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Yew Tree Lodge by Duggan Morris Architects

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Duggan Morris has refined another architect’s sheltered-housing scheme, making it the kind of thoughtful building this sector needs, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Edmund Sumner

The sheltered-housing sector in the UK is hardly brimming with design exemplars. I doubt you can name a single development that has inspired you, less still cite the craftsmanship of a particular scheme – regardless of aesthetics and form – as evidence of the care that buildings in this sector require. Why should a sector that serves the more vulnerable members of our society – the elderly, people with learning disabilities – be subjected to the most banal, unimaginative, pastiche-reliant architecture the profession can muster?

CABE doesn’t seem bothered either. On its website, no publications specific to sheltered housing are listed, no specific case studies archived and no design guidance offered. Given that the UK’s population is ageing, with 16 per cent of people now over the age of 65, the housing and wellbeing of the elderly has never been more topical. But architects, it seems, don’t get excited about designing sheltered housing.

The CABE website offers neither guidance nor case studies on sheltered-housing design

So when pictures of Yew Tree Lodge – a sheltered-housing scheme in Ruislip, Middlesex, completed late last year – landed in the AJ’s in-tray, I was intrigued. Here was a two-storey building for 12 residents with learning difficulties, fashioned almost entirely from brick, detailed in a sophisticated and elegant manner, with a clear compositional logic. This looked like a building that Duggan Morris Architects (DMA) was actually excited about designing. How this up-and-coming London practice became involved with the project, its first completed building, is equally encouraging, especially for young practices eager to showcase their talent.

In 2006, Look Ahead Housing and Care, a registered social landlord (RSL) that provides ‘vulnerable customers’ with ‘high-quality accommodation and the care and support services they need to live independently’, wanted to expand its design team. ‘It was keen to support imaginative and innovative design solutions,’ explains Mary Duggan, co-director of DMA. ‘We were interviewed along with a number of other architects.’ DMA was unsuccessful with its pitch for that project, but, impressed by the firm’s passion, Look Ahead offered it another job: Yew Tree Lodge.

At first, DMA co-director Joe Morris was sceptical. Look Ahead was offering a post-planning commission: BPTW Architects, a much larger London practice commissioned directly by Hillingdon Borough Council, had already worked up approved designs for the scheme. ‘We could tell from the planning-permission drawings that we would have to deal with a local authority with a very traditional outlook. We were concerned that we would struggle,’ says Morris.

Following discussions with the client and the council’s planners, DMA agreed to progress the project on the basis that it could reappraise BPTW’s scheme. The council agreed, and said any changes would be dealt with as variations. A legal commitment with the client to deliver the scheme by an agreed date ruled out a revised planning application. In ‘RSL land’, as Duggan puts it, this process is normal. Usually, a scheme is commissioned by the local authority, then an RSL bids for the approved project but brings in its own designers to carry it through to completion.

The elevations are a hotchpotch of render, brick and timber cladding

Morris is being polite when he refers to the planning-approved design as ‘traditional’. Indeed, both Duggan and Morris were reluctant to discuss the BPTW project at all, other than the changes they wrought out of it. BPTW’s design, uncovered on Hillingdon’s online planning portal and posted on the AJ’s website (www.architectsjournal.co.uk) is typical of the standard this sector has set itself. The elevations are a hotchpotch of render, brick and timber cladding. Bay windows are mean and clunky, and split down the middle so that each is shared by two rooms. The only nod to the site’s immediate context – the Grade II-listed Highgrove House, directly opposite – are roof tiles matching Edward Schroeder Prior’s 19th-century pile.

I don’t blame BPTW for its lacklustre approach: the firm was commissioned to stage D only and its prime objective was to secure planning, which it did with relative ease. I suspect the planning department guided BPTW, an award-winning housing practice with far better work in its portfolio, towards the ‘traditional’ design it produced.

