Housing, Newhall, Essex by Alison Brooks Architects
The public sector points to Newhall as an exemplar for future developments, yet really its success has been dependent on the long-term planning allowed by private patronage. Having completed its latest phase, architect Alison Brooks is on a mission to champion the importance of design innovation in adding value to housing
Harlow, in Essex, has long been a touchstone for politicians touting new solutions for volume housing. The brainchild of the postwar Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, modern-day Harlow was the first of a spate of New Towns built to ease the chronic overcrowding in London’s East End.
It fell to the distinguished architect/planner Frederick Gibberd to masterplan this utopia. Inspired by the contemporaneous Copenhagen Plan, he produced a ‘finger diagram’ with long thin neighbourhoods splaying out from a dense urban ‘palm’. Each finger provided housing for 5,000-8,000 people along with shops, churches, community centres and pubs. Wedges of woodland and green space between each of the fingers offered scope for both agricultural and recreational use.
Gibberd’s Scandinavian simplicity has been somewhat swamped by suburban sprawl which kicked off in the 1970s and continues apace. But, thanks to Newhall, located on the eastern outskirts of the city, Harlow’s innovative urban planning continues to enjoy the dubious honour of the politicians’ pet project du jour.
Not that the public sector can claim credit: Newhall is testament to the power of good old-fashioned private sector patronage. It owes its existence to fourth-generation farmers, Jon and William Moen, who inherited 280 acres of prime Essex farmland in the early 1980s.
The Moen brothers’ first foray into development − part of the Church Langley development adjacent to Newhall − was something of a disappointment. Having sold an option agreement to a developer consortium, they looked on helplessly as farmland gave way to housing that could, at best, be described as adequate. Appalled by the dearth of developer ambition and the extent to which architects were disregarded and disempowered, the Moens resolved to take a more hands-on role in future building projects and to devise a modus operandi that would give high-quality place-making and architecture a central role.
They recruited master masterplanner Roger Evans to develop a blueprint for a 6,000-strong neighbourhood − a scale in keeping with Gibberd’s original plans − to accommodate 2,800 homes within walking distance of community facilities, shops and schools, and would be denser, more urban and infinitely better designed than the average urban sprawl.
Determined to build ‘the kind of place we’d like to visit’, Evans kicked off by overlaying street plans of historic cities that have flourished and endured − Venice, Oxford and Bath − over a plan of the Newhall site in a bid to inform decisions about the location of green space and appropriate densities for different parts of the site. The resultant scheme has a legible hierarchy of mews, lanes, avenues and high street, leavened by a lattice of meandering streets, small squares and oblique views, a density which, at 18 houses per acre, is well in excess of the 10-12 houses that has been the norm for greenfield development in recent years − and an awful lot of parking spaces.
The hallowed streetscapes of Venice, Oxford and Bath were not determined by the dictats of the car. The designers of Newhall have had to use an ingenuity to house contemporary parking requirements in such a high-density scheme. Cars are contained in small courtyards or kept tidily out of sight − most successfully at Richard Murphy Architects’ mews flats that sit atop a triple garage. The meandering streets − and the fact that building lines and pavements are not parallel − allow for wider patches of road where clusters of on-street parking spaces can be absorbed.
But the sheer quantum of parking is surprisingly conservative or reassuringly realistic depending on your point of view. The party line is that it is more important to combat car use than to limit car ownership; the challenge is to make walking and cycling − or catching the bus − so attractive that people are inclined to leave their cars at home. In other words, you design in a hefty 2.5 parking spaces per dwelling while kidding yourself that sustainable transport is a key concern.
In fairness, the public realm is conducive to walking or cycling thanks, in part, to the liberal peppering of balconies, bay windows, external staircases and ground-floor studies that reflect a concerted effort to challenge the ‘net curtain’ mentality and inject the public realm with signs of movement and life, and, in part, to a 20mph speed limit, plentiful street trees and pleasant views of the greenery that surrounds the development on every side. The decision to build at high density, and so reduce available garden space, makes it particularly important to deliver a high-quality public realm but has also made it viable to designate a whopping 40 per cent of potential building land to established vegetation including woodland, hedgerows, streams, and to new parkland, reed beds and balancing ponds.
It’s wonderfully indulgent, though one wonders whether the scheme could have been improved by a less polarised approach to urban fabric and open space. The public realm is at its best when there is a sense that vegetation has invaded the project: Proctor and Matthews’ Abode Housing, an early phase of the scheme, is getting better and better as greenery colonises its gabion walls.
Pick and mix
The Moens conceived Newhall as an antidote to the uniformity of Gibberd’s Harlow and expressly set out to deliver the architectural variety and the cheek-by-jowl social mix that characterises settlements that have evolved over time. They wanted a showcase for the best of British architecture, but they didn’t want an architectural zoo. They wanted to encourage variety, but they also wanted a neighbourhood with a degree of coherence, and a clear identity that was bigger than the sum of its architectural parts.
Their strategy was to supplement Evans’ masterplan with a design code, loosely based on the Essex Design Guide of 1973, and a palette of colours and materials developed by Evans and the artist Tom Porter by applying the sampling techniques of the colour theorist Jean-Philippe Lenclos to the study of local landscape, geology and vernacular architecture.
Having established an overarching − albeit somewhat loose − architectural language, they divided the site into distinct development plots; they then dictated a mix of accommodation ranging from apartments, affordable terraced housing and detached family homes to put each one out to a designer/ developer competition.
