Hit by the recession, Manchester’s New Islington project has been rejuvenated with the arrival of Mae Architects’ social housing
A decade on from the publication of Alsop Architects’ masterplan for its redevelopment, the 10ha site of Manchester’s former Cardroom estate can most sympathetically be described as work in progress. One of seven millennium communities, New Islington as the site was redubbed, should by now have been substantially transformed into a network of new canals, fringed by 1,400 homes, community facilities and 93,000 sq metres of park and gardens. However, the collapse of the housing market has seen the project all but ground to a halt.
Alsop’s vast, supergraphic-emblazoned Chips is the only building that developer Urban Splash has completed on the site. The masterplan envisaged a fleet of similarly scaled leviathans distributed between newly established canal basins, but the moribund state of the market in buy-to-let apartments has now redirected plans towards the delivery of low-rise family housing — most immediately in the form of a proposed development of 44 terraced houses designed by Shed KM.
Thankfully, speedier progress has been made on the scheme’s social housing component. Fat’s celebrated fantasia in diaper-patterned brickwork, Islington Square, delivered 23 new houses in 2006 while de Metz Forbes Knight oversaw the completion of a terrace of 14 notably soberer dwellings, a year later. It is only in the last couple of months, however, that the registered social landlord, Great Places, has finally been able to fulfil the commitment that it made to residents of the Cardroom in 2000 when it promised that anyone who wanted to return to the site after its clearance would be provided with a new home of like-for-like specification.
As with the two earlier developments, the choice of architect for this final piece of the jigsaw was made by the residents themselves, and, impressively, they have again selected a young practice with no previous experience of building volume housing.
Alex Ely, who heads Mae Architects, is however hardly fresh to the subject. Prior to setting up Mae he served as head of Sustainable Communities at Cabe and has more recently authored the London Housing Design Guide. Were it not for our current economic woes, his practice should have already established a substantial built portfolio but a number of delayed schemes have now come back on track with a 43-unit development in Waltham Forest now set to complete in the new year.
The New Islington scheme goes by the not entirely alluring name, The Guts — so called because it lies at the site’s core. The masterplan proposed that it wrap around the end of one of the canal basins that divide the site into half a dozen broadly parallel bands but by 2009 neither the basins or their associated road network had been established. Keen to push on Great Spaces therefore redefined the site as a more compact strip, distributed to either side of the existing Cardroom Street. This ensured that only one new road had to be introduced and allowed existing service runs to be employed but it also significantly restricted the layout of the new houses.
They are laid out in two blocks, with six units on the north side of Cardroom Road and 12 on the south. Throughout, Mae has sought to place active frontages on the street, locating front doors within generous recessed porches. The nearby de Metz Forbes Knight terrace offers a telling point of comparison. There, the houses face away from the street, presenting it with a run of back gardens. While it offers residents greater privacy than Mae’s project, the choice markedly diminishes the street’s role as a place of collective identity and encounter.
Mae has employed four unit types but all share a language of reduced house-like forms, constructed as timber frames, faced in brick. A red, characteristically Mancunian, brick is employed across the entire ground floor but each upper level is picked out in one of three different colours, emphasising the reading of the individual dwelling. In this respect the scheme builds on the polychromy of the Fat and de Metz Forbes Knight projects, and also on the adjacent grade II-listed dispensary of the former Ancoats hospital, although that severely dilapidated building’s long-term survival is in doubt.
The houses’ internal layout is strikingly generous — a consequence of the fact that they have had to comply with a number of overlapping space standards. The like-for-like requirement has meant that they had to meet the Parker Morris regulations that governed the original Cardroom Estate while their funding through the Homes and Communities Agency determined their compliance with the HCA’s Housing Quality Indicators.
Lifetime Homes and Manchester’s own disabled access legislation Design for Access (DFA2) had to be heeded too. Between them these requirements have generated plans around 20% larger than the minimum size that Ely established in the London Housing Design Guide and have pushed the floor to ceiling heights to 2.6m (compared with the 2.5m dictated by the LHDG).
Source: Tim Soar
Perhaps the most onerous requirement that Mae had to contend with was DFA2’s demand that every dwelling have on-plot parking. The six houses on the north side of Cardroom Street accommodate this easily enough — within full-width back gardens that front onto the road — but fitting cars onto the plots of the other houses proved tricky. They are laid out in two parallel rows: six facing Cardroom Street and six facing the newly established New Street. The default configuration was to lay them out as terraces with gardens front and back, car parking being accommodated in the front one. However, the site proved too narrow: the houses’ rear elevations would be unacceptably close, resulting in problems of overlooking and daylighting.
Mae’s ingenious solution rather brings to mind the two-headed Pushmi-pullyu of Dr Dolittle fame. It has composed the houses as back-to back pairs, with each house presenting a gabled frontage to the pavement and gardens situated between each pair. The gardens have a lot to accommodate — the parking bay, an air source heat pump, a garden shed that doubles as a bike store, a water butt and a tree, with many residents having now also installed a rotary clothes dryer. Mae did not exert much control over the siting of all this equipment — the practice was not nominated to the contractor, Mansell — and the resultant clutter is a disappointment. So too is the fact that cost cutting has seen the brick wall that the architects designed as a boundary between garden and street exchanged for a timber fence. Where the wall would have given each street a continuous brick plinth interrupted only by garden gates, the realised version is frustratingly less cohesive and robust.
These irritations aside, The Guts achieves a great deal for a rock-bottom budget of £1000/m2. That figure is reflected in the fact that Great Spaces has been able to offer 50% shared ownership in a three bed house, a fifteen minute walk from the city centre for a mere £65,000. Save for the occasional encroachment into his garden by geese from the nearby canal, the one resident I spoke to couldn’t praise his new home enough.
Source: Tim Soar
Client Great Places
Lead Architects Mae LLP Architects
Structural Engineering Stockley Associates
Employers Agent Simon Fenton Partnership
CDM Coordinator Arcus
Photos by Tim Soar