Downsizing, aging, isolation... retirement needn’t be like this if places are designed to promote sociability and community. Proctor & Matthews’ Steepleton development for Pegasus Life does just that
The concept of a retirement complex seems fraught with undertones of ghetto, combined uncomfortably with its exposure of intergenerational disparities and disconnects – and commercialisation of age. But walking out of the steep stone streets of the Cotswold town of Tetbury towards the almshouse-courtyard of Steepleton it is hard to square this friendly looking scheme with such abstract concerns.
Developer PegasusLife has 25 sites on the go, intending to offer design-led homes to aging baby boomers. It has worked with architects such as RCKa, Coffey Architects and Morris+Company. Proctor & Matthews Architects is among the more established housing practices it has collaborated with and the scale of this site –68 units completed of a total of 113 with planning – makes the practice a good choice. Proctor & Matthews has shown elsewhere its understanding of the local grain of development and isn’t afraid to design plans with a twist and details that delight.
Steepleton takes on idealised village forms – at the scale of an urban block. It has an almshouses courtyard, lych gate-cum-bus stop, oversized arts and crafts chimney and a ‘manor house’ entrance. All facing the road, these are drawn together by a three-storey limestone boundary wall from which they seem to grow. The buildings are pleasantly blurred by a series of mature horse chestnuts, leaving the visible approach along Cirencester Road from Tetbury dominated by the site’s perimeter wall which seems to tower above the local houses, despite a neat roof treatment aimed at reducing its impact. But this is not a precious road – it’s an industrial edge being transformed into suburbia. The roads of family houses that turn off it are still slightly perky in their newness, cars drawn up on the forecourts. Steepleton is built on the site of a factory that made condom dispensing machines. Instead, its name unsurprisingly celebrates the heritage of the town through its prominent spire.
Steepleton’s banks of housing are laid out sociably. Away from the main frontages the materials shift down a gear towards render and Douglas fir. Three-sided courts enclose spaces for gardening and growing areas and define clear mini neighbourhoods within Steepleton. At the centre of the development a quiet road kinks out in front of the restaurant and residents’ lounge, an oversized sundial marking the central social space. There are views into the sparkling heart of the scheme – its natural lap pool, edged by reeds and reflecting light into the windows of the surrounding flats. Here too is the gym, spa and indoor pool and, above that, the lofty restaurant, a private dining or function room and two guest bedrooms. This is the heart of the PegasusLife offer: social spaces and interaction, paired with modest flats for downsizers. You can see it in the property ads that show off the communal spaces as much as the flats themselves.
The idea of a social, active community is essential to this scheme, combatting the loneliness of age that so easily becomes the pattern in general housing populated by busy people rushing off elsewhere. The circulation to and between flats is navigable by electric buggy, even on the first floor deck access, thanks to platform lifts. Enclosing the two almshouse blocks gives the impression of a single volume and creates a narrow pedestrian street or alleyway. There are some structural efficiencies in this and it reduces the massing to Cirencester Road, but the real benefit is the quality of life provided by that internal street and the neighbourliness of stable doors opening onto it. Occupied homes already have plant pots outside their front doors. Body-height frames inset into balustrades on the deck encourage inhabitation and interaction, being perfect points to stop and look from, or quietly hail neighbours from above. There is the occasional reason to pause, for example above the swimming pool, where a pergola perches between blocks. And the entrance lobbies are not the sterile enclosures of many flats but airy barn like structures, cool behind timber louvres on a hot day, out of the wind and rain the rest of the year and with powerful, simple structural bracing. The many little circuits of the site and the chances of encounter make Steepleton an appealing prospect as a community for the sociable.
Some might potential residents be daunted by the modest size of the flats compared to the houses they are likely to be moving from: one beds are typically 58.7m2 and the largest are two-bed masionettes at 102.8m2. But speaking to one resident, that was clearly part of the appeal. She moved from a local seven-bedroom family home after breaking her neck and was aware that looking after a garden was no longer an option. And some regular handyman time is included in the service charge. The flats have sliding windows onto outside spaces, balconies project out metal clad boxes – treading the delicate balance between public and private. The most spatially interesting have double height living spaces, and the study option in some allows a space off the living room which can either be part of it or sealed off for work or sleep. The planning is rational and well considered with a modest number of car parking spaces tucked away, but the detail is sometimes disappointing, including the rough timber and the fit of balcony surrounds – and sometimes, for instance the downpipe diverted away from the rainwater butt below it, laughable.
With over 65s owning more that 40% of private housing equity in the UK and housing stock often being hard to adapt to less mobile living, it is hardly surprising that housebuilders are designing for them. Within half a mile of Steepleton is a significant development inside a more traditional skin, completed in 2015 by McCarthy and Stone for the same market. Steepleton’s flats do appear to be at a premium and the service charge certainly reflects its country club services.
Those services demonstrate the generational divide between the affluent baby boomers who might buy into this and younger generations struggling to secure decent housing. Does such a development cut off its inhabitants, even as it cocoons them? The tiny Perry’s Café at the front of the scheme has been drawing runners and weekend walkers for a coffee, and the ‘destination’ restaurant is intended for others as well as residents. Perhaps it will turn out less isolated than the new streets around it; if so the welcoming architecture will play its part in that.
Total contract cost £23 million
GIFA cost per m2 £2998
Area 7670 m2
kgCo2/m2 calculation 19.9
Form of contract Design and Build
Architect Proctor & Matthews Architects
Landscape architect Camlins
Structural engineer Peter Brett Associates, Hydrock Engineering
M&E engineer Max Fordham
Planning consultant Barton Willmore
Contractor Speller Metcalfe
Balcony hoods Argonaut
Chimneys Penine stone
Stone cladding Cotswold Natural Stone