The result has been an eclectic cast of architects and − as hoped − a catholic interpretation of the design code. Proctor and Matthews, who have delivered two phases of housing on the scheme, employed a wonderfully exuberant assembly of brickwork, stucco, stained shiplap and thatch for the first project, and a rather more subdued abstraction of clay roof tiles and white render for their second. PCKO and ECD both teamed brick and render with copper cladding and turquoise powder-coloured aluminium panels. Richard Murphy used yellow stock brick in a deliberate bid to produce ‘decent background’ housing. ORMS clad its ‘Zig Zag’ − the landmark ‘town centre’ building housing shops and restaurant on the ground floor − in timber shuttering. Most recently, Alison Brooks has used black timber and yellow brick.
There is the odd awkward moment. Junctions between different housing parcels don’t always work. The side windows of one of Brooks’ houses − designed to offer light and views − has ended up looking straight onto one of Proctor and Matthews’ blind end walls. The occasional bog standard Noddy House has slipped through the net, a reminder of what so easily could have been. But the overall impression is of energy, creativity and an unmistakable joie de vivre. So much so that former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in an uncharacteristic show of ebullience, was quoted in the 13 July issue of the Mail on Sunday as saying: ‘This is the future, a model of communities we have to build. I looked at Britain and wondered where is the “WOW factor” in our architecture, where are the buildings I can get excited about? Now I can say “it’s here at Newhall”.’
Ten years on, the current planning minister Nick Boles cites Newhall as living proof that modern architecture can be ‘beautiful’ and that the housing shortage will sort itself out just as soon as we shake the silly habit of building houses that nobody likes.
The project’s populist appeal lies, in part, in its roofscape, a happy hotchpotch of pitches and curves that suggests a friendly domesticity. Writing about suburban architecture in the October 1936 issue of Country Life, Christopher Hussey noted: ‘the remembered impression made on the eye is … the warm sweep of an enveloping, well designed roof … at once so practical and so full of artistic possibilities’. This potential was explored in full-on projects such as Hampstead Garden Suburb, which boasts a full roster of granny bonnets, swept valleys, dormer windows and sprocketed eaves. But such fanciful language − and the attendant preoccupation with the picturesque − fell foul of Modernism’s dogmatic flat-roof fetish. Viewed as fanciful, fusty and fey, the profiled roof was widely dismissed as historical pastiche.
All about eaves
Alison Brooks views the Newhall development as part of a determined move to restore the roof to its rightful place in the lexicon of contemporary residential architecture and to explore the aesthetic, practical, social and financial benefits that the roof space has to offer. By using prefabricated timber cassettes that avoid the need for roof trusses, she has created roof space that offers either a cathedral ceiling or additional living space. Their external expression − inspired by traditional black-weatherboarded Essex barns − is both sculptural and still, giving what she describes as ‘a presence you just don’t get with ticky-tacky boxes plonked down in a row’.
At this sort of density, the classic combination of back-to-back garden and side-by-side box simply doesn’t deliver the goods. Richard Murphy took inspiration from the way Peter Aldington’s courtyard home at Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, and Jørn Utzon’s take on the same concept at Fredensborg in Denmark, provide privacy and outdoor space within a relatively constrained building plot. Brooks’ study of Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt design for a house with three patios informed a radical reformatting of the typical 20m x 5m building plot into squareish (9m x 10m) plots occupied by ‘courtyard houses’ spiralling around a central hall. The conventional long, thin back garden has been replaced by balconies, patios and roof decks which serve as extensions to the living space and capture sunlight at different times of day.
Counting the cost
Spatial complexity combined with a high-class public realm makes for a compelling proposition − but it doesn’t come cheap. The Moens are bullish about the fact that build costs at Newhall are some 10-15 per cent higher than the ‘ordinary’ housing at neighbouring Church Langley, but argue that the quality of the environment − and the desirability of the real estate − means that buyers are prepared to pay 15-20 per cent above local values. Brooks’ housing is a case in point, with speedy sales and higher-than-average prices (£164,995 for a one-bedroom apartment rising to £399,995 for a four-bedroom detached house).
It’s a formula that works at Newhall, where proximity to the station (10 minutes by car) and to London (30 miles down the road or just half an hour by train) ensures a ready supply of middle-class professionals who are both willing and able to indulge a taste for modern architecture by paying a little above the odds.
The Moen brothers could afford to gamble that their investment would be rewarded by enhanced returns. But its not an option for projects that are dependent on borrowed cash. Houses, however imaginative or beautiful, are presumed to be worth the same as neighbouring properties of comparable age and size, rendering it pretty much impossible to persuade investors that more money at the front end will yield improved profits in the longer term.
Recognising that lack of finance is the single biggest blockage to innovation in housing design, Brooks has embarked on a mission to make valuations adhere to a list of quality criteria as opposed to a lazy dependence on precedent. She might just have the platform to make herself heard. Aside from enjoying a professional moment in the sun − she currently boasts the triple whammy of being Architect of the Year, Housing Architect of the Year and Woman Architect of the Year − she is a member of a small group of experts charged with shaping the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s strategy for promoting high-quality design.
Harlow has gone full circle. It grew out of a political belief that the public sector could solve social problems through planning and design. But it has proved a rather different point: that great places are made not simply by policy but by people. Not just politicians but an enlightened private sector; pioneering investors, visionary developers, impassioned architects prepared to make a fuss − and, of course, the community they serve. Gibberd moved to Harlow in 1947 and remained until his death in 1984. The Moen family has lived locally for generations. This is not a blueprint for political policy but rather testament to the transformative power of long-term custodianship and determined residents.