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MacEwen Award 2024 highly commended: Citizens House, Lewisham, keeps people closer to home

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Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Archio’s much-needed affordable homes in south London prioritise robust details and community input to squeeze the most from a tight budget

‘It was really sketchy,’ says Mellis Haward. During a swift building tour on a reassuringly brisk winter’s day alongside some Lewisham planners, the Archio director describes the edgy condition of the site before its bold, 11-home, white-brick Citizens House stood on it – even before its client, London Community Land Trust, realised the site was there. Wearing an electric blue wool coat, Haward stands bright against the post-war municipal red brick of the Brasted Close estate, where the word hangs in the air for a moment like our breath. She seems too genteel to use it but her choice of urban slang seems very south London – very contextual – and there’s a reason for that.

Lewisham Citizens, part of Citizens UK, which works to create change by empowering communities, had been actively campaigning in the borough since 2014, acutely aware of the dearth of affordable housing in the area for local people. Luckily, notes Mellis, it was engaging with an area that already had a notable history of community-focused projects, not least Segal’s Walter’s Way and the recent Ladywell housing by RSHP – which might explain the evident pride of planners on the walkabout here. 

When Lewisham Citizens engaged London Community Land Trust, a non-profit organisation making genuine and permanently affordable homes, they identified 43 potential sites for development and presented them to the council. One was the garages site on Brasted Close estate. While a useful through route for walking to the station, it was run down and there was active drug dealing and fly tipping – all next to a primary school. Lewisham long-leased it to London CLT in early 2016 and it is a community asset as long as that remains; one and two-bed flats here are offered to buy at 65% of market value, so a few lucky locals (over 1000 applied) are no longer forced out of the borough to buy.

Given the tightness of the site, it seems unlikely that any approach other than a community-led one could have realised the spatial generosity of these 70% keyworker homes, and be so sensitive to the needs of all the existing residents – not least that primary school, whose playground butts up to the ground floor flats’ patios and access stair. Lewisham Citizens wanted to hit the ground running in summer 2016 and held a ‘community picnic’ where it picked architect Archio. It in turn followed this up with a ‘temporary architect’s office’– three days when it set up on the site with tables, paper and a foam cutter to talk to residents about how they thought the new building and its public space could be designed. By the time planning was submitted in 2018 after a further four public workshops and eight steering group meetings, most concerns were ironed out and the application received 107 letters of support – ‘the CLT was keen to change the dynamics of decision-making,’ says Haward. It did.

  • The site is on a thoroughfare for the wider neighbourhood.
    The site is on a thoroughfare for the wider neighbourhood. Credit: French and Tye
  • Citizens House looking south. The estate expressed a preference for hard landscaping for community events over more green space or front gardens.
    Citizens House looking south. The estate expressed a preference for hard landscaping for community events over more green space or front gardens. Credit: French and Tye
  • The shared stair is a place for resident engagement.
    The shared stair is a place for resident engagement. Credit: French and Tye
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Through engagement, the block dropped from four to three storeys on the north side to allay light and privacy concerns from adjacent residents, and the school was satisfied about overlooking. With the public realm placed to the west and its hard landscaping in similar, creamy brick paviors, the block seems to expand luxuriantly and sunnily into the site; it was clear early on that residents wanted a place to communally gather and play rather than underused front gardens with a perimeter access path.

Value engineering occurred, but because Archio’s strategy was to make every penny of its £2.5 million budget work anyway, it was negligible; the building is simple and solid with few flourishes. The desired exposed concrete floor bands were swapped for glazed bricks as soldier courses and the block itself has very little formal articulation. Archio saved that for big bolt-on balconies that stagger between flats to allow for neighbours to talk up and down to each other in a formal reading of what happens in communities the world over.

The practice worked hard on interiors too. Flats, oriented east/west, are sunlit and generous, with wide corridors giving residents space to personalise them without feeling cluttered. ‘I’ve got a comment about the insulation and sound,’ says Jerome, who’s let us into his minimalist home, and Haward gasps for a moment. ‘It’s just great,’ he continues. ‘I’ve barely needed to put the heating on so far and you don’t hear other flats.’ With visible relief, she explains that the firm wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel and that simple ‘Robust Details’ worked just fine for it; clearly for residents too.

London CLT’s Citizens House is a new, stylish way for Lewisham residents to get on the property ladder. Credit: French and Tye
The stair brings housing and primary school into direct visual connection. Credit: French and Tye

With Archio subsuming itself in a wider process of engagement, it is the design’s self-effacing pragmatism that, to the MacEwen judges, was its greatest asset. Alex Scott-Whitby felt it to be ‘a really special building because in the hands of the wrong architect this could have been very, very different’. Je Ahn added: ‘It must be a dream come true for everyone, including the architect. Well resolved and considered, while delivered on a tight budget, it’s a shining example of how good design can have a meaningful impact on a community.

Resident Trev, meanwhile, who could not normally have afforded the flat they have, is looking forward to spending more time on the balcony with their dog. Sometimes they see a couple of local girls who’ve taken to sitting out front, enjoying the sun and gossiping while on their phones; this is, after all, a space for the whole estate. On my way out of Trev’s I notice a print of the Barbican estate on the wall and Trev tells me they love it. Simple and functional too. ‘Do you reckon this place might feel a bit like it?’ I ask. They laugh as they see me past the sunlit east window to the door: ’No way – it’s nowhere near grim enough!’

See more MacEwen projects and architecture for the common good 

  • Flats are spacious and light, with balconies you can actually socialise on.
    Flats are spacious and light, with balconies you can actually socialise on. Credit: French and Tye
  • Detailing was considered,  but simple and robust.
    Detailing was considered, but simple and robust. Credit: French and Tye
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IN NUMBERS

Construction cost £2.5m 
Gifa 667m² 
Cost inc landscaping £3750/m² 
One and two-bed flats 11 

Credits

Client London CLT
Architect Archio
Campaigner Lewisham Citizens
Project manager BPM Project Management
Quantity surveyor  Alistair Russell
Contractor Rooff
Grant funding London Housing Fund, Greater London Authority
Finance Big Issue Invest

 

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