Riches Hawley Mikhail’s Clay Fields sustainable housing
Riches Hawley Mikhail’s Clay Fields affordable housing scheme at Elmswell, near Bury St Edmunds, successfully integrates sustainable village living and locally appropriate design
In 2004, Richard Ward, a former planner and director of the Suffolk Preservation Society, a branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), marked the society’s 75th anniversary with the launch of a demonstration project, Field of Dreams. But this was no “build it and they will come” fantasy of pump-primed regeneration. In fact, the title was a rather literal description of both the project’s site — a backland hectare of scrubby field in the village of Elmswell near Bury Saint Edmunds — and the aspirations of the enterprise, which sought a model solution to the problem of how to make generous, low-cost village housing that has a sense of place and makes intensive use of land.
This scheme effectively demonstrates the new remit of the CPRE. Having largely won its original battle to prevent the English countryside from being overrun by the unchecked spread of speculative suburbia with the green belt legislation of the 1940s, the campaign’s focus has shifted in recent years to address government housing policy.
Against the crude “predict-and-provide” approach, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea of concentrating growth in new satellite towns, the CPRE advocates an alternative of locally sensitive dispersed growth: small developments, with a majority of affordable housing, in each town and village where need is identified and where there is the infrastructure to support it sustainably. Existing settlements, the CPRE argues, make the best eco-towns.
This particular “field of dreams” had been pieced together by Mid-Suffolk District Council and Elmswell Parish Council from underused common land and a portion of the back gardens of the surrounding semi-detached bungalows, and had already been identified for housing.
The housing mix — 13 two-bedroom houses, nine three-bedroom houses and four one-bedroom flats — was devised by Orwell Housing Association, the scheme’s registered social landlord and development partner. It based this on the sizes of families at the top of their waiting list at the time. The client decided that the entire development would be reserved for families with a connection to the village.
Now completed and rechristened Clay Fields, the project is the work of Annalie Riches, Cathy Hawley and David Mikhail, who won the commission in 2006 in an RIBA open competition shortly after joining forces as a practice. This was the first large housing development any partner had designed, but it’s hard to find any evidence in this accomplished scheme for the steep learning curve they claim to have experienced. The process of negotiating different housing regulations was further complicated by working through some untested construction methods — clay blocks made in Elmswell, and Hemcrete insulation, a mixture of lime and hemp — and it all had to happen at the same accelerated pace as any affordable scheme funded by a deadline-dependent Housing Corporation grant.
So far, the headline-grabbing aspect of Clay Fields has been the project’s achievement in reducing carbon — during construction and lifetime use — by around 60% compared with typical housing design and construction. The various measures have been quietly assimilated within the grain of the site and the fabric of the houses, and are essentially traditional technologies, painstakingly refined with consultant Buro Happold. The cedar-clad and lime-rendered exteriors conceal a carbon-negative structure of timber insulated with Hemcrete. The resulting combination of chunky walls and thin timber cladding, wrapped down from the roof on the north and south facades, is clearly a contrast the architect relished, as evinced by the Japanese-inspired shingle coping of the curving garden walls.
Fine-tuned to work as solar collectors, the houses provide most heat and ventilation passively. All face due south, and by a series of rearrangements to the standard block and its roofs, each house enjoys uninterrupted winter sun. The stair volume of the house receives a larger share of the windows, which overall cover 40% of the south facade; doors can be open or closed from here to adjust the temperature. A communal woodchip biomass plant is housed in a low building which forms part of the family of storage sheds walled in rendered clay brick.
The housing mix was based on the sizes of the families at the top of the waiting list at the time.
Now the site is completed, what interests as much as its impressive eco-credentials is the unusual grain of housing Riches Hawley Mikhail has invented here to answer the client’s wish for a certain density — 49 dwellings per ha — and a shared interest in making a community of the 26 families.
With the western half of the site given over to common land with a football pitch, the eastern half has been laid out in chessboard fashion. Four square blocks of back-to-back terraced housing — paired rows of three houses, also containing the flats — alternate with a series of clearings that contain rectangular pieces of cultivated Suffolk countryside: a row of allotment gardens, a meadow raked with swales, and what will become an apple orchard, with play equipment under its trees. This town-country mix gives close back-to-back contact with neighbours over the garden fence and brings the fronts of the houses into contact with the shared gardens.
The whole scheme was contrived to avoid hierarchy between the different parts. Small blocks were necessary to allow a single road to connect the site. The asphalt shared surface of access and parking weaves through the site on the diagonal, and laid on top are raised brick paths tracking east-west, past the front doors of houses in the adjacent blocks.
