Metaphorm have created a social housing scheme that encourages social behaviour in public space.
When the Heygate Estate at Elephant & Castle was built in 1971, local authorities habitually took a direct and active role in the design and construction of social housing. Forty years on, and most local authorities have an arm’s length relationship with housing through proxies in housing associations and private sector developers. The proposed redevelopment of the Heygate Estate is a case in point: Southwark Council has given the site to a developer, Lend Lease, which will replace the 1,260 homes on the estate with 3,300 dwellings, of which a quarter will be ‘affordable’.
The project has been controversial, not least since it entailed the removal of an existing community from the estate. These residents were given the right to return to the area, and in providing replacement housing, the council – under the leadership of its former head of property and regeneration, Chris Horn – has kept a much greater degree of control over design and delivery than is usual. It assembled sixteen sites and organised design competitions for each. A scheme comprising 18 units in two blocks on Brandon Street, designed by Metaphorm Architects, is among the first to be completed.
The building has two strikingly different facade treatments: the side elevations face onto quiet, small-scale Victorian residential streets, and are in a Dutch brick chosen for its true black colour and the texture that its small module size adds to the wall. The top two storeys, like the cleft between the blocks, are finished in a mineral scratch render. The front facade faces Brandon Street, which will in future be the main axial route into the redeveloped estate. Metaphorm aimed to give this elevation an appropriately ‘civic’ expression. Handmade hexagonal tiles are arranged to produce a colour gradient moving from a deep, warm Bordeaux red to an acid yellow/green across the facade – the contractor followed a layout diagram ensuring the precise location of each individual tile, the positioning of movement joints and other details to achieve the desired effect.
The wavy facade pulls back from the site boundary to preserve a row of four trees (in fact they are replacements) and to create a small piece of useful public space. The architects noticed that children from a nearby school used the rusty railings around the empty site as a place to sit, and have preserved this tradition in the form of two precast concrete benches flanking the entrance to the block. It is a simple yet generous gesture towards the public realm, but in order to achieve it the architects had to face down inevitable opposition from those whose instinct is always to assume the worst of their fellow citizens, and design out any opportunity for mischief – and much of the better qualities of the environment with it.
Metaphorm has brought the same determination to do what is right for the project, for future residents and for the city, to all aspects of the building – making the case that to do things well does not necesssarily imply additional cost or risk, but can be achieved simply with more care and consideration. Brandon Street was delivered or the same cost as other social housing projects in Southwark, but the quality of its internal and external spaces, the materials that are seen and felt, and the relationships with existing streets and patterns of use are significantly better than the norm.
Credit for this, says the architect, must be shared with the local authority, which always intended that the project should provide a quality benchmark for future development in the area, and took notable steps to ensure that the design aspiration was translated into reality. Although the building was procured under a design & build contract, for example, much of the detail design was locked into the planning approval.
Metaphorm was founded by Dr Joseph Watters and Andrew Tong. Its projects include a performing arts venue in Hemel Hempstead and an office tower in Shanghai, as well as urban studies such as the Wembley Town Centre Stadium Link and Cambridge Futures.
Architect: Metaphorm Architects; design team: Joseph Watters, Andrew Tong, Henriette Marinescu, Miron Marinescu, Adrian Beckenham, Beatrice Munby, Oxana Sytnik; structural engineer: Dewhurst Macfarlane; m&e engineer: MLM; main contractor: Durkan; client: London & Quadrant/ Southwark Council.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Light-gauge steel frame: MIB FrameSpace; brick: Daas Baksteen; windows: Velfac; external doors: Metal Technology; architectural metalwork: Quality Metalwork Services; mineral scratch render: Granicem; tiles: Rairies Montrieux.
Procurement: D&B; units: 18; tenure: 100 per cent social rent; cost/sq m: £1384 GEA; sustainability: Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4.
First published in AT228, May 2012