A pioneering development in Lewisham, south London, keeps residents' homes affordable – and benefits the neighbours too
Standing outside the front door of his new home, Alex Ingram is counting his blessings. ‘With rising prices I was getting to the stage where I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay in London, near my friends and work,’ he says. At Citizens House, a small community-led development in Lewisham, he was able to buy a flat at a third below market price, whose future value is pegged to local incomes. ‘A phenomenal amount of stress has gone from my life,’ he says, ‘and I’m safeguarding an affordable home for somebody else in the future. That feels really good.’
It’s a sentiment that reflects a remarkable generosity found in every stage of the project. Its genesis, 10 years ago, came when the charity Lewisham Citizens identified housing as a key issue. One member knew of an innovative development under way at a former workhouse infirmary in Bow, containing the city’s first Community Land Trust – or CLT – housing. The model, which originates in the US, involves non-profit organisations in developing affordable homes for rent or sale, with an eye to the wider interests of local people, and while ensuring that ownership of the land remains in trust as a community asset.
The charity paired up with the same organisation, London CLT, and its volunteers trawled the borough for suitable sites, finding 43. Eventually Lewisham Council offered the free transfer of a ropey collection of garages in the corner of a post-war estate for what would be the first housing in the city to be delivered by a CLT without a commercial developer.
‘The next step was door-knocking, leafleting and setting up an estate residents’ steering group,’ says one of the volunteers, assistant headteacher Janet Emmanuel. ‘We didn’t want the first thing neighbours knew about it to be when trucks rolled in.’
Architects bidding for the job were invited to present themselves at a community pizza party, followed by a public vote. London practice Archio got the nod. ‘I don’t think architecture gets any more X-Factor,’ says director Mellis Haward. ‘But it really established the dynamic of the project, and made it very collaborative from the start.’
A three-day workshop on site with estate residents helped to define the design objectives. ‘We brought cutting mats and tools so people could be architects for the day,’ says Haward. There were useful invitations into back gardens to get a feel for light and views, and some surprises too. Archio thought estate residents might like the development to provide allotments or a new bit of green space. ‘They said they had enough already,’ adds Haward. ‘What they wanted was somewhere that everyone on the estate could pull up a chair for a chat.’
The scheme Archio put together reflects that input together with some complexities typical of small backland sites – not least a gas main. Massing of the four-storey, 11-flat building suggests three blocks stepped in plan. It is set close to the boundary of a primary school on the eastern edge of the site to form a sunny piazza to the west. Lightwells are notched into both ends, so bedrooms on the upper floors don’t overlook neighbours. The residents approved. When the planning application went in with 107 letters of support, the council initially suspected fraud.
I don’t think architecture gets any more X-Factor
As you approach the completed building through the estate, its pale grey brickwork and projecting balconies seem to lighten the architectural atmosphere, and enhance the apparent openness of the brick-paved terrace out front.
Built for £2.5 million, the block has a strong identity but few frills; there’s no set-back at the top or deep recess at the entrance. ‘They add cost but not value for residents’, says Archio director Kyle Buchanan. ‘It’s a nice design challenge to produce something good with not much’.
Liveliness comes from the way metal balconies are shuffled across the staggered west facade, rather than stacked. With thick concrete floors, Buchanan observes, there’s no problem in putting living rooms above bedrooms, and the arrangement gives each balcony some breathing space while remaining close enough to its neighbours for a chat over the balustrade.
First-floor balconies double as porches to ground-floor flats, which are entered directly from the piazza and have little back gardens. A second-floor balcony makes a lofty canopy to the main entrance, which opens onto a brick-lined passage leading to an external stair.
Open to the elements, the curved steel stair is economical but designed with intent. The architects imagine the people now living in the building getting to know each other through their comings and goings. Deep access decks on every floor might allow for a small table and chairs in the shared space.
Inevitably, the mix of one- and two-bed flats conforms to London’s minimum space standards, but sensitive planning means they feel light and spacious. On one side the flats have entrance halls big enough to put a desk in. ‘The tricky thing with deck access for three flats per floor is that two are entered at the corner, and you can end up with a lot of corridor’, says Buchanan. ‘By giving it an extra two square metres we’ve made a room’. On the other side, long corridors are wide enough for two people to pass comfortably, and with windows at both ends. Most flats are triple aspect without compromising neighbours’ privacy.
The balconies are a highlight, overlooking the terrace. Down below, the mat of brick is extended to the edge of perimeter parking bays, making it seem larger, with the car-free area subtly indicated by rocks. Neighbours previously avoided the ‘intimidating’ garages; now they stroll through en route to the shops. The terrace will host the estate’s summer barbecue.
Everyone seems to have got something out of this project, through a commitment to the wider interests of a community. The new owners got their homes, of course, but also describe the sense of belonging that the neighbours’ participation gives. For Archio it has been highly rewarding – and perhaps the entrée to a fascinating field: its current projects include inter-generational co-housing, community-led schemes for self-builders in London and single mothers in Bristol, and work with several new CLTs. ‘We are particularly drawn to projects where our work might have a wider social impact,’ says director Kyle Buchanan. ‘And the ones we win do seem to require a regard for more than how many units you can get out of a site.’
For London CLT, it’s proof of concept at what could be a critical moment. ‘We need 300,000 homes a year but the private sector can only provide 200,000,’ says executive director Oliver Bulleid – an architect by background. ‘We can be part of the solution.’ A report published in March by the Community Land Trust Network counts 468 British CLTs – more than anywhere else in the world – with many more forming, and estimates that they could deliver 278,000 homes, alone or with development partners. ‘We need funding and more land that’s treated as a community asset, not a commodity,’ says Bulleid, ‘but this could be the start of something amazing.’
Effective consultation is addressed in Collective Action! The Power of Collaboration and Co-Design, edited by Archio directors Mellis Haward and Kyle Buchanan with Rob Fiehn. RIBA Publishing, available from ribabooks.com
Construction cost £2.5m
Cost inc landscaping £3750/m²
Number of flats 11
Client London CLT
Campaigners Lewisham Citizens
Project manager BPM Project Management
Quantity surveyor Alistair Russell
Grant funding London Housing Fund, Greater London Authority
Finance Big Issue Invest