The blocks of three houses — a compromise between a conventional terrace and a semi-detached pair — allow neat solutions to the problems associated with both. The triplet arrangement is denser and gives a stronger massing than a pair, while a short row made it possible to arrange a direct second access to the back gardens. By offsetting the pair of terraces, direct views between the houses have been avoided, despite the 8.4m distance in between.
An important point of reference for the triplets of housing with their embracing garden walls was Whatcotts Yard, the self-built terrace of three houses in Stoke Newington, north London, designed by Riches with Silvia Ullmayer and Barti Garibaldo. Working within the confines of a narrow plot which presented existing walls on all sides, the architect had free rein to develop individual solutions to the arrangement of the houses, but the volume read as a single building enclosed by a single wall. The one glazed facade, facing the narrow strip of gardens, was canted at an angle to open up the gardens to the sky and soften the relationship with the houses opposite.
The Clay Fields blocks take a similar shape, but here the canted facade becomes a deep shingle roof pulled down to match the eaves’ line of the bungalows opposite. Hawley points out that the form of the block relates to the “big roofs and simple shapes” the practice found locally in Suffolk barns, as well as to the surrounding bungalows of Elmswell.
For Riches, a run of three is particularly interesting because it gives each house a particular identity as a “middle” or an “end”, so no unit is lost in the middle of a terrace. At Clay Fields, the individual character of each house is also defined by being adjacent to meadow, orchard or allotment patch. The groupings of six houses reflect a natural scale of association for the community, five being around the maximum number of families one might get to know well on a ordinary terraced street.
The three types of house are variations on the same model, in essence a two-room deep terrace plan with a stair along the party wall. The rooms are arranged vertically next to the stair volume in staggered section so that each room occupies a different level.
In addressing the trade-off between private and common space, Clay Fields makes its case most convincingly.
To preserve the open stair and meet fire regulations requiring the top storey to be within 4.5m of the ground, the entrance hall was compressed to a minimum. Entering through a deep porch of the same height, the hall connects with a front sitting room two steps below, where a low, horizontal window addresses the street.
By contrast, the south-facing kitchen is vertical and full of light, and a tall row of glazed folding sliding doors can be opened fully to connect the house with the garden. In a similar way, the particular aspect of each room affects the dimension and position of its windows, so that a top bedroom might have a tall window set high in the room to take in a lot of sky, for example.
At 99sq m, 78sq m and 47sq m respectively, the three- and two- bedroom houses and the one-bedroom flats are slightly larger than the averages for registered social landlord housing, but all the more spacious because the plan has been worked so that all parts of the circulation space belong to another room as well.
Above, the three bedrooms are entered from separate half-landings. Off the second landing, a deep space has been created for home working; the client thinks it could also be used for children to play in, or as a temporary spare bedroom. The client supported the many small acts of generosity offered by the design, which gives a five-person house three equally sized bedrooms of 11sq m, two large bathrooms, as well as an outside storage room large enough for bicycles and the contents of a garden shed.
The £1,300 per sq m cost for construction compared favourably with Orwell’s usual budget for a design-and-build route. Landscape, biomass plant and consultancy fees pushed the total cost to £1,528 per sq m, with this additional amount funded by the Carbon Trust and Inspire East. It will be fascinating to see how the architect tackles another scheme it is designing for Elmswell, for the same housing association, to be delivered through a design-and-build contract.
The promise of a good village housing scheme has relevance to the problem of suburban housing in general — an idea implicit in the original CPRE brief. In addressing the trade-off between private and common space to favour communality, Clay Fields makes its case most convincingly.
Despite the very carefully worked design of the blocks, there is inevitably some loss of privacy with the tight arrangement and open situation. However, one imagines the gains for each household are much greater — not least the beautiful series of landscapes they have on their doorsteps, and the variety of play spaces for different ages of children. What is more, the housing types support a level of variation that could be increased without affecting the coherence of the model.
Some of the ideas developed by Riches, Hawley Mikhail so successfully at Clay Fields can be traced directly back to that fragment of terrace at Whatcotts Yard. It will be fascinating to watch this prototype continue to evolve and see whether it fulfils its promise at a larger scale.
Architect Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects
Client Orwell Housing Association
Landscape architect J&L Gibbons
Structural engineer BTA Structural Design
Sustainability engineer Buro Happold
Civil engineer Scott Taylor
Contrator O Seaman & Son
QS Hyams & Partners
Emily Greeves is author of The Development of Housing in Britain 1870-2008, part of the catalogue for the UK’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Photos by Nick Kane and Riches Hawley Mikhail
Original print headline ’Suffolk pink’s fresh complexion’