Social Climbers

There are many different reasons why we might find a building inspiring, but with the UK’s current housing crisis, perhaps the most inspiring buildings are those that provide social housing, says David Adams.

In the UK today, more than 100,000 households (including more than 130,000 children) are living in temporary accommodation. A significant social housing building programme might appear to be fundamental for any government to end the misery of insecure, inadequate or unsafe housing, and the huge amounts of public money currently spent on housing people in temporary accommodation while they wait for a social home. Yet the rate at which new social housing is being built is painfully slow. For example, for every new social home built in England during 2022/2023, six households became homeless, according to analysis by the National Housing Federation (NHF). Its research suggests there are 4.2 million people in need of social housing in England alone.

But some progress is being made. New social housing estates and projects show what might be possible on a wider scale. Some of these developments also give new life to existing buildings and communities. Here are three examples of inspirational social housing developments, all of which were winners at the 2023 Inside Housing Development Awards. These projects show what can be achieved when building new social homes in sustainable, imaginative and innovative developments.

Poynder Apartments, Eildon Housing Association, Kelso, Scottish Borders

This is a unique extra care housing development for people aged 60 and over built by the Eildon Housing Association. It is unique because the apartments are housed in the refurbished buildings of a former high school: a listed, art deco-style 1930s building.

The apartments were designed by architects Aitken Turnbull and built by contractor M&J Ballantyne, with structural and civil engineering consultancy from Wardell Armstrong and surveying by Langmuir and Hay. Great care has been taken to maintain art deco features that were present within the original building, including elegant stairways and some unique stone features. New double-glazed windows were installed to specifications and include details that match the original windows. New render also matches the original colour of the building.

Yet the refurbishment also needed to update insulation within the fabric of the building and incorporate a new low-carbon emission electric heating system. State-of-the-art full-fibre internet infrastructure has also been installed throughout. The development cost £7.3m to build, with costs met with the assistance of grants of £2.8m from the Scottish Government and £750,000 from the Scottish Borders Council.

Completed in 2023, the development comprises 36 apartments available for social rent, with access to on-site services including personal care, social support and a hairdressing salon. The apartments themselves range in size from about 40m2 up to 96m2; each has an open-plan lounge/kitchen space (particularly important for those with dementia), a wet floor shower room and ensuite bathrooms, and all are fully wheelchair accessible.

Residents can also meet to eat meals together and attend social events in a community hub housed within the complex. Pets are welcome, and the buildings are surrounded by gardens that residents can enjoy, incorporating existing trees and landscape features, as well as a new patio area. Lighting, flooring and décor inside the building have been designed with the needs of any residents who suffer from dementia in mind to create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere.

Cromdale Square, Linthouse Housing Association, Glasgow

The imposing buildings of Drumoyne Primary School, off Shieldhall Road in Govan, Glasgow, remained a popular local landmark even after the school closed in 2010 and became a target for anti-social behaviour. Today the old school and its surroundings have been transformed into Cromdale Square (pictured left) – a new development comprising 49 new homes that became available for social rent from the Linthouse Housing Association from 2022.

The façade of the 1930s building has been retained, with a new block built behind it at the heart of the square. It is surrounded by green space and new terraces of two-bedroom flats and three-bedroom houses with gardens. Four of the properties are fully wheelchair accessible. The former home of the school’s caretaker has been converted into a new five-bedroom house, also available for social rent. Original railings and boundary walls and pillars have been used, with some of them moved and rebuilt in new locations to frame different properties and parts of the new development. Shared green space amenities include a children’s play area.

The new homes were designed by Grant Murray Architects and built using off-site modern methods of construction (MMC) by the CCG Construction Group in its Glasgow factory. CCG used its iQ Timber System – an enclosed panel wall precision engineering solution that links floor and roof cassettes to create a highly energy-efficient building superstructure, which in this case incorporated wall linings, windows, doors and finishes. Using this modular construction method increased speed and efficiency and reduced waste produced during construction. Engineering and surveying services were provided by Clyde Design Partnership and Thomson Cost Consultants respectively.

The development cost £10.2m and was funded in part by the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council. As if it wasn’t enough to return a derelict set of buildings to use, as part of the development CCG also supported seven new trade apprenticeships within the local community and donated resources to local schools and £7,000 to community projects.

BlueBird, Southend-on-Sea

In Southend-on-Sea, the city’s local homelessness charity Harp has spearheaded the creation of BlueBird. This is a 56-bed development designed to support people experiencing homelessness and help them start their journey back towards living independently. Of the 56 units, 21 of the spaces available in the development are equipped to house those who have more complex needs, and some support services for these residents are provided on-site. The development also houses an education and training centre called The Hive, where residents can learn practical skills such as cooking and gardening.

BlueBird was previously a site of disused garages and three existing properties. Planning and building the development took three years, with construction completed in late 2022 and BlueBird opening officially in April 2023. SKArchitects designed the project, which was built by AW Hardy. Harp first acquired the three existing properties that have been renovated, while the neighbouring group of garages was demolished and replaced by six new terraced homes.

The properties are formed in a retrofitted terrace with a new build gas-free mews-style housing development to the rear. All are built to Passivhaus standards to minimise the amount of energy needed for heating or cooling. Energy efficient measures include air-source heat pumps in each of the homes and timber frames that are filled with Warmcel insulation.

The cost of the project was met by funding and donation from a range of sources including a public fundraising campaign, HomesEngland (the principal funder), Garfield Weston, LandAid, the Albert Hunt Trust, Fowler and B&Q. It has already won several awards – including Excellence in Design & Placemaking at the Essex Housing Awards and Housing Project (up to £5m) at the AJ Architecture Awards – and is currently nominated for longlist of the RIBA MacEwen Award 2024.

However, it’s not really about the accolades. Clay hanging tiles create a unified façade along the front of the properties. Artist Madelaine Hanman Murphy led a project to incorporate decorative roundels designed by Harp clients and other local people into the façade, all based around the theme of home. For many, the short-term home BlueBird provides will change their lives for the better. 

Image credit | Rob Gray / Alexander Fraser Photography / SKArchitects

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