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Reed Watts’ practical neighbourhood scheme brings Belgium to Barking

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Pragmatism drove the austerity of Reed Watts’ Harbard Close in Barking, which concentrates on connectivity to make the affordable scheme part of its locality and maintain community spirit

The crisp, pared-back aesthetic on display facing the Northern Relief Road remains deferential to existing housing.
The crisp, pared-back aesthetic on display facing the Northern Relief Road remains deferential to existing housing. Credit: Fred Howarth

If things have moved slowly in Barking since London County Council completed its Becontree estate in 1935, they seem to be rushing along now, including Reed Watts’ Harbard Close for Pocket Living. Built on the site of market gardens at the city’s edge, Becontree’s 26,000 homes for heroes made it the largest public housing estate in the world, with, over time, the fame and notoriety to match. That reputation was due in no small part to its lack of connectivity; something current developers are avoiding by huddling around the railway station to its west. Central Barking’s regeneration is startling next to its 15th century Curfew Tower. 

Ringing in the changes is council-owned regeneration management organisation Be First, playing its part in bringing 50,000 new homes and employment opportunities to the borough. Adopting a pincer movement on the town centre’s 19th century, grade II-listed Linton Road Baptist tabernacle will be its dense, high-rise 400-home development, with a further 1400 flats on the borough’s Gascoigne estate. South of the tabernacle and west of Curfew Tower, Weston Homes is building out its mid-rise Abbey Quay on the banks of the River Rodring, a £350 million, 1100-unit development on the site of a former retail park. In the shadow of both, the sexy brick curves of Peter Barber’s 14-home North Street terrace and the geometric, concrete starkness of Apparata’s House for Artists seem quaint and reactionary by comparison.

Before anything else, the architect sought to address connectivity on a fundamental level

Access staircases to flats all have wide landings, to encourage gradual occupation by residents.
Access staircases to flats all have wide landings, to encourage gradual occupation by residents. Credit: Matt Livey

Be First pre-empted the maxim ‘where artists go, developers follow’ by tempting them at the outset with a carrot of less-than-market rents for enviable architect-designed living spaces. It might seem a cynical marketing ploy; but artists are just another demographic, and tailoring your product to cater to a specific niche can yield a profit – something the more prosaic Pocket Living has been doing for nearly 20 years. Pocket’s model of working with London councils to create starter homes for local first-time buyers at a 20% discount on market rates has ensured a steady stream of key workers and professional couples buying in to get on the housing ladder, people who would otherwise be priced out of their own neighbourhood.

It’s that aspirational component that drove Pocket Living to take a punt on early career architects rethinking how those lifestyles could be – evidenced here by Reed Watts’ housing for it at Harbard Close just off Whiting Avenue’s 1950s social housing. Appointed in 2019 to carry out a feasibility study which went to Stage 2 and on to completion, it was a steep learning curve for the practice. But here it is; three 4-6 storey blocks, containing 78 one-bed homes, epitomise Pocket’s ethos. Eager young buyers are stacked in identical, well-planned and functional 38m² flats on either side of internal corridors, and accessed from external steel stair cores.

With profit margins tight, it was incumbent on Reed Watts from the start to achieve all of this on a strict budget. Inspired by the site’s post-war prefab housing – demolished in the 1970s with the site left vacant – the firm looked to volumetric solutions to eke savings from the reduced construction programme, with a boon of less inconvenience to neighbouring residents. The exercise in considered austerity that you see on the busy A124 that divides the flats from the River Rodring is the result of both that initial idea and contingent factors – not least of which was the insolvency of the original contractor in late 2019 followed by the Covid pandemic in 2020. All affected the final design.

Looking west from Whiting Avenue, Harbard Close has a continental austerity and the staggered brick elevation intimates brick shenanigans. Credit: Fred Howarth
Above Block ‘airlock’ entrances are set behind the doors of a ‘walled garden’, part of an over-zealous security strategy. Credit: Fred Howarth

But before all this, the architect had sought to address connectivity on a fundamental level. A cul-de-sac hemmed in by a semi-circular curve of the Northern Relief Road, the opening that divides a pair of blocks from the single tower of the three, serves a strategic purpose. The architect points out that had the three blocks run in a line they would have reinforced the peninsular nature of the existing estate from the surrounding development, and Reed Watts felt that would have meant blocks ‘facing one way or the other’. Luckily, infrastructure intervened. A massive underground sewer right there, running under the relief road to a pumping station, would have required costly foundation works to address. The gap has instead become a public pedestrian route through the new blocks to the road and retail areas beyond, helping bed the new blocks into the existing estate and making Harbard Close – well, not a close at all.

