Communal space, resident input to the design, and sacrosanct private space – Mole Architects’ Marmalade Lane scheme in Cambridge is a model of developer co-housing
If good fences make good neighbours, then what happens when there are no fences at all? The terraced houses on Marmalade Lane are packed together cheek by jowl. Yet each brickwork property marks its territory not with a wall, but with an outward-facing bench.
‘People have to figure out what level of privacy suits them,’ says Meredith Bowles, founder of Mole Architects. ‘My hope is that people make their houses their own.’
Privacy, it seems, is over-rated. Six months into this radical Cambridge experiment in co-housing, there is not a screen, hedge or fence in sight. In fact, the toys on the pocket-sized lawns spill out into the pedestrianised street. Goalposts, cricket bats, coloured chalk — a whole trail of life links the front doors to the cobbles. A fearsome bundle of energy called Oscar demands every newcomer’s name. He scoots past at a joyous pace.
‘We put kids into all the CGIs as a hope,’ says Bowles. ‘It’s amazing to see it actually occupied in this way.’
Marmalade Lane is a product of chance. Following the recession in 2008, Cambridge City Council found itself short of developers. But the city was still growing, and a belt of land on its northern fringe needed filling. With no buyers keen to take on the risk, a plot of land known as K1 became a petri dish, which the council would fill with an entirely new culture in the vague hope that something different might grow. There were plenty of co-housing groups who wanted the opportunity to put their beliefs into practice. What was to be lost by giving them a go?
‘It was the far-sightedness of Cambridge City Council that made it happen,’ says Jonny Anstead, head of developer TOWN. ‘They were determined to do something more progressive with the land.’
Think of a horseshoe wrapped around a wild flower meadow
So began a truly collaborative effort. The K1 co-housing group worked with developers TOWN and Trisvelhus, who in turn appointed Mole Architects to create something that went beyond the old mantra of buy, build, sell. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of the project’s success than the fact that Francis Wright, a Marmalade Lane resident and K1 co-housing member, is about to take a new job at TOWN.
‘Where we lived before it was hard to connect with people,’ says Wright. ‘Here it’s just designed to facilitate interaction. TOWN is really thinking back to Victorian streets.’
Marmalade Lane is something of a misnomer. The estate is much bigger than the name suggests. Think of a horseshoe wrapped around a wild flower meadow. A three-storey block of flats runs along one side of the common land. The two other sides are filled with the pitched roofs of terraces of cream, ochre and orange brick houses. One of these terraces backs onto the estate’s eponymous lane — a lively jumble of bird feeders and potted plants, displaying all the signs of a well-loved and well-lived space.
At the end of Marmalade Lane (which incidentally sounds like a Beatles lyric) is the ‘common house’, which stands in for a traditional village hall. This is the estate’s beating heart. All residents are welcome here at any time to stew teas, to rent a guest room or to peruse the noticeboard advertising curry nights and crafternoons. In the main hall of the common house, the zinc roof has been sliced open by a skylight which, situated directly above the electric piano, gives a reverential direction to the frequent yoga classes.
Mole Architects pushes variety in its design far enough to dispel boredom, but not so far as to undermine the contiguous whole. At one end of the estate I-beams hold the apartment block’s overhang in hot white tension. At the other end, you have quaint dormer windows. Structure is exposed judiciously, not dogmatically. And despite the visual variation, there are some constants underneath. All 42 properties are triple-glazed and use a closed panel timber frame system that ensures maximum thermal efficiency. Surrounded by ample cycle lanes and displaying a healthy disregard for residents’ cars, the estate has an inherent ecological advantage.
‘Building in terraces is always going to be more cost effective and more energy efficient,’ explains Bowles.
But terraces also have their disadvantages. With so much shared space (including a small gym, allotments and a workshop) and so much shared activity, there is a danger that, after a long day at work, hot and irascible, a Marmalade Lane resident might come home to find a neighbour standing outside their three-bed, reminding them that tonight is a meeting of the parent’s association, and that they have agreed to chair, so if they wouldn’t mind coming along, it’s getting on for seven and the meeting was supposed to start at half-six.
‘Actually there’s a whole continuum of engagement,’ says Wright. ‘My husband, for example, doesn’t really like big social occasions. He gets involved by going out early in the morning and managing the gardens. There’s no pressure to take part.’
Cohousing creates community. However, co-housing is not commune living. Personal space is sacrosanct. You realise that when you go inside one of the flats, and the children’s play outside recedes into the background.
‘We specified to the architect that it had to build to a much higher soundproofing than required,’ says Wright. ‘We can’t hear neighbours’ arguments.’
This is the sort of careful detail that speaks of collaborative design. Cambridge City Council entrusted ordinary residents to make decisions about the space they wanted to live in. In turn Mole Architects has been malleable — converting some attics into an extra room, while leaving others with planning permission to build up in the future. To each their own.
‘Our view is that it’s from working with your customers that you build something better,’ says Jonny Anstead from TOWN. ‘It’s more time-consuming. But there’s greater reward.’
In a sense, Marmalade Lane is a rebuke to rampant developer culture. But more importantly it’s an example of people taking responsibility for the buildings they want to live in. When councils allow people to care about design, invariably, they do.
‘People’s desire to do things for themselves is pretty universal. As is people’s desire for the contact of others,’ says Bowles. ‘I think this project is absolutely replicable.’