Every September in London, hundreds of buildings normally closed to the public open their doors for a weekend to let everyone take a free peek inside. The event is London Open House and numerous talks, walks and guided tours also form part of the Open House programme.
This year’s Open House event took place on the weekend of 17-18th September 2011 and I went to to see an award-winning housing development in Claredale Street in Bethnal Green, London E2.
The Claredale Street development was designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects and on hand to give a guided tour of the development was architect Paul Karakusevic. He was very friendly and generous in sharing a lot of information about the development. He was also honest enough to admit to features in the development he thought, in hindsight, could have been done better. We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to look inside one of the dwellings but the tour still gave us a lot of insight into the design of the development.
The housing in Claredale Street is a low-rise medium density development of 77 dwellings in a fairly compact parcel of land. It was completed in 2010 and comprises a mixture of houses, flats and maisonettes. The dwellings are of mixed tenure and include shared ownership, affordable rent and outright sale. The architect generously and rightly decided to make the appearance of the development “tenure blind” so it’s impossible to tell which homes are privately owned and which are affordable rent.
The homes have a striking copper facade that looks modern and attractive. The irregular pattern of horizontal and vertical lines adds a lively rhythm and visual interest to the surface. I think the brick and copper combination works really well and I prefer that the copper cladding doesn’t run all the way down to the ground floor. Some parts of the homes are clad in Larch which the architect said may not weather as well as the copper.
The Claredale Street site was previously occupied by an 8-storey council block of 74 dwellings called Bradley House. It was designed by the architect Denys Lasdun in the 1950s. This previous building blocked the view of the street you see in the distance in the picture above (Teesdale Street). In the new development, Karakusevic Carson Architects have re-instated the connection with the existing streets in both north and south directions, opening up the space and the view.
The housing also fits in well with the scale of the surrounding buildings. The height of the new homes match very closely the height of the neighbouring Victorian terraces and the copper blends in well with the red brick of the existing buildings in the area. The development respectfully acknowledges its surroundings.
The development as a whole has been rated highly for its eco-credentials. For example, the flat roofs on each building feature solar panels for hot water heating.
To one side of the development sits Keeling House. This is a Grade II listed 16-storey residential tower block designed in the 1950s by Denys Lasdun. The new development contains a 7-storey apartment block which has been deliberately sited at the opposite end of the new development so as not to compete with Lasdun’s block, and to give a more balanced layout to the site.
The homes that line the pedestrian street in the photo above have an interesting layout. On the ground floor are flats with courtyards. The first and second floors are duplex apartments with a rear terrace. Both apartments have their own front doors avoiding any shared circulation space (and associated maintenance costs).
The front gardens are small (which adds to the intimate scale of the street) but they feel a bit measly. Around the corner, some of the dwellings have even smaller front gardens. Obviously, larger front gardens take away more space from the dwelling (or the street), but I still think it’s preferable to have some front garden space rather than doors that open directly onto the street. A few of the dwellings had front gardens with low brick walls. Paul Karakusevic said that one of his regrets was not building low brick walls for all the front gardens. This was due to last minute cost savings.
Four houses are single aspect to avoid overlooking. These houses feature wider frontages than the dual-aspect terraced homes and a skylight to help bring more natural light into the house. One house is a two bedroom unit, the others have three bedrooms. These single aspect houses face the 7-storey apartment block across a fairly small courtyard (which means the residents don’t get very long views out of their windows). There is lots of green planting in the courtyard which helps provide a bit of a screen and buffer between the houses and the apartment block.
On the same tour as me was a resident from one of the apartments and she very kindly chatted to me about what it was like living there. She said that only after you move in do you begin to notice the small niggles. She wasn’t a big fan of the open plan layout with the kitchen and living area combined because of the noise and smells from the cooking. This type of open plan design is pretty much the default in new build flats.
The apartment block has large cantilevered balconies which give residents their own outdoor space, but the balconies are positioned very close to one another. I asked the architect if there were any noise issues because of this. He said he hadn’t heard of any complaints. (Again, protruding balconies closely positioned together are the default design on most new build apartment blocks.)
When I asked the resident if she can hear her neighbours when they are outside on their balconies she said that, yes, you can hear them very clearly. And as long as they don’t stay out late, then you learn to live with it. Sometimes her balcony gets covered with cigarette ash from a neighbour in the balcony above. And if there’s a late night party the sound from a neighbouring balcony can be very loud and intrusive.
We all have a threshold for tolerating noise. I know that I am very sensitive to noise because I live next door to noisy neighbours (on both sides) so whenever I see cantilevered balconies in new housing developments, my first reaction is not how great it is to have some outdoor space but how uncomfortably close the balconies are to one another.
Again, I realise it’s a difficult balancing act: we want community and neighbourliness and we want privacy and peace and quiet too. These qualities aren’t mutually exclusive, but does a greater emphasis on one of these qualities mean we have to accommodate the other qualities to a lesser degree? When designing housing, is it better to imagine a best-case scenario where we all have considerate neighbours? Or a worst-case scenario where privacy and peace and quiet are assured no matter how noisy your neighbours? Will these different scenarios lead to different kinds of housing solutions? (I don’t have answers to these questions by the way!)
I asked the resident what the sound insulation was like inside the apartment and she said there was no sound transmission between ceilings and floors, but she could hear noise through the adjoining walls such as doors slamming shut and items being banged down on table surfaces. It’s a shame that the quality of the build slipped here. Paul Karakusevic said that once construction of the development began they were not retained to manage or oversee the building work.
I noticed that the ground floor of many of the dwellings seemed quite low in height and I asked Paul Karakusevic about ceiling heights. I got the impression that this was another of those cost compromises and that he would have liked a slightly higher ground floor height. He said most of the dwellings have a ceiling height of about 2.5 metres. The resident of the apartment said she felt this was fine and didn’t find it claustrophobic or too low. I didn’t clarify whether the ground floor height was also 2.5 metres.
There’s much to admire in the Claredale Street housing development and there was obvioulsy a great deal of thinking that went into its design. There were some things I liked less than others, such as the single aspect houses. I was amazed to hear that work on the development initially began some 6/7 years ago – that’s an incredible length of time. The tour also made me realise just how much pressure there is to constrain costs. Some of these cost pressures (no fault of the architects) border on stinginess (that may not be accurate, but it’s the impression I got).
How can we ever hope to build affordable, high quality homes that become the norm when every development is beaten down relentlessly with these kinds of cost pressures? Some people may argue that without these cost pressures houses won’t be affordable in the first place. But they won’t be of particularly high quality either. “Affordable housing” is a complete misnomer anyway: housing has never been affordable for the past few years. There’s a point at which you beat down these costs so much that you cross over the threshold of good quality housing design and end up building the same poor-to-mediocre rubbish churned out by the volume house builders.
On a final note, many thanks go to Paul Karakusevic for the tour and to the apartment resident whose name I didn’t catch.