Stirling Prize: Newhall BeContinue reading the main story
Stirling Prize judges say Newhall Be raises the bar in terms of commercial house building. But why is this development so different, and what does it tell us about the modern home?
Newhall Be in Harlow is a prototype for more interesting commercial house building. It is a suburban development with a very un-suburban nature. The windows are large, the ceilings are high and the walls are black.
"We tried to make homes that have some joy, that feel a bit like you are on holiday," says the architect, Alison Brooks.
"We wanted to offer people some choice, to show them that there are different types of homes to live in."
Traditional houses are based around pitched roofs and brown bricks. It is safe, and it sells. But Brooks believes people want more than that.Continue reading the main story
- Can you visit? As these are private homes, interiors can only be seen by invitation or estate agent appointment
- The Stirling Prize is awarded by Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba)
- Working in partnership with Riba, BBC News is running an online vote and a series of features on the shortlisted buildings
"There's the conventional box that has mean little windows punched into the sides," she says.
"It is so stripped of any character that they have no identity. Developers build them because they know they can sell them. But there's such a shortage of homes that anything will sell, people buy them out of desperation."
UK homes are the smallest in western Europe, according to a report by the Future Homes Commission (FHC). And where minimum space standards are applied, they fall below the guides set in neighbouring countries.
"A space can make you suffer," says Brooks. "If there is a lack of light, a lack of space, if it is poorly organised - then you're miserable."
The emphasis at Newhall Be is on space, light and adaptability. The ground floor office could be used as a bedroom or games room. The cathedral-style roof could be converted into an extra bedroom.
Eight-four relatively inexpensive houses designed by a leading architect to a high specification using locally sourced materials with the inhabitants' needs foremost while displaying a sensitivity to the aesthetics of the region. Why can't all high-intensity, low-cost housing be like Newhall Be?
The answer is it could - with visionary developers hiring visionary architects such as Alison Brooks. Her 21st Century interpretation of suburbia is the latest project to be completed on what is now a multi award-winning housing estate.
She makes a splendidly coherent virtue from the necessary repetitiveness that comes with producing a row of houses. Boring, numbing conformity is replaced with a rhythmic beauty reminiscent of Nash or Lloyd Wright. Her sharp-edged, angular roofs cut into the sky like a Richard Serra sculpture or ships' masts in a harbour.
Inside and outside the black-timbered, barn-like properties provide all that any inhabitant could wish for: an intelligent use of space, a design that captures natural light, and - importantly - a home of which they can be proud.
The black weatherboarding was designed to give a distinct local identity, echoing the barns that adorn the Essex countryside.
"There is a presupposition by house builders that we want a very traditional looking house," says Maxwell Hutchinson, architect and broadcaster.
"They think we want brickwork, timber windows, pitched roofs and a garden at the front and rear. But actually we want more than what is served up on their menus. We want something different."
The report by the FHC cites natural light and large rooms as among the key demands from 21st Century housing. Storage and an ability to adapt a home to different layouts and family scenarios also rated highly. Unimaginative design was criticised.
"The typical home being built in the UK is uninspiring," the report said. "Too little thought is given to design, there is a lack of innovation and choice is poor."
Newhall Be - so called because it is a place to "just be" and it's the "place to be" - consists of 84 houses built on land that belonged to brothers Jon and William Moen, who inherited their grandfather's farm.
Brooks's Be is part of a wider Newhall development. There are another 60 homes - Newhall North Chase and Newhall Slo - by other architects that have also drawn praise for enlightenment in their design.
The Moen brothers' first venture into development disappointed them.
Church Langley, which is adjacent to Newhall, was sold to a developer consortium and the brothers later described the results as dull.
Persuading a reluctant public?
- One in four people would consider buying a home built in the past 10 years, according to a 2010 poll for Riba
- Housing audits carried out by Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in 2005 and 2007, rated 29% of new housing as poor
- A further 53% rated average and 18% as good or very good
With Newhall they were more hands on, cherry-picking architects who shared their vision for modern living and employing town planner Roger Evans to create a new network of roads, homes and green spaces.
Evans began by overlaying street plans of Venice, Bath, Oxford and other historic towns onto a plan of the Newhall site. They were his examples of successful high-density towns, and from them, Newhall was developed.
The plot was divided into sections. Each would have its own architect and the emphasis was on design quality.
Houses at Newhall are high in density, but the communal green spaces are generous - about 40% of the area.
Brooks has packed her homes even tighter. Original planning permission was for 76 homes, but by halving the gardens and adding roof gardens to replace the land lost, she has shoehorned in another eight.
More on Newhall Be
- What: New housing development
- Who: Alison Brooks Architects
- Where: On the outskirts of Harlow, Essex
"It's a tricky move because family homes need gardens," says Kate Faulkner, of the Future Homes Commission.
"If I had young children I wouldn't want them playing on a roof garden. Most people would want a lawn and space, but I guess the communal space compensates for that."
The benefit was that there was more money to spend on each one.
A two-bedroom house at Newhall Be costs about £240,000, three-bed houses go for about £300,000. All were sold within 16 months.
It is Brooks's hope that mortgage lenders and valuers will one day count design and quality on their list of criteria, rather than valuing homes purely on the number of bedrooms and precedent.
Then she believes developers would have more incentive to improve on quality.
"The economics of house building doesn't have any incentive," says Brooks.
"Some developers even call their homes products, which I really disagree with. The places where people live their lives are deserving of our most sincere efforts."Evolution of the design Continue reading the main story