Long walk home in Lewisham

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Extremely slow progress with a disjointed site led Loromah Estates to self-build with multi-disciplinary Bryden Wood. The result is an intelligent enclave of private rentals

Sketched site plan, Churchwood Gardens.
Sketched site plan, Churchwood Gardens. Credit: Bryden Wood.

Somehow I’d never got to see the famous Walter Segal-designed late 1970s self-build development in Lewisham, Walter’s Way. It had certainly never occurred to me that the concept of these timber-framed homes, straggling down a steep hill on a plot too awkward for conventional developers, might be a model for a large new build-for-rent development nearby. Such is the case however, though having now seen both, it’s clear that you can’t push the analogy too far. Churchwood Gardens by architect Bryden Wood is an intriguing exercise in making a relatively high-density housing development on a landlocked hillside site in south London.

  • Adapting to an existing landscape, Churchwood Gardens maximises the potential of the steeply sloping site.
    Adapting to an existing landscape, Churchwood Gardens maximises the potential of the steeply sloping site. Credit: Jocelyn Low
  • Nearby Walter’s Way with its Segal Method self-build homes was a design inspiration.
    Nearby Walter’s Way with its Segal Method self-build homes was a design inspiration. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Brick-clad smaller entrance pavilions.
    Brick-clad smaller entrance pavilions. Credit: Jocelyn Low
  • Forms of the blocks are broken down to preserve views through the site. Green roofs help blend with the landscape.
    Forms of the blocks are broken down to preserve views through the site. Green roofs help blend with the landscape. Credit: Don Lewis
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Private sector build-to-rent is part of the housing mix that, while growing in importance, tends to receive scant attention. Usually developers want to sell their flats and houses sharpish, ideally off-plan, bank the profit and move on to the next project. Rental is often a last resort when flats don’t sell, usually because they are released onto the market at a time of economic uncertainty or over-supply. But there is a different approach. The developer behind Churchwood Gardens, Loromah Estates, is a small, long-established family business, active from the post-war years onwards. It operates slowly and deliberately. It doesn’t like selling its properties. It prefers to hang on to them, rent them out, and design them accordingly. 

MD Lissa Napolitano says her market is often young and mobile: renting suits them for a while, then they’ll trade up – perhaps wanting to buy, or starting a family. So tenancies are relatively short – two or three years, say. The flats and their fittings and equipment must be robust, easily maintainable, capable of rapid turnaround between tenancies. No landlord wants to be forever fixing faults, nor does any tenant want them. This kickable-design approach, however, does not have to mean lowest-common-denominator design. Quite the contrary at Churchwood Gardens which is spacious inside and out, well landscaped, clearly upmarket.

The story of the backlands site is a long and convoluted one, going right back to the early 1950s when Napolitano’s father joined the family firm and bought some properties here in the part of Lewisham called Honor Oak Park. By the 1980s he wanted to redevelop them. He had accumulated a decent L-shaped site with access – but for a landlocked slice of the site, like a ransom strip, owned by someone who refused to sell for a long time. Nobody else wanted it because only Napolitano had access. Then Loromah bought another large chunk of adjoining land. Various schemes came and went over the years. Local residents got a campaign going against any development on the site. 

It likes to rent its properties, and design them accordingly

  • The pavilions have generous balconies and terraces.
    The pavilions have generous balconies and terraces. Credit: Jocelyn Low
  • Cedar shingles cover facing elevations…
    Cedar shingles cover facing elevations… Credit: Jocelyn Low
  • …while cedar boards address the open areas.
    …while cedar boards address the open areas. Credit: Jocelyn Low
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Bryden Wood started work on its scheme – landscape-based, the 71 homes distributed around seven informally-arranged cedar-clad pavilions and two brick entrance ‘lodges’ – in late 2007. Planning permission came on appeal in 2010. Further delays – including a spell when travellers moved onto the site – finally ended when Lomorah, flummoxed by high tender prices, decided to grasp the nettle and build out the scheme itself, using its own contractors. In that sense it was indeed a self-build, if not quite on the house-by-house Walter’s Way model. Bryden Wood, being a multi-disciplinary practice of architects, engineers and designers, also helped to streamline the process.  

The end result, after all these years, is an agreeable and intelligently planned enclave. It is the diametric opposite of that curse of the private housing market, permitted conversion of office buildings with no planning oversight, some of which are creating the 21st century equivalent of the Victorian ‘rookeries’. In contrast, this is built according to London Plan requirements and according to the National Housing Federation’s good practice guide. It feels generous. There are green roofs and banks of photovoltaic panels. Daylighting is good, through full-height glazing. Balconies are large. The topography helps, of course: with the pavilions kept relatively low, existing buildings further up the hill can look right over them to the distant views. Rainwater run-off is dealt with through SuDS (sustainable drainage systems). And there’s an on-site concierge/handyman to deal with all the usual little issues on such estates. 

It is by no means perfect. I find the cladding mix of cedar boards and shingles a bit odd (apparently shingles are used where properties face each other, boards where they face open areas but I can’t see why this distinction is necessary). There are various ancillary structures, some rather intrusive. It is very much designed for car access (doubtless to avoid parking overload on the surrounding streets) although they have gone to considerable expense to use the slope to hide the cars beneath some of the buildings. I saw it in its recently-completed state and it will make a big difference when the new landscaping matures. But think of the alternatives. As Bryden Wood director Paul O’Neill observes, rental accommodation in London isn’t known for its character or quality, and here they had the opportunity to offer both. 

As towns and cities densify, backlands such as this inevitably come up for development sooner or later and the key is to keep as much as you can of the character of the area. This does that. Many theoretical studies have been done on suburban densification. Here, I would suggest, is an exemplar, working in an often-overlooked sector of the market, by just the kind of small and committed developer/builder that should be encouraged. 


IN NUMBERS

£14m construction cost
8,270 m2 site area
71 homes
9 buildings
11 years in design, planning and construction

Credits

Client/project manager 
Loromah Estates
Architect, structural, civil and services engineer 
Bryden Wood  
Contractor 
Wicklow Projects 
Health and safety advisor 
Pierce Hill Project Services
Landscape 
Davis Landscape Architecture
Fire engineer 
Jeremy Gardner Associates
Planning consultant 
Frost Planning

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