David Ogunmuyiwa visits three council-funded social housing projects in Sutton by Bell Phillips Architects
Our shared built environment shapes us all. Conscious of this inescapable truth, a pronounced sense of social value on the part of the client, and civic purpose on the part of the architect, inform a family of three social housing schemes by Bell Phillips Architects for the London Borough of Sutton.
The first, Century House, comprises a mix of 15 two- and three-bed family homes in terraces that form a new residential close. They occupy an infill site formerly occupied by a disused youth centre in the backlands of existing post-war social housing. Ludlow Lodge is a cluster of three dense, medium-height blocks – two with extended wings to embrace a communal garden – providing 57 flats set within the most urban of the sites. Located adjacent to a grade-two-listed church and on the edge of the Holy Trinity Conservation Area, 72 per cent of the one-, two- and three-bed homes are for social rent, with the rest for shared ownership. The third member of the family is Richmond Green, a crescent of 21 suburban villas for social rent which line the bank of the River Wandle. They back onto one of the low-rise, lo-fi housing estates that typify some of Sutton’s existing housing stock, infused with the post-war New Town expansionist spirit – a reminder of the regular generational demand for refreshed social housing stocks.
Together the three schemes have allowed architect Bell Phillips to explore three distinct social housing typologies. However, there are inevitable commonalities amidst the differences. All three are clad in a combined palette of dusty pink and buff brick, elegantly controlled as in the practice’s previous work. And each project infills a brownfield council-owned site, reflecting the challenge for local authorities such as Sutton to find suitable development land in areas with high land values and high levels of private ownership.
Where housing does need to go, it is hard for architects to will into being ready-formed communities, particularly when there is no pre-established community of end-users to consult. The Century House site, arranged around a secluded close, and the Richmond Green homes, with their overlooked entrance patios shared between two families, show a generosity in enabling a sense of community to emerge gradually and organically.
Each of the three schemes demonstrates shared design decisions carefully judged to emphasise the projects’ qualities as homes and places beyond simple formal expression: quality material choices and detailing; entrance sequences that encourage interaction with neighbours and visitors; generous storage; building management systems to reduce energy use; robustly prefinished floors to reduce the need for carpets; rationalised and concealed utility supply and refuse arrangements. These seemingly mundane provisions matter now and will still count in a decade’s time.
These projects may be in the suburban fringe where London feathers peacefully into Surrey commuter belt, but Sutton Council’s housing waiting list is long (though by no means the longest), and this presented the architect with the opportunity to address fundamental issues faced by social housing everywhere, from Park Hill to Cumbernauld to Toxteth to Tower Hamlets: how do you provide dignified, decent homes in which households can live, grow and raise families? Here, there has been an investment in quality outcomes from the outset, to minimise the continuous burdens on council taxpayers of remedial measures, thermal inefficiency and compromised well-being.
One resident of the Century House site is glowing about her family’s new home. After several years in temporary accommodation, her teenage son now has his own bedroom, light and airy with a tall ceiling and a view of their private garden. Her kitchen overlooks children playing in the close and counters any sense of isolation.
Inside, a generous hallway opens off the draught lobby and bike store, leading onto the living/dining room which opens to a garden patio. Upstairs there is the cosy feeling of living beneath capacious eaves, referencing the Arts & Crafts DNA inherent in previous incarnations of ‘Metroland’. As Hari Phillips freely admits, the whole-house MVHR system will require behavioural change to provide maximum benefit.
The silhouettes of the terraces give a legible, domestic scale, with their distinctive asymmetry providing a varied enclosure to the close. The semi-private communal embrace is already generating spontaneous social events like barbeques in the summer. It also allows passive overlooking of kids’ incidental play on the shared surface with its integrated parking, and enough anonymity to be recognised but to withdraw or attract attention when required – as was proved when the first resident went into labour early this year.
Residents at the second site, the three- to five-storey apartment blocks of Ludlow Lodge, had just begun to move in when I visited. Infilling the brownfield site of a former care home and garages, this scheme shows the architects taking direct references from the surrounding buildings. The pitched roof with expressed dormers, the rhythm of punched openings, the height of ridge lines and the expressed podium level refer consciously to the adjacent grade-two listed Church of the Holy Trinity and its vicarage.
