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Accordia ten years on from the Stirling Prize

Words:
Tom Foggin

A decade after Accordia won the Stirling Prize, a ‘talk and tour’ probed the achievements and lessons of an acknowledged benchmark for housing

Ten years ago Accordia won the Stirling Prize, the highest accolade in British architecture. We can still learn from it – and from RIBA East regional office and the Cambridge Association of Architects (CAA), a local branch of the RIBA. RIBA East has focused on engagement with local authorities, recognising the need for better collaboration between an industry facing economic pressure and authorities suffering overwhelming workloads. It has asked the architects, planners and client/developer behind the landmark project – and others – to return to Cambridge to share their experiences in a ‘talk and tour’ event.

The Stirling prize winning Accordia housing scheme in 2008
The Stirling prize winning Accordia housing scheme in 2008 Credit: © Tim Crocker for Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The scheme, masterplanned by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios in collaboration with Maccreanor Lavington, Alison Brooks Architects and Grant Associates, has been widely regarded as setting a benchmark for large-scale housing in the UK and was lauded by the Stirling Prize judges as an example of volume housebuilders delivering high quality architecture. On an autumnal afternoon last month, the talk and tour promised an insight into the story behind the project from its designers, and an exploration of its influence from client Countryside Properties with input from resident representative Paul Drew.

A summary of the planning history by Peter Studdert, former director of planning at Cambridge City Council, provided clear context on the constraints faced by the project team. Part of the masterplan’s success was its development following outline consent, with credit to the design team for testing the boundaries in dialogue with the local authority. Nothing is perfect, however, with shortcomings including the loss of a second road access. This was omitted following objection from local residents, creating a disconnect with neighbours and, suggests Drew during the later walking tour, contributing to the closure of a short-lived community shop.

An insightful presentation of the overall masterplan and housing typologies by Mike Keys, partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, followed by contributions from Richard Lavington, founding director of Maccreanor Lavington, and Alison Brooks projects director Michael Woodford, set the scene for the afternoon, giving context to the walking tour which followed. The four presenters led groups, each offering their unique perspective and anecdotes along the way.

Walking around the streets, mews and garden squares, it was striking to see the way the housing scheme has matured. The landscaping is so well established, for example, that a terrace of townhouses by Maccreanor Lavington is almost covered in climbers. In its woodland setting the terrace could have been there for a century; the buildings have a timeless quality while generous windows offer glimpses into truly lived-in homes, residents so used to visiting tour groups they politely smile at the exploring architects as they wash dishes.

  • Ten years on, shared garden spaces are still well used
    Ten years on, shared garden spaces are still well used Credit: © Tom Foggin
  • Residents don’t bat an eyelid as tour groups roam the paths
    Residents don’t bat an eyelid as tour groups roam the paths Credit: © Ze’ev Feigis
  • Signs of life: a rear staircase repurposed as boat storage
    Signs of life: a rear staircase repurposed as boat storage Credit: © Ze’ev Feigis
  • Mature landscaping engulfs well proportioned townhouses by Maccreanor Lavington
    Mature landscaping engulfs well proportioned townhouses by Maccreanor Lavington Credit: © Tom Foggin
  • A new residents parking scheme brings order to chaos on the central avenue
    A new residents parking scheme brings order to chaos on the central avenue Credit: © Tom Foggin
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Despite broad consistency, there are subtle indicators of the change of developer for later phases; with signs of weathering and visible changes in specification. In the concluding panel discussion, designers, and delegates generally agreed that continuity of the design team through later phases would have been beneficial to the quality of the overall scheme.

Reflecting on the masterplan, the architects also acknowledged the integration of social housing as an issue. A decade later this still seems to be a challenge on projects, with social housing providers’ unit size and estate management requirements cited as the main reasons for segregation. Is a change in the procurement and management of affordable housing necessary to solve the problem nationally?

Other issues such as parking provision and capacity for the council to manage the landscape following adoption also emerged from the concluding panel discussion. Although clearly frustrating for residents, these issues are not unique to Accordia, but the co-ordinated action of the local Residents’ Association in dealing with these problems is testament, perhaps, to the most lasting lesson from Accordia: there is a strong sense of community that is in part thanks to the cultural shift in housing design embedded in the project. Shared garden spaces, a communal approach to living and integration of landscaping have proved successful in Cambridge, reflected by the clear pride residents still have for their neighbourhood.

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