but this phase will run to 2008. The north of the site has been earmarked for housing for private sale, as phase three, yet to be finalised.

Keeping up the enthusiasm is hard work.

It is difficult to think what more could have been done in the attempt to make sustaining the community a reality - and what has been achieved is eminently worth the effort. While some have moved on, others will move in, able to share in what, for all the problems, is indeed an exemplar of sustainable urban regeneration.

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