Bell Phillips' model homes for the elderly look good but could have been more carefully thought through as living spaces
Bell Phillips Architects’ model homes for the elderly have now alighted at six sites in the London Borough of Greenwich, in a dramatic and satisfying form that carries itself with a certain modesty. They sit comfortably alongside conservation area cottages, create a backland terrace overseen by stacks of social housing and cower below a mega block. It is quite a task to design a form that will sit happily, holding its own, in the spattering of locations that a local authority can repurpose from its portfolio. But there is no doubting the aesthetic improvement from run down garage sites to new housing. Nor do they rely on each other to make little communities: in groups from two to six at most they are infills, bolt-ons to the existing community.
As with Patel Taylor’s bungalows in east London they are designed to encourage aging local authority tenants to move to more suitable, accessible dwellings, freeing up their family homes for others. Interestingly, though, at 90m2 these two bed homes are likely to be as big as some of the ‘larger’ ones that are being let to families.
The preferred bungalow style means this development is particularly suitable for certain sites. It also gives a design freedom that is rarely accorded to London architects, especially one such as Bell Phillips which has found much work in social housing designing at density. The practice has seized this opportunity; the roofs are pushed up towards the street with a grand lantern above the entrance, wrapped in zinc, bringing light into the living spaces. The kitchen sits at the centre while the bedroom and washing zones run parallel, this roof kinking up over the main bedroom – though for height rather than light.
It is the roofs that give these homes their character, although adding cost and complexity, Mark Malin of contractor Newlyns tells me. As he comes out to tackle the architect’s Hari Phillips for turning up unannounced at one of the still unfinished homes , I have to ask the obvious question: ‘How were the roofs to build?’ Malin is not happy: four pitches over each house drain to guttering in the middle of the plan. The complexity experienced by the contractor on the scheme may be the result of the small scale of jobs it is used to, as Phillips suggests. As ever it is the very things that make them special that are the hardest to build.
To me the more fundamental issue is that the lived detail of these homes is thoughtlessly lacking. Privacy and security, visibly considered on the 10ft high fences at another of the sites at Coldbath Street, is not thought through on this street frontage. As pensioners move into their homes I see them covering a floor to ceiling glass door that doubles as the second bedroom’s window with scraps of material and flattened cardboard boxes. A door? Well, yes, this is a secondary means of escape, necessary as the kitchens are open plan – something apparently not spotted early enough to rethink the diagram. This means that to air the room thoroughly occupants must throw the bedroom door open to the street, with all the security issues that follow. The panel next to the front door is fully glazed too, allowing views right through the living spaces to the back of the house. Greenwich Council plans to supply matching net curtains but they have clearly not arrived at all homes, and looked inadequate in most of those that we visited.
Though the houses are set back from the street, the private space is mostly delineated by paving, the side wall used merely as a device between neighbours for storing a bin against. It will need a little more than this to convince residents to put out their pot plants.
Despite all this the residents I talked to – Mr and Mrs Jones – are extremely happy with their new home, exchanging a battle with staircase and bath each day for a single level and shower. There was no mention either of the fact that it might have been nice to have natural light in the wet room.
Much of generous sense of the houses is down to the plan size: 90m2, following Greenwich accessibility standards, compared to London Housing Design Guide of 70m2 for two bed four person homes. It is chastening that access requirements driven essentially by wheelchair manouevres are one of the few things that push this city’s housing up to a reasonable, liveable size. But there is a gem of a design idea here, the roofs reifying the bungalow, giving it urban presence in the lift to the profiles, washing the centre of the relatively deep plan with light and providing a loftiness that few social housing units can lay claim to.
Architect Bell Phillips Architects
Client Royal Borough of Greenwich
Structural engineer Richard Jackson
Main contractor Newlyns