And if brickwork courses of the blocks look too good to be true, that’s because they are – though the shifted grid of the elevation alludes to it. Brick slips have been hand-applied to thick, insulated panels set on a light-gauge steel frame, although this was not originally intended. After the architect had designed and tendered for a modular design to be trucked in, the client later discovered that, with the subcontractor unable to provide Build Offsite Property Assurance (BOPAS) Accreditation, the flats would be unmortgageable. So Reed Watts had to revert to on-site construction. The Grenfell fire also played a part when nervous planners reneged on aspects of their permission, insisting that the approved GRC tiles on timber battens and timber windows be replaced with brick facing and metal frames. But with foundation loadings based on an already-procured light-gauge steel frame on a D&B contract, late change options were limited; it was not without a degree of trepidation that Reed Watts was forced to consider brick slips.

The development’s ground floor social space is generously-sized- and critically, opens out onto a secure external space for events in clement weather. Credit: Matt Livey
Brick floors ox-blood painted steel, Reglit panels and fibre cement planks combine to give a crisp aesthetic in stair towers. Credit: Matt Livey

The firm’s collaboration with Sto for blended coloured brick slips bonded onto mesh-reinforced, rendered, insulated panels is oddly satisfying, bearing the curious imprint of craft. Hand-fixed, the manual component was crucial. As a result, you won’t see expected panel or expansion joints, just a notable precision which, working together with the anodised metal Juliet balcony handrails and almost face-fixed glazing frames, creates a Low Countries levels of aesthetic austerity. It works well with the oxblood red of the two expressed external stair cores, the taller of which includes an access lift. The outer faces of these are partly clad in Reglit panels, so they not only act as a useful windbreak in this exposed location but will look good backlit – which they are – by night.

Pocket’s wish to encourage social interaction between residents resulted in stair cores designed wide enough for residents to place pots and planters and offer a sense of ownership. Curiously, the Juliet balconies are part of the same thinking; not just about keeping costs low, it encourages residents to not sequester themselves in their flats but use the common ‘meadow land’ exterior spaces as well as the simply fitted-out but adequate ground floor social space for group activities. Crime is a concern in the area and secure fences and airlock entry systems, which also access bike storage areas, should give residents the assurance to ensure both are better used in the summer months.

The aim was to relate the development to the existing context.
The aim was to relate the development to the existing context. Credit: Reed Watts

Residents moved in over the course of last year and while I might have concerns about the robustness of those brick slip insulated panels, Reed Watts insists they were passed by the NHBC and will take a good kicking. Certainly the development looks unscathed and seems to be bedding in. It’s doing its bit, says the architect, in broadening the estate’s demographic mix, answering a need that wasn’t being met elsewhere. And it seems consciously deferential to what’s already there, although I’m unsure if its continental austerity doesn’t verge on the severe in this context. But looking through windows, the super-efficient, open-plan flats seem happily occupied. 

Reed Watts completed the £11.5 million project after two years on site, 18 months after it had originally intended; but for Pocket Living the story continued. Project delays here reportedy contributed £1.3 million to its pre-tax losses of £19 million in the last financial year, which may have precipitated Pocket Living’s recent sale of the Harbard Close freehold to the less-evocatively named ‘Adriatic Land 13.’ Whether its owner, ground rent fund Long Harbour, shares Pocket Living’s founding ambitions, remains to be seen. 

IN NUMBERS

Construction cost £11.5m
Cost per m² £2750
Gia 4093m²
Construction time 2 years

Credits

Client Pocket Living
Architect and lead designer Reed Watts Architects
Main contractor McLaren Construction
QS and EA Equals Consulting
Structural engineer Parmarbrook
MEP & energy Consultant Tuv-Sud
Soft landscape design ACD Environmental
Fire engineer JGA
Planning consultant Boyer Planning
Principal designer 3CRisk
Approved inspector Assenta

 

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