A brave group of neighbours has bonded around this extraordinary project, but is it really cohousing?
By Daisy Froud (originally published in the Architects’ Journal 19 July 2016)
The story is, initially, familiar: acquire ‘brownfield’ site from local authority, demolish existing homes – in this case a 1950s three-storey brick flatted block, designed as social housing – and replace with new private apartments, doubling the density in the process. It’s playing out all over London.
What makes Hafer Road in the Clapham Junction area of London’s Battersea unusual, however, is that those initiating the project, who now occupy half of the 16 new properties, were not faceless developers out to make a quick buck but the site’s existing residents, working together in a quite extraordinary and very risky act of collective entrepreneurship to build themselves better and bigger homes.
Normally when London households outgrow their homes and extension possibilities are exhausted, their only option is to move out. But in this case Adam Street, a transport strategist, put an ambitious plan to his neighbours, all of whom had either exercised Right to Buy or acquired their flat from someone who had. Why didn’t they form a limited company (with all seven property-owners as shareholders), buy the freehold from Wandsworth Council, commission a viability assessment, hire an architect and collaboratively solve their problems by redeveloping the site themselves, using additional private-sale flats to fund the re-development? Amazingly, everyone agreed, initiating a five-year project. The households returned in spring 2016.
Architecture in the rarefied sense was not an initial priority. Peter Barber Architects was hired primarily for Barber’s amiable, drawing-board-side manner, not for his housing design reputation. Someone passing his studio noticed the models in the window and added him to the shortlist. The big design driver back then was an Excel spreadsheet setting out required areas and ensuring an overall cost-neutral scheme, including the renting of ‘decant’ accommodation. Later this would flex to include an acceptable profit for a professional developer; the group found that they couldn’t secure the necessary loan financing, even with planning permission granted – a common challenge for ‘amateur’ projects. Breaking even also relied on not having to provide ‘affordable’ housing and on exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy.
Other architects suggested retaining the existing building and extending up, forward and back; the original block was set back from the street behind gardens and driveways. Barber had different ideas: by demolishing their homes completely, digging into the basement, reinstating the Victorian building line to the pavement and then redeveloping with a courtyard typology, allowing a deep plan, he could give them all the space they needed, along with spacious, light-filled rooms and – vital for planning consent – a building height that was no taller than the existing pitches of the adjacent terraces. His ‘brutal style’, as one of the residents described it, came with this clever thinking. If anything, when it came to aesthetics, there was a desire among the group early on for something ‘Victorian’, in keeping with the rest of the street.
The result is not just successful in terms of the brief – and liked by residents – but it also sits well within the patchwork of late 19th to early 20th terraces that fill the surrounding streets. Many of these were built in short stretches, each with their own character by, in the words of a contemporary, ‘demon jerry builders’ capitalising on the housing needs of the lower-middle classes. Most in the immediate vicinity are now flats. Some were always designed as such.
‘On The Rise’, as the Hafer Road scheme is branded for sales purposes, reads – at first glance – as four grand, contemporary, almost identical townhouses, faced in a rich yellow brick that riffs off the smoggy London stock of properties at either side. Only the surfeit of front doors suggests that something else is going on. It works as a convincing extension to the three-storey 1880s terrace to the north, into which it is tailored at roof level, the chimney of the house next door amicably embraced by the roof terrace of the topmost corner flat.
Although its materiality and overall rhythm are relatively sober, the scheme is certainly eye-catching – a source of contention at planning, when neighbours objected to its ‘imposing’ nature. (Apparently, since completion, many have said that, actually, they think it works well.) The front elevation is exuberant: windows are many and varied, big rectangular ‘goldfish tank’ oriels pop out at first floor level, echoing the bays of the street’s older houses, solid brick clad balconies protrude from the facade like bureau drawers that have been flung open, and the whole thing is topped with a jolly castellation, helping reduce the mass, generating terraces for a bedroom of the top-floor flats and allowing a continuous line to be established between the terrace floor and next door’s eaves. These echo in turn a very pretty terrace and parapet effect on some unusual 1904 two-storey cottage flats, visible on adjacent Limburg Road.
The balconies are very solid. The plinth width is striking, as are their satisfying brick-clad undersides. This is one of a few moments where what has been built is not exactly what Peter Barber envisaged; in this case they had intended a thinned-out supporting slab. The procurement method meant that other architects were used for detail design by the housebuilder. However, it’s a testament to the integrity and pragmatism of the original design that none of the resulting tweaks jar unpleasantly or have left Peter Barber feeling miffed. And the quality of finish is high, partly due to the residents, one of whom works in construction, making regular visits and checking things against the spec.
Inside, all homes – 4 x three- or four-bed maisonettes, 11 x two-bed and 1 x one-bed flats – are east-west dual aspect. All have two generous terraces or balconies. Gardens, with one exception due to a borrowed strip of land, have been omitted in favour of other kinds of space. Almost no home has the same plan as another, shaped partly by returning residents’ different needs, but also by factors such as the irregular shape of the site and the desire to behave politely towards adjacent properties. The latter leads to a number of the homes having curved or chamfered corners, lending extra character to the domestic spaces.
Those I visited were spacious and full of light, partly due to all the glass, from those big bays to generous glazed light wells-cum-courtyards in the maisonettes. The basements do not feel like basements in consequence, which is quite a feat. In combination with the development’s cleverly but densely layered nature, this approach offers many potential glimpses into other people’s lives, or the chance to showcase your own. Some might find that uncomfortable – Hafer Road is certainly not housing that turns its back on the world. One resident had blinds fully down at noon, and a passer-by gave us a smile of amused acknowledgment as we stood talking in another bay. (This window, from the inside, gives the actually rather lovely effect, particularly when glimpsed across the hall through the living-room’s double doors, of a whole wall of your bedroom being a giant photo-realist painting of a Victorian terrace.)
This is not ‘co-housing’ by any conventional definition. There are no communal spaces – all ‘spare’ area had to be given to the for-sale housing to make the sums add up – and Hafer Road is not an ‘intentional community’ of shared values (of the non-pecuniary kind, anyway), to use the official terminology. But Barber describes it as such, due to the conviviality engendered by both architecture and process. He emphatically views the street as a shared space, one that links the group to other local households, and promotes the opposite of a ‘cosy, bourgeois gated cluster, set apart from the world’. The residents threw a party there upon completion, fundraising for a cancer charity. This group, of diverse backgrounds, were just acquaintances before. Now they are firm friends, looking out for each other. An unintentional community, perhaps, bonded through building?
Hafer Road is a new infill terrace containing contemporary residential dwellings with a high proportion of family homes. The new terrace is a celebration of the public social life of the street, with every aspect of the facade design configured to promote buzzing, thriving public space made with a hard edge of buildings.
The client is a [mutual company] made up of the owner-occupiers of the 1950s block previously on the site. After purchasing the freehold from the local authority, the group pooled their money, resources, skills and energy to embark on a courageous journey with the goal of replacing their substandard, undersized flats with delightful contemporary homes for their families to grow into and remain in: something more comfortable, more delightful, more spacious, something they could be proud to live in.
This project is, if nothing else, about politics and community action. The community and their building is absolutely about what is possible through mutual co-operation, pooled resources, close relationships and collective endeavour. These relationships find expression in a simple, tried-and-tested, street-based terrace typology (albeit with our trade mark quirks).
This is Hafer Road residents’ version of cohousing. Friendships and powerful connections forged in the years that it took to design, fund and construct their homes, and continued not in a gated cohousing garden but along a street.