Start on site date November 2007
Contract duration 12 months
Gross internal floor area 1,190m²
Form of contract NEC Option C: target contract with activity schedule
Total cost £2.1 million
Client Look Ahead Housing and Care  
Architect Duggan Morris Architects
Structural engineer Michael Hadi Associates
M&E consultant ADJ Design
Project manager/quantity surveyor/planning supervisor Appleyard and Trew
Sustainability consultant ECD Project Services
Main contractor Durkan
Bricks Banbury Bricks
Internal quarry tiles and sills Ruabon
Steelwork subcontractor Supreme Ironcraft
Annual CO2 emissions 13,163kg

DMA has taken this scheme, stripped it of extraneous frippery, and redefined it as a crisp, homogenous brick volume with elegant, thoughtful detailing and aesthetic nods to BIQ Architects’ Bluecoat Arts Centre (2008) in Liverpool and Nord’s Bell-Simpson House (2004) in Stirlingshire. DMA has omitted the timber and render from the original elevations and specified a bespoke brick mix – Highgrove blend by Banbury Bricks. The practice has also imposed a staggered glazing layout, and made the windows flush with the brickwork on the rear elevation; refined the box bay window details and removed sills to make the glazing full-height; created a hipped roof junction, meaning one less gable and a more legible rear elevation; and incorporated recessed gutters to create a giant shadow-gap, framing the clay tiles on quite a large expanse of roof.

Of course, the recessed gutter caused a fuss with the planners – ‘They expected black UPVC,’ says Duggan – and with the builders too, because it was ‘out of his comfort zone’, meaning more expensive. So although it was built, the quoin brick coping detail that DMA wanted is actually a strip of powder-coated aluminium. It looks okay, but it’s a source of frustration to Morris. ‘You have to compromise, but it’s one of those things you just keep looking at and thinking…’ he says.

The compulsory grass landscaping at the entrance of the building and in front of the apartments has been hardened up with more brick. Morris says he wanted the texture of the walls to fold over on to the ground, and, indeed, it extends inside to the reception, where quarry tiles by Dennis Ruabon Tiles lend a cool air to the double-height space (another DMA innovation on the original plan). Here, the walls have been painted mustard yellow, and light bulbs hang down on long cables from the ceiling two floors above. It’s a bit harsh on the eye, and the pattern applied to the glazing in this area is an AutoCAD lift of the brick-mortar-joint layout, masquerading as ornamentation.

Despite support from the planners, DMA says the whole experience was ‘pretty rough’

In plan, the apartments have been optimised. DMA has introduced a splayed wall to the hallway (the minimum area of which is defined by a wheelchair turning-circle), giving some space back to the kitchen. The bay windows is centred in the living room, forming a seating area with framed views. The boiler has been relocated to the wheelchair store in the hall, while the common room has been moved from the front elevation to the rear, and given a south-facing terrace.

Despite initial support from the planners, DMA says the whole experience was ‘pretty rough’. The firm found the local authority increasingly obstructive to the changes it proposed. ‘At one point,’ says Morris, ‘the chief urban designer stated they wanted a “mediocre” building!’ Instead, Hillingdon Borough Council got a pretty good one. It won’t blow you away, and it’s not going to win the Stirling Prize, but it sets a decent standard in a sector laid low on its design knees. BPTW’s scheme was a chaotic compromise forged from a rollout specification that hadn’t been questioned in years, plus a fruitless commissioning process that meant the firm was not invested in the scheme’s outcome. DMA’s building, on the other hand, is competent and coherent, and its plan, section and elevation are legibly interrelated.

Nowadays, DMA keeps an eye on RSLs, part of its ‘recession-busting’ approach to finding work. ‘You have to look beyond the initial scheme and the fact you are inheriting other people’s thinking, and begin to see the benefits the process can bring,’ says Morris. RSL-backed projects give young practices the chance to take on duff designs and wise them up. Follow DMA’s lead – sheltered housing needs design champions.

Yew Tree Lodge, Duggan Morris Architects

Box bay window

The design philosophy for this project focused on a constrained palette of materials, with emphasis on the accuracy and execution of material interfaces: landscape, windows, bricks and roof tiles.

The building is rigorously set out to a full brick module in stretcher bond, and, subsequently, the position of windows, bays and doors is set within a similar logic. The colour and tonal range of the materials palette, in which bricks, sills and tiles closely match, ensures a specific reading of the building as one of solidity.

This is further enhanced by aligning the windows flush to the face of the brickwork. Similarly, a recessed gutter is constructed within the roof, rather than mounted in a more traditional way on the face of the building below expressed eaves.

In contrast to this flush aesthetic, projecting bay windows are incorporated into the living rooms at the first floor, framing views out on to the landscape. These windows have steel frames clamped to the building’s face, finished with a continuous skin of steel and laminated to a timber subframe. The windows within the bays are pulled to the leading edge, and the surrounding flashing material is coloured to match the steel laminate, keeping the detailing simple and clean.

The residents of Yew Tree Lodge are making the fullest use of these cantilevered windows, personalising them with treasured artefacts and ornaments.

Mary Duggan, co-director, Duggan Morris Architects

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