Familiar features belie the ingenuity of Mae’s back-to-back semis and two-fronted terrace, finds Chris Foges. Photographs: Tim Soar.
The plan for New Islington, drawn up a decade ago by Will Alsop, envisaged a mélange of attention-grabbing object buildings: ‘urban barns’ on stilts jetty over water; giant lillypad canopies on raked columns float over roads; multifarious exuberant groundscrapers snake through lush landscape. In this context, the latest addition to the new east Manchester district – 18 brick-skinned, pitched-roof houses – seems at first glance almost subversive in its ordinariness. Appearances can be deceptive, though: there is plenty of invention in these houses, but its expression is subordinate to Mae Architects’ desire for ‘culturally legible’ architecture that recognises housing’s role as the ‘background’ of the city.
In fact, The Guts – named for its position in the middle of the development – is rather more in the foreground than it should be: it joins a scant handful of completed projects on the 12.5-hectare site, most built to rehouse residents of a 1970s estate demolished to make way for New Islington. Work continues on infrastructure – a marina, water park and light rail stop are newly open – but due to the ravages of the financial crisis, it will be a long time before the rest of the promised 1400 homes materialise. In the meantime, The Guts keys into the remnants of the estate to the east and overlooks a wasteland to the west.
The delayed programme required Mae to adapt Alsop’s plan, whose defining element is a new waterway between canals at the north and south boundaries of New Islington. This has been built, but of the four fingers of water that should project eastward, lined with buildings, only one has been dug. Needing to use existing roads where possible, Mae placed six terraced houses and another block of 12 semi-detached houses at right angles to the intended grain of the neighbourhood – though an echo survives in the arrangement of the back-to-back semis on their plot.
The form of these houses developed indirectly from consultation with residents who expressed a dislike of tall buildings, and preferences for separate kitchen-diners and living rooms and, above all, for off-street parking. Recognising that much of any available garden would be filled with obligatory sheds and bins, Mae resolved to connect the two bits of outside space, giving occupants some choice about how it is used, and allowing the possibility that houses might be extended later.
This required some ingenuity: pulling two terraces back from the edge of the plot to create parking at the front would have placed their backs too close, and in any case, would not allow the connection between parking and garden. Conventional semis with long facades to the street would not leave enough room for on-plot parking. So Mae turned them through 90 degrees, with a stepped section negotiating a level change across the site.
The plans of the semis are not simply mirrored across the party wall: five of the six pairs comprise a two-bedroom house to the west and a three-bedder to the east. The smaller houses have west-facing balconies on their gable ends, facing the street, while their larger counterparts have south-facing balconies over living rooms that project into the garden at the side. Kitchen-diners and living rooms have direct access to gardens, which are overlooked by most bedrooms. Opposite, there is just one small window over the neighbour’s stairs, preserving privacy. The block is terminated by a double-gabled pair of three-storey, four-bedroom houses.
Equal care has gone into the terrace. It sits at the end of a row of houses with equally deep front and back gardens. Mae pulled its houses to the front of the plot to allow combined off-street parking and gardens at the rear, but mindful that a row of rear elevations behind fences can deaden the street, has in effect given each house two fronts. The upper storeys are stepped in plan at the back to create west-facing balconies.
Alternate use of red, black and ivory bricks to the upper storeys distinguishes individual houses, but red brick is used uniformly on the ground floor to give The Guts a collective identity. The architects’ intended effect, of a continuous band of brick around the block perimeters, is unfortunately undermined by the cost-driven substitution of wooden fences for brick garden walls.
From a distance the houses’ resemblance to familiar red-brick terraces can mislead. Up close, it becomes apparent that they are larger than first supposed – floor-to-ceiling heights are a lofty 2.7 metres – with big windows and rather grand thresholds: the semis are fronted by deep porches leading to capacious lobbies. Mae set out to exceed Manchester’s Design for Access 2 standard, and has planned the upper floors of the larger houses so that bedrooms can be subdivided with relative ease, and without complicating the efficient circulation.
All of this produces a density of 40.5 units per hectare, and Mae’s Alex Ely admits to reservations about building an essentially suburban form so close to the city centre. Looking around at the blue-fenced empty plots and beyond to empty mills and towers, however, this concern seems misplaced. Indeed, one wonders why the scheme couldn’t have been granted sufficient space to allow conventional terraces or semis with a bit of garden and off-street parking. Nevertheless, Mae has made a virtue of the constraint, delivering well-resolved, economical homes that readily adapt themselves to their occupants’ needs. That it has also produced a useful contribution to the library of housing types is a bonus.
Led by Alex Ely (pictured), London-based Mæ’s current projects include several large housing developments in London. Its research and publications include the London Housing Design Guide for the mayor of London and consumer guidance such as The Homes Buyer’s Guide: what to look and ask for when buying a new home.
Architect: mæ; design team: Alex Ely, Michael Howe, Daniel Pan, Amy Penford, George McLaughlin; structural engineer: Stockley; qs: Simon Fenton Partnership; contractor: Mansell Partnership Housing; m&e: Arc Electrical, Parker Plumbing and Heating; client: Urban Splash, Great Places Housing Group.
Suppliers and subcontractors
Timber frame: Howarth Timber Engineering; brick: Hanson, Ibstock; mineral wool: Sheffield Insulations; roof tiles: Sandtoft; windows: Munster Joinery; doors: PDS; ironmongery: Laidlaw; paviors: Formpave; kitchen: Symphony Kitchens; flooring: Polyflor; paint: Crown; sanitaryware: Twyfords; air-source heat pump: Mitsubishi.
First published in AT233, November 2012