At The Malings in Newcastle Ash Sakula provides 76 homes that each feel as though they were individually designed
Architect Robert Sakula is right, there isn’t that much that links housing and houses. I too was wondering why we’re including a 76-unit developer scheme in Newcastle in a section largely dedicated to private houses. But if there is a big batch contestant that could compete with small batch housing or even individual homes, The Malings is up there, showing others how it can be done.
Designed by London-based Ash Sakula Architects for Manchester-based developer Igloo, The Malings sits beside the Ouseburn, a small tributary lined with industrial ruins that flows into the Tyne just beyond the Millennium Bridge in the east of the city. The project has received a bit of press coverage over the years, being part of a wider drive to transform this former cradle of industry into a trendy cultural quarter for live bands with an alternative vibe to the short skirts and more manufactured music of the city centre.
Construction of the first of three phases began in 2013 but only now are all of its distinctive fanning finger terraces complete and the last of the new residents moving in.
The project dates back to 2010, when Igloo asked Ash Sakula to draw up a masterplan for the entire valley with Studio Egret West. Governments changed, councils faced new challenges and what had been a huge job became a more modest one – to replace ‘an empty ugly 1980s building’ known as the Ice Factory with some of the first homes in the area for more than 60 years.
‘This kind of project required a pioneering spirit,’ explains Sakula. ‘The obvious thing would have been to lay out blocks of homes to follow the contours of the steeply sloping site. But by creating the development as fingers, each home opens towards the river and southern sun, catching glimpses of the valley.’
The five fingers radiate out from the back of the site, stepping down 8m and stretching 60m towards the river. In between there are new streets for access, communal gardens and even a ‘village’ square, all tied together by one of the most enjoyable ingredients of a medieval town, a hidden alleyway that crosses the site laterally.
‘This is a very simple architecture of timber frame, brick, windows, doorways and drainpipes,’ says Sakula. The project takes the best of what he has seen, no doubt from all over the world, and mixes it all together in a little ravine in Newcastle. The architectural excitement comes from the roofline and the drama of the sloping site, as well as that unexpected masterplan.
Seen from Excite’s Toffee Factory shared workspace on the opposite bank of the Ouseburn, The Malings is noticeably different in form to everything around it, but its local red brick means it fits snugly into its setting. The buildings tumble down the river bank, the fan-shaped fingers inviting people up to explore.
So what makes these homes akin to individually designed private houses? Well, nearly every one of them has its own unique plan. Among multiple types, some are Parisian-style flats around a courtyard, some are stacked duplexes, others terraced houses, back-to-backs and even local typologies such as Tyneside flats – pairs of single storey flats within a two-storey terrace. Three of the homes are detached San Gimignano-like towers standing tall between the fingers at the open end by the river.
On top of this, all the properties have their own architectural characteristics. There’s a wide palette for the front doors, inspired by the sharp colours used by Malings pottery which used to be based nearby and after which the development is named. All the homes have their own front door to the street as well as outdoor space – either a small garden or a large rooftop terrace. Each homeowner has a virtually unique property with many of the practical and emotional rewards of individually commissioned private houses.
Given the complexity involved in drawing up such a detailed scheme, the result is quite astonishing and full of invention. Homes overlap and lock together like a puzzle. Ash Sakula managed to achieve the desired density of 137 homes per hectare, but it had its work cut out. For starters, it persuaded the council to relax the usual rule of 21m distance between facing windows at the upper part of the scheme. And to come in within budget it designed the scheme without any cut bricks or specials. Instead, the bricks weave together at the corners, overlapping and protruding if necessary. It’s a neat detail.
Igloo did its fair share too, convincing the authorities to classify the light industrial and live music background noise characteristic of the area as the ‘ambient noise level’. This was to protect The Malings from anti-noise legislation that has seen residents elsewhere close clubs or stop church bells and cricket net practice, meaning it would retain its edgy identity.
The residents are extremely proud to live there, keen to show Sakula and me around their homes. Inside the individual character might be provided by a top floor kitchen or a four-storey stair from the front door to the upper floor of a stacked duplex. Ceiling heights are more generous on living room floors than bedrooms, and upside down layouts are used to make the most of the views. They are spacious too.
Conversely, although each property feels unique and private inside, step out of the front door and a communal life opens up, capable of accommodating residents from babies to 91-year-olds. Larger communal allotments are prioritised over private gardens, fences between property boundaries are replaced by benches, bins are stored centrally so neighbours bump into each other, and the ground floor by the river is given over to communal bike storage.
Circulation is also designed to make the pedestrian experience the most appealing – there are tight turning circles for cars, porches over entranceways for sheltering from the rain and a new riverside walk. In the future two planned retail units along the river promenade should create even more of a buzz.
The project takes sustainability seriously too, cramming in so many good ideas that every inch of the site has been put to use. There is a blend of green and brown roofs, as well as photovoltaics. Rainwater is collected in rain gardens, via the rills in front of the houses and attenuated in the swales along the promenade. Most people would only notice these measures as a green and pleasant place.
Overall, Ash Sakula’s The Malings is a fantastically well planned, designed and built project demonstrating that new-build, batch-built properties can have character. It has created a community that feels tight-knit, and in contrast to Igloo’s early belief that it would have to sell the homes at a cut price to entice people into the area, it’s becoming a sought-after place for Newcastle’s intelligentsia – university lecturers, artists, designers. A new hipster lifestyle café cum ceramics workshop has just opened behind the development. If every new housing project took on board even a handful of the multitude of ideas at The Malings, I’m sure their communities would feel more connected and happier.
Yet this enormous success feels slightly dangerous for this historic setting. Igloo still has the option to develop multiple sites down the valley. Ash Sakula has over the years consulted on as many as nine of them. One such site is over the water, another is the timber yard next door. Much more development, even as high quality and intellectually ambitious as this one, would start to break up the spirit of what makes the valley so charming and appealing beyond The Malings – an almost bucolic landscape threaded with romantic ruins and ongoing light industrial activity. I’m confident though that if there is more development Igloo is the right one to do it. Any developer that appreciates the need to provide a spot for toe-dipping in the river has got people’s physical and emotional wellbeing at heart.
Architect, landscape designer and community engagement Ash Sakula
Developer Carillion Igloo
Contractor Gentoo Construction
Structural and transport engineer Civic Engineers
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Environmental engineer AMEC Environmental and Infrastructure
Project management Buro Four
Planning consultant Cundall
CDM co-ordinator Schal
Cost consultant Gleeds
Bricks Ibstock Birtley Northern Buff
Timber frame Karlin
Windows and doors West Port
M&E sub-contractor Lorne Stewart
Structural steelwork A M Fabrication
Podium deck Northern Steel Decking
Precast stairs ACP Concrete
Timber stairs GD Woodworking
Sliding garage doors Automation Security