Resolving the challenge of potentially monolithic density within a tight site, the larger blocks and their perpendicular wings slide around each other at the podium level, which negotiates the topography of the site. This neatly exposes glimpses through the shared garden to the horizon, sky and established buildings in the background, while allowing unfolding compositions of the individual gable ends in the foreground. These are pleasing compositional highlights as you move around them at street level, providing the sense of a collection of collegiate buildings in dialogue with one another. The presence of the buildings is further lightened by the large and ordered punched openings, highly glazed communal stair cores and deeply inset balconies, which soar to double height at dormer level.
Internally, airy circulation and places for home-working, storage and children’s play are privileged as space for occupants to breathe, rather than simply occupy. Support for this is gaining legitimacy. For instance, the Greater London Authority is contributing to a United Nations study on designing for women and girls, building on work by Swedish practice White Arkitekter. This explores how teenage girls experience the urban environment differently from boys. They are up to 80 per cent less likely to use a MUGA, for example, but more likely to be somewhere indoors with their friends. Likewise, architects such as Liza Fior of Muf have noted the tension between the minimum space standard for a child’s bedroom of eight square metres and evidence, not least from the NHS, that children can only realistically be expected to be inactive for long periods when they are asleep. These extra margins of space can therefore be transformative.
The Richmond Green site, within the Beddington Village conservation area, overlooks the River Wandle through a dense screen of mature trees. Also built on brownfield land, this project replaces post-war, one-bed, system-built bungalows with 21 family homes of two and three bedrooms in bracketed pairs. The open, humanely-scaled arrangement, amplified by the leafy riverine setting, suggests mid-century Scandinavian suburban modernism. The innovation here is the single-height dining space that commands views of a shared entrance patio, repeated as a handed element to create the semi-detached streetscape. The single-storey dining volumes also serve to frame the prospect towards the river and established dwellings on the estate behind. Again, pitched gables slide past each other, giving each alternate bed-size and each home its own legibility from the street.
Internally, as well as the flexibility of the formalised dining space, there is again the trademark generosity of storage and home-working space as if anticipating a time when automation or even a universal basic income might make home-based ‘side-hustles’ more economical.
Bell Phillips’ three projects wouldn’t have been possible without the enlightened support of Gill Daw, Sutton’s head of housing enabling and development, who saw true worth in good design, build quality and social outcomes. Local authorities have to build robustly, because funds for maintenance are always under pressure. Wasting money is an easy accusation to make against councils, and sometimes the easiest way for officers and members to defend themselves is to over-compensate through risk aversion. At the same time, as we are constantly reminded, building cheaply can risk unforeseen long-term, even tragic, costs.
The first of the three contracts – for Century House – initially proved hard to let, but then contractor Kind & Co became involved. This led to a mutually productive and trusting relationship within the project team that contributed to the excellent build quality internally and externally, as well as clarity of purpose and clear accountability.
Both the client’s and architect’s aspiration for quality is evident in the crafted formalism of Century House, Ludlow Lodge and Richmond Green. There are practical nods to the enduring ways social housing actually works for its residents, year after year, with things like rationalised refuse arrangements and concealed service intake access, and sustainable environmental technologies. Straightforward, happy homes make happy residents. The client’s requirement for the dwellings to be tenure-blind is also noteworthy. Social housing is an essential component of our towns and cities and part of our shared civic life so residents should not be stigmatised by design.
Emerging housing supply programmes such as that at Sutton have implications in terms of social value, tenure security, sustainability and not least funding. These are delicate matters that are easy to get wrong for the people who will live in them, so they demand sensitivity in authorship. Architecture can’t solve everything but, speaking as a beneficiary, it can provide transformative, quality homes that foster stability and even change lives.
I trust the positive feedback I heard from the first residents of the Sutton schemes will be confirmed formally by the council’s post-occupancy evaluation, starting with Century House. During my visit with Gill Daw, one happy resident noted that “Gill always spoke about these homes as her ‘babies’ when we moved in”. Turning to Gill she said “You’ve made some great children”.
Bell Phillips Architects
Structural, civil engineer
Morgan Tucker Consulting Engineers
Kind & Co
London Borough of Sutton
Wienerberger Con Mosso Yellow (Century House), Vandemoortel Nature 7 (upper level, Ludlow Lodge, Richmond Green), Wienerberger Con Mosso (lower level, Ludlow Lodge)
Marley Eternit Thrutone fibre cement blue/black slates (Century House)
Sto StoRend 32421 (Richmond Green)