The architect’s challenge was to offer a generous level of space indoors and out without being OTT for the suburbs
Asked about design inspiration for his four new house types at New Hall, Harlow’s answer to Borneo Sporenberg, Richard Murphy mentions Peter Aldington’s courtyard home at Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, and Jørn Utzon’s take on the same concept at Fredensborg, Denmark. In other words, homes that provide residents with an outside experience without being too greedy for space, and introspective housing that still takes its place in the community.
But on the ground the precedent seems to be taken from a rather more prosaic source: the Barratt pattern-book townhouses built up the street. While Proctor Matthews has filled the intervening site with exuberantly three-dimensional facades and a paint box of colours, Murphy has remixed Barratt’s yellow stock brick and quasi-Georgian flat facades into a contemporary and contextual design.
Put both references together and you have the keys to Murphy’s approach at New Hall. It’s partly about avoiding architectural one-upmanship. “I think you have to be careful with housing; generally, it’s background,” he says. “You can inflate it into being something else in an urban context, but in a suburban site in Essex, I think you want decent background buildings, not showpiece architecture.”
But the practice is also concerned to maximise outside space and residents’ privacy. Detached houses have been creatively arranged with large gardens bounded by two freestanding walls and the neighbour’s rear wall. “It’s the most generous amount of garden on the site,” Murphy says proudly. The plan of the townhouses has been jigged to create larger gardens than their Proctor Matthews neighbours, while a spacious second floor terrace is shielded by side walls.
The practice’s townhouses, detached houses, apartments and mews flats make up the bulk of the fourth phase at New Hall, developed by the Moen brothers (see box over page) as a challenge to every dreary, derivative apology for mass housing. Known as North Chase, the built-out development will also feature flats by ORMS, ECD’s flats and live-work units, and affordable housing by Roger Evans Associates, the practice responsible for the masterplan.
The four house types share a deliberately limited materials palette, varying the themes of yellow brick, grey Welsh slate and dark-stained timber cladding, a nod to the local Essex vernacular. There is a selection box of Rationel windows: corner positions offer views and supervision over the street, high-level clerestoreys top light the interiors; low-level lights and projecting bays are complete with window seats inside. Likewise there is a common theme to the roof profiles. The townhouses and a yet-to-be-completed block of flats have rakish monopitch hats, while the villas and mews flats have a typically Murphy detail in the “kung fu” section, where opposing roof slopes overlap, creating a clerestory strip.
In a suburban site in Essex, you want decent background buildings, not showpiece architecture
The internal finish and specification, from the Ideal Standard bathroom fittings to glossy Xylo timber floor and the Pepper Kitchen, aims squarely at “masstige” — a prestige look on a mass-market budget. “We’re trying to do a modern specification but without the really high- cost, top-of-the-range pieces — it’s important to show you can do it,” says sales and marketing manager Matthew Byatt.
The townhouses feature a ground floor study/spare bedroom with a bathroom next door. “If the brief is four or five bedrooms, it’s always a good idea to have one bedroom separated from the others that doesn’t interact with family life,” Murphy argues.
But he also accommodates family life with a roomy, high-ceilinged kitchen/dining room with plenty of space for a sofa and a wall-mounted plasma TV. A stairwell slotted with light and animated with cutouts leads to the first floor reception room to the front, two bedrooms to the rear, and a stylish bathroom that features a sanitaryware range designed by architect David Chipperfield.
The first floor living room was supposed to have had a floor-level slot window giving onto the kitchen below, another of Murphy’s repertoire of window details. But Building Regulations apparently put paid to the idea, and the resulting recess behind the sofa is rather unsatisfactorily described as “storage space”.
It’s the kind of issue that the practice was denied the chance to resolve: the contract went design-and-build after Stage E. “Under a traditional contract, when the design’s at working drawings stage, you’re still having ideas, inventing. But design-and-build cuts out a degree of invention,” Murphy notes. However, the survival of cutouts in the stair wall and the contemporary detailing of doors and skirtings suggest his design was in safer than average hands.
On the top floor there’s a dramatic second floor master bedroom with a triangular window that takes full advantage of the gull-wing roofline, and sliding doors onto an external decked terrace, an invitation to linger over summer breakfast.
We’re trying to do a modern specification but without the really high-cost, top-of-the-range pieces — its important to show you can do it
With the detached houses, the practice appears to have invented a new house type — updated Viking long house, perhaps. Murphy describes them as lying with “their shoulders to the street”, presenting a gable end animated with corner windows. The houses are the width of one room and a corridor, which on the ground floor leads on to a study/bedroom, cloakroom, galley kitchen and reasonably large living/dining room.
Upstairs are three double bedrooms lit with the kind of clerestory slots, slits and triangular windows that are perhaps easier to admire than buy curtains for. But the effect in the hallway, even on an overcast day, is of changing and uplifting top light.
New Hall, a 10-minute drive from Harlow Station, is built to accommodate 2.5 cars per property. But Murphy keeps at least some of the cars neatly out of sight thanks to his modern interpretation of “mews” flats sitting above a triple garage. Reached via external stairs — a Murphy touch designed to animate the street — the one- and two-bed flats are light, spacious and finished to the same high specification as the houses.
But the parking ratio points to a gap where there could have been an eco-exemplar. New Hall has never been promoted as an eco-project, and in fact the Moen brothers’ description of it covers every touchstone of the current design agenda — design codes, density, public space, community — without explicitly mentioning environmental sustainability.
The homes have been rated a perfectly respectable Ecohomes “very good”. But prospective buyers of North Chase homes completed after May 1 will be given certificates of their home’s sustainability profile under the Code for Sustainable Homes. It seems a pity that a development that’s a flagship in so many ways couldn’t set a higher standard on sustainability.
Walking round North Chase, the masterplan is expressed in curving streets, oblique views and a slightly higgledy piggledy feel likely to appeal to some buyers more than others. Murphy himself appears ambivalent about Roger Evans’ streetplan, saying he would have preferred it to be more “hierarchical”, with fewer roads and deeper plots.
But even with these reservations over the masterplan and the eco-performance, New Hall is still a remarkable achievement by the Moen brothers. And in Richard Murphy Architects’ four new house types, the developer has commissioned residential design where every window detail, stair niche and garden points up the lack of ambition elsewhere in the sector.
Each of the three parcels developed so far at New Hall has a mix of units, from large family detached houses to small flats. It’s important to us that the whole development isn’t made at the whimof the market but evolves in a proper, mixed community. There are large, continental-style family flats and small affordable terraced homes.
We had long discussions with the architects to make sure they conformed [to the overall vision]. There’s a tendency for architects to
look just at their own patch. Because we’re developing the fourth parcel ourselves, we really want to show what you can do. The contractor, William Verry, obviously wanted to do a certain amount of value engineering, but we had a series of meetings with them and the architect, and developed compromises.
Despite all our efforts, it’s true the build cost here is higher than average. Because we’re creating a good environment, it’s becoming a district people want to live in and are prepared to pay 15-20% above local values. We get the young managerial and professional families who like and appreciate modern architecture. And we’re getting people who remember the dawn of modern architecture in the sixties and seventies that never happened retiring here.
We’re making provision for cars above normal standards because we accept people will have cars. But we encourage pedestrians with the street layout, and we’re paying for a dedicated bus route to Harlow.
Photographs by Jon Moen and Morley von Sternberg
For more information on New Hall, see Product Gallery.
Original print headline ’Right angles’
14 October 2009