Brief Encounters

How do we improve the UK’s appalling housing provision for those who fall through the gaps? Citizens House presents a radical new model for truly affordable housing

By Veronica Simpson

OFF A QUIET backstreet in Sydenham, set to the rear of a post-war London county council housing estate, a glowing dwelling of pale brick flats has landed, each with its own generous balcony, in sage-painted metal. The whole block shines like a beacon even on a drizzly April day. But this is no exclusive private development targeting the affluent. This building was designed with the community for the community: London’s first purpose-built, standalone Community Land Trust (CLT) housing project, providing 100 percent genuinely and permanently affordable housing. I went there to meet its architect, Mellis Haward of Archio, to talk about how the project came about.

The flats have been emphasised with community cohestion at their heart

As we stand in the doorway sheltering from April showers, two of the residents stroll past. Their faces light up when they see Haward. One comes up to us for a chat; they’re after some advice on curtains. I wonder how often that happens to an architect – or how often the residents of a new block even know what their architects look like.

But talking with people – and, more importantly, listening to them – is something that Archio set out to do when Haward and Archio co-director Kyle Buchanan first set up the practice. And these qualities, she feels, were sensed by the residents and locals when the site’s developer London CLT (one of several CLT groups operating nationwide) asked the local community stakeholder groups to pick an architect from the shortlist of three. Says Haward: ‘I think we won the vote by bringing our whole office to the workshops and being good listeners, and not bringing any models or designs. [We were] just saying: What do you think would improve this for you? How do you live here? How could it be better? What can we deliver for you as part of this development?’

The site is broken down into three volumes to minimise visual impact.

Giving people more options rather than fewer has proved a winner, though it goes against normal developer (and typically bogus consultation) practices, for sure. Even London CLT and Lewisham Citizens – a campaigning group who co-steered development, having successfully secured this piece of council land to be used for affordable housing – were nervous about how that would pan out in the planning application. Says Haward: ‘Because we’d been so open, I think [they] were worried that we’d have loads of letters of complaint.’ Quite the opposite: they had 107 statements in support of the project at planning stage.

What might have swung the project in the locals’ favour was that they were being given a say in who got these precious homes. And one of their criteria was to prioritise people with a strong Sydenham or Lewisham connection (at least five years working and/or living in the area). They also wanted to focus on those whose income currently places them in that particularly stressful gap – not low enough to qualify for social housing, but unable to afford to buy or rent on the open market. And now the 11 apartments are home to local teachers, artists, NHS workers and also people who volunteer and have family locally.

Goodwill is built into the scheme also, thanks to the lengths to which the architects went to make these homes inspiring and commodious for residents, but also knit them into the surrounding community. Community cohesion, says Haward, is embedded into the design of the building, and the landscaping around it.

By staggering the balconies, the architects intended for neighbours to be able to talk to one another

The flats are broken down into three volumes to minimise visual impact, and the balconies are staggered so that people can actually chat from one balcony to the next (rather than have them stacked on top of each other as is the norm). Interior spaces are filled with light, thanks to generous windows and also pockets cut into the plan, and are connected via a spacious external staircase, linking residents along broad, open walkways, 1.8m-wide (as opposed to the regulation 1m). What this means, says Haward, is that, ‘You can mend your bike out here, chat to your neighbours, put plants out. And there are really great views from the top floor.’

The way the building meets the street is also crucial, with the creation of a small public piazza in front of the flats, to be enjoyed also by other residents. Five parking spaces are pushed to the perimeter and a creamy, herringbone ‘carpet’ of brick pavers establishes this as a shared outdoor space, extending diagonally out from the building – like a welcoming arm – while its colour links it clearly in with Citizens House. A long, wide bench near some steps offers seating, next to a small tree and three large rocks which also act as seats, creating a soft boundary, a place for quiet contemplation but also congregation.

Previously on this site was a set of neglected, lock-up garages too small for today’s vehicles, though its orientation made it a useful unofficial shortcut for people walking to Sydenham station. However, with little lighting after dark, it didn’t feel like a safe route. Now, the landscaping and lighting, and the increased foot traffic, makes this corner spot useful and attractive all day long.

One of the beauties of this scheme is that prices are set, for perpetuity, at 65% of market rate (in late 2022, one bed flats were sold for £215,000, two-beds for £275,000). So their affordability will endure – there is no incentive for profiteering or buy-to-rent activity, and no losing valuable affordable stock through the ‘right to buy’ scheme that has robbed the UK of so much decent council housing.

There are now apparently 350 CLTs across the UK, who are all trying to acquire land and work in tandem with local communities, acting as stewards in perpetuity. London CLT was the first to complete a project, albeit on a private, mixed-use development – 23 homes at St Clements in Tower Hamlets. But this is their first directly developed and fully community-led project. There are further nine projects in play, across six boroughs, and a pipeline of more than 150 new homes in development. But that’s a drop in the ocean, compared to how much is needed. One can only hope that with really outstanding examples – of architecture and engagement – like this, momentum and enthusiasm will soon build.

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