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Value for money

10 Jan 2007

Many architects are concerned that it is increasingly difficult to squeeze design quality from the budgets allocated for social housing. Gm+ad’s new scheme shows just what is possible when the funders allow it.Photography by Keith Hunter.

Many architects are concerned that it is increasingly difficult to squeeze design quality from the budgets allocated for social housing. Gm+ad’s new scheme shows just what is possible when the funders allow it.Photography by Keith Hunter.

Andrew Cox is 79 and has Alzheimer’s. He used to live in a small private house in East Pilton, Edinburgh, but moved into a new flat in the city’s Telford March development this summer. The flat is one of two ground-floor units adapted for wheelchair users. Andrew lives with his daughter, Karyn Turnbull, who is his carer. “This flat is huge compared to his old house,” says Karyn. The block is occupied by a real mix of tenants – there is another family with an elderly father, a blind woman and an Asian family, and several families with young children all living within the development. Architects gm+ad were initially approached by Edinburgh Development and Investment (EDI) in 2002 to look at a phased residential development which might act as a catalyst for the regeneration of a strip of disused railway land behind a local authority housing estate on the north-west of the city. Most of the existing housing stock was owned by Manor Estates Housing Association, which along with Canmore Housing Association, became the client for the project. The site, which was made up of three pieces of land all under different ownership, backs onto one of Edinburgh’s proposed tram routes, so initial ideas included a tram stop. The original intention was to develop a range of social, affordable and private housing around a central landscaped street. Phase one, which is now complete, consists of 20 units in a terraced block to form one edge of the proposed ‘street’. But these units are also designed to act as a stand-alone block. Further phases to provide 35 units are currently on hold and are unlikely to be developed unless the tram route is confirmed. “I like it a lot for a modern building,” says Karyn. “Where I stayed before was modern, but it looked like the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.” Indeed, there is a real generosity about the Telford March scheme that is sadly lacking in many contemporary social housing developments (and PPP hospitals). The Telford March project consists of four brick ‘towers’ which cantilever off the first-floor podium. Three sets of stairs provide access to up to six flats much like a traditional tenement. The stairways are generous with extended glazed landings, and the hope is that residents will use them like conservatories. Between each tower there is an external terrace. Each flat has a series of staggered projecting window seats or winter gardens/balconies built from western red cedar. These maximise the south-west aspect of the block. From the street there is a gradual transition from public to private spaces. One of the ambitions of architect and client was to create new homes that provided a sense of privacy and ownership while maximising the opportunities for interaction between neighbours. The external spaces are shared or allocated to individual residents and are purposely designed to be low maintenance. A distinctive feature of the scheme is the large number of patio doors. Karyn’s flat has one in the kitchen, two in the living room and one in the bedroom. They provide direct access onto terraces and common gardens and help give the development a very particular character. The only downside is a lack of window ledges. In the run up to Christmas, Karyn is struggling to find space for her decorations, but the aspiration to provide direct access to the garden or terrace is significant. Some tenants are using their blinds to provide privacy, but at least they have a degree of choice. It is unusual to see such a strong relationship between inside and outside spaces in dense social housing projects. The site is also very quiet – tenants overlook the green land set aside for the tram and can watch the foxes play at night. But around the corner there is a stretch of miserable sodden wasteland and a single local shop which wouldn’t look out of place in a scene from Trainspotting. On the edge of this wasteland, gm+ad has managed to create a coherent oasis that sits happily in context while maintaining its own restrained but distinct identity. There’s a sense that you are entering a quiet, well-mannered corner of the city. The scale of the blocks, the organisation of shared space, the simple volumes and limited palette of materials all contribute to a sense of intimacy. The scheme conjures up images of the best of 1970s medium-rise urban housing produced by architects such as Darbonne and Dark that managed to integrate the public realm and private flats to create both visual coherence and a collective identity. Alan Dunlop of gm+ad says the building forms were inspired by Alvar Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall in Finland (1952). It’s easy to see the connection, with the blank brick facades punctured by deep-set windows and mono-pitch roofs. Although this is a design-and-build project, and although a value engineering exercise meant that the gas pipes had to sit outside, it’s still a very sharp building. The contractor, J Smart & Company, used an experienced team of bricklayers, and the drumquin and navan brown bricks, from the Tyrone Brick Company, read like a single skin. “It’s social housing, but we designed it with the idea that people buying their own homes might choose to live here,” says Dunlop. “It is designed to Communities Scotland funding and space standards – the budgets are very tight, but it’s not impossible to make something worthwhile.” This is the first social housing project undertaken by gm+ad. Like many architects, they have attempted to squeeze some quality out of a limited budget. Many of the practices that have been working on social housing for the last two decades argue that it is increasingly difficult to do more than cover the basics with the funding available. At Telford March, the housing associations appear to have managed the process to provide quality and quantity, but such exemplary schemes are increasingly hard to find. The £1.9million project was funded by a £1.25m housing association grant provided by Edinburgh City Council with the balance funded by Manor Estates Housing Association. The total cost per square metre was £1530, compared to an average for the area (Lothians, Borders, Forth Valley & Fife ) of £1305 and a national average of £1129 for all housing association new-builds in 2004/05. The Telford March cost include land costs which are more expensive in Edinburgh than the rest of the region. Rents are £255 to £276 per month, depending on the size of the unit. In most areas, grants for new homes are provided directly by Communities Scotland, but Edinburgh City Council (since 2004) and Glasgow City Council (since 2003) have been given responsibility for managing development funding for Communities Scotland. Communities Scotland grants are given using guidelines that indicate a benchmark amount per three-person units. For larger units, the base goes up. These are guidelines rather than rules. Additional money may also be agreed – for difficult sites where ground work is significant for example. Environmental works to public space can be considered for separate grant funding. The grant given to a housing association is usually about 70 per cent of the total cost. The rest of the money is raised by the associations, using rental income less operating costs to borrow private finance. All new properties have to meet basic space standards set out in the document ‘Housing for Varying Needs’ (The Stationery Office, 1998). The way in which these guides are interpreted can vary between housing associations. If money is spent on providing more generous rooms, then less will be spent on the building form and exterior. In the current conditions, housing associations need to balance aspirations for the tenants and the wider built environment. Communities Scotland is keen to promote improved procurement methods in order to get greater value from the process. However, for small-scale projects such as Telford March, which was built under a design-and-build contract, it is hard to see how procurement can be made more efficient. Communities Scotland is encouraging housing associations to bundle together projects in long-term partnerships with contractors, and the agency insists that greater efficiency does not preclude increases in quality. However, there are worries that the objective of procurement efficiency will take priority over quality and environmental works, and concerns over whether funding benchmarks are keeping up with rising building costs.

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