How we did it - Reinventing the terrace

The first project to be delivered by TV presenter Kevin McCloud's collaboration with the GreenSquare housing group introduces terraced housing and low-carbon development into a post-war Swindon suburb, Adam Branson reports

Low-carbon: the development comprises 36 houses and six flats in Swindon
Low-carbon: the development comprises 36 houses and six flats in Swindon

Author: Adam Branson

Photographer: John Lawrence/UNP

Project: The Triangle, Swindon

Organisations involved: Glenn Howells Architects, Hab Oakus and Swindon Borough Council

When it opened its doors to residents in July, the Triangle development in Swindon's northern suburbs was the first development to be completed by Hab Oakus, a partnership between TV presenter and designer Kevin McCloud's housebuilding firm Hab and developer GreenSquare.

When the first reports in the national press were published, many critics expressed surprise that the maiden development involving the Grand Designs presenter was so unassuming. While praising McCloud for putting his money where his mouth is, it was obvious that they had been expecting something a bit more, well, grand. But talking to Glenn Howells, the architect behind the Triangle, it becomes clear that ordinariness was exactly the point of the development.

However, that does not mean that Howells' ambitions for the Triangle are modest. He wants to reinvent the British terrace for modern living, while recognising the need for environmentally sustainable development. "Terraced housing is one of the things that we've done really well in this country," he says. "What we've been striving to do is a development that's so flexible that it can be reinterpreted in a couple of generations' time. We didn't want to create peculiar eco-homes. We didn't want to do an eco-homes exhibition scheme."

Now complete and mostly occupied, the Triangle comprises 42 homes, of which 21 are for social rent and 11 for intermediate rent set at 80 per cent of market equivalent. The remaining ten homes are allocated for a "rent-to-home-buy" scheme, whereby residents initially pay a subsidised rent in the expectation that they will buy a stake in the property within two or three years in most cases. Thirty-six of the homes are two, three or four-bedroom terraced houses, with four one-bed and two two-bed flats on the ends of the terraces.

Howells says that one of the project's main goals was to find out what design quality and reduced environmental impact could be achieved while working within normal industry budgets of £100 per square foot. "We asked: 'What can you do with the same budget that the volume housebuilders aren't doing?' What we've managed to achieve here is larger volumes, higher ceilings, more generous open plan arrangements and clever but low-cost things that we think make a big contribution to people's lives and to the amount of energy they use," he says.

According to Frances Geary, project manager at Hab Oakus, the limited amount of car parking at the Triangle also helps from an environmental point of view, although it required careful negotiation with Swindon Borough Council, which was concerned that reducing the number of spaces on the Triangle might lead to parking problems in surrounding streets. "We've got reduced parking provision, but we had to have a mitigation strategy, so we've got a car club and real time public transport information systems in the homes," says Geary, adding that there is a contingency plan to convert one of the development's two communal vegetable gardens into additional parking if the council can demonstrate that residents' parking is causing problems elsewhere.

As a result of sticking to a modest budget, the vast majority of environmentally sustainable design elements at the Triangle are passive: it won't be contributing electricity to the national grid any time soon. The scheme has achieved level 4 on green building standard the Code for Sustainable Homes, although Howells says that it can be retrofitted with solar panels to achieve level 5. To place that in context, the top level is 6 and projects must achieve level 3 to qualify for funding for social homes from housing and regeneration body the Homes & Communities Agency.

Instead of focusing attention on producing energy on site, Howells says that his team concentrated on materials and insulation. "We explored a huge number of variables in terms of how to get the best outcome for £100 per square foot. What's important are the choices that we've made to achieve that," he says. For instance, the scheme's design involved 30cm of hemp cladding covered in lime render to improve the buildings' insulation. What's more, says Howells, the decision to introduce terraced housing is in itself environmentally friendly, yet costs nothing: with terraced housing you don't have to worry about heat escaping from the sides.

McCloud's first foray into development may not boast the swankiest location, the most impressive green credentials or the sort of design that makes the front pages of the architectural press. But that is absolutely the point. According to Howells: "We want to create excellent ordinary housing. I think it's difficult to combine good housing with a building that is iconic and striking and loud. What we wanted to create here is something that is quiet and considered, that fits into the surrounding area and at the same time provides opportunities for people to have a great life." The Triangle is, by design, ambitiously modest.

Second Opinion - Chris Hancox, Associate head of urban design, RPS

Q: How did the scheme rate in terms of its response to the site?

A: The site is a triangular shaped piece of land surrounded by post-war semi-detached homes and leafy streets, and the immediate impression is that there is a tension between the density of the scheme and its surroundings. While I agree with Glenn Howells that the terrace home is an enduring part of our townscape, I was surprised that a single typology was the driver for virtually all the scheme. On reflection, I wondered if a greater mix of typologies would have given the architects more scope to respond to the slightly awkward spaces created at the corners of the site.

Q: Is the scheme accessible to surrounding communities?

A: The downside to the layout is its lack of connectivity with its surroundings. A single point of access into the scheme effectively renders it a cul-de-sac. We were told that the one opportunity the architects had to create a second point of access was ruled out by the council on the grounds of principles set out in police initiative Secure by Design. If this is the case, it is a wasted opportunity, which could have helped make the central green feel like a truly public space and perhaps alleviated the rather defensive nature of the layout.

Q: What do you think of the scheme's public realm?

A: It was good to hear that the landscape architects were commissioned from the outset to develop ideas for the external spaces. Given the aims of this development and the pivotal role of the green as a canvas for social interaction, our visit felt a bit premature to be able to judge how the public realm will function. But it was heartening to see that the external finishes have been given as much thought and care as the buildings, the place-making value and relevance of which is all too frequently overlooked in so much of what is built elsewhere. Less convincing are the freestanding gabion walls and bin stores comprising rocks in rectangular wire baskets that define the front boundary of each plot. These appear rather harsh and incongruous in front of the subtle limewash render facades.

Q: What did you make of the scheme's green credentials?

A: Howells explains that the intention was to take "ordinary buildings" and design them to work well, rather than to create showcase architecture that lacks a large-scale practical application. The project relies on low-tech ways of making the dwellings comply with level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, such as triple glazing, mechanical heat recovery and passive ventilation. It's notable that there are no photovoltaic panels on the roof, with emphasis instead on energy efficiency and minimising heat loss within the fabric of the building.

Q: What elements of the scheme could usefully be replicated elsewhere?

A: The emphasis on passive, low-tech solutions to achieve code compliance and the use of a wireless intranet to help residents access and share information with neighbours, make a booking for a car club based at the Triangle or just arrange to get together, all seem like simple ways of empowering sustainable lifestyles. Similarly, the ambition for a high-quality landscape that anchors and integrates the new development and helps promote vibrancy and social cohesion is surely in everybody's interest. While it's still early days, I feel that this extra effort will pay dividends in making this a decent and distinctive place to live.


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