Regeneration streets – The Aylesbury Estate, Walworth

It may be an overused term, but regeneration will be an apt one for a project to replace a troubled inner London estate of 1960s monoliths with a new mixed-tenure landscape of buildings, streets and squares. James Parker spoke to the architect leading the masterplan.

The Aylesbury Estate, in Walworth, half a mile south east of Elephant & Castle in central London, is one of the capital’s notorious estates. Designed by architect Hans Peter ‘Felix’ Trenton in 1963 it was part of the boom in monolithic concrete high-rises which time and reputation have not been kind to. The place is a daunting series of horizontal slabs of concrete of up to 14 stories, and expanses of landscaping which now include many mature trees.

Building failures such as dampness from concrete panels leaking and hard to operate tilt/turn windows and security concerns from a lack of lift lobbies are just some of the daily issues that residents face. A major regeneration project now underway will transform the colossal 27 hectare site into a very different looking, and it is hoped more socially cohesive and desirable, new district.

Being led by a firm of architects with strong experience in mixed tenure regeneration schemes, HTA Design, the project’s First Development Site (FDS) is a collection of six separate plots designed by three architects – HTA, Mae and Hawkins/Brown – adjacent to Burgess Park at the plan’s south west corner (see illustration, left).

Detailed planning was given for the FDS, together with outline planning for the overall masterplan, in April 2015. However delays common to major regeneration projects in progressing to demolition mean that construction of the FDS phases won’t begin until next year.

The new development will (when it completes in 2032) deliver a total of 3500 new homes, half of which Southwark Borough Council has committed to ensuring are affordable. And although there will be less single person dwellings reflecting the client’s identified need for more family homes, 6000 more habitable rooms will be created than currently provided, which helps the affordable quota.

The project was instigated by a partnership formed between housing association Notting Hill Housing London Borough of Southwark in 2005. HTA – which has worked successfully with both clients in the past – became involved in 2010 going through a two stage bid with Mae and Hawkins & Brown, as well as Deloitte Real Estate who would go on to prepare the planning applications. In addition WSP led on the environmental impact assessment for the FDS and overall masterplan.

Following HTA’s appointment in 2013, David Morton was taken on as an associate in February the following year to run the FDS project, in itself a complex set of buildings. He would also oversee the outline application team for the overall masterplan, working with partner Simon Bayliss.

According to Morton, while there was already a very detailed scheme in place for the full project on his arrival, taking the bid offer to a full planning application by that September was a tough call. It meant “a process of planning negotiation on both the detailed and outline planning,” and was, as he says with some understatement, “a fairly tight timescale.”

After “a couple of tweaks” to both outline and detailed proposals before resubmission in November the scheme entered committee stage in March 2015. Barratts is in the frame as developer for the private sale elements of the FDS including the towers, however this is yet to be confirmed.

Site geography
The ‘spine’ of the unevenly-shaped masterplan is Thurlow Street to the east, towards Old Kent Road. As well as many residential blocks, the site includes two health centres, a school and conservation area at the centre of the plan and runs to East Street at its northern edge. The FDS, technically Phases 1b and c, is bordered at the south western corner of the plan by Phase 1a designed by Levitt Bernstein and completed in 2012. A ‘reserved matters’ planning application has been submitted for a new library and community hub to the north east of the site.

David Morton knows the area well, as he once lived just north of the school. He says this “was part of my attraction to the project. I really enjoyed living there – the sense of proximity to central London – you are very close to the river and I used to walk to work.”

He says that estate agents are now attempting to rebrand what is in some parts a run-down district as the more aspirational-sounding ‘Walworth Village’ – but making “a distinct divide between the pre-existing (Victorian) housing and that which has been demolished and rebuilt.”

Design drivers: a stitch in time
The main design driver for the masterplan is an attempt to provide a varied and rich set of new residential areas with a distinct individual character, in contrast to the impersonal environments currently on offer. Putting the emphasis on reinstating streets plus landscaped squares with in some cases houses with front doors at street level and kitchens at the front would foster greater social interaction. This will “stitch a piece of the city back” into the surrounding streetscape, says Morton; a key driver for HTA.

The approach will be an important change from the current, explicitly contrasting horizontal behemoths which can make those unfamiliar with the area, particularly pedestrians or cyclists, feel alienated. Morton explains:

“We were keen to take the surrounding street patterns and look at how to reconnect. The street I used to live on for example, there was a brick wall at the end and a slab building.”

He says that creating new areas which harmonise with the existing fabric doesn’t mean uniformity, and the masterplan introduces ‘character areas’ to ensure this:

“Stitching the development into the surroundings is about being able to walk through a neighbourhood and appreciate the richness – there will be changes, but it won’t be presenting you with areas that look strange and which you don’t understand. It was designed as an estate – but we’re making it into a piece of the city.”

This approach is something of a reaction to Southwark Borough’s original Area Action Plan (AAP) which proposed what Morton described as a “big gesture approach” of introducing large-scale landscaped “green fingers” into the development. The design team took the view that this would reduce connection with the city and proposed a different solution, and one which would ultimately deliver more green space overall.

The more varied and fragmented approach that has been arrived at contrasts with the current design of the estate, which in Morton’s words, is “big blocks, big spaces where the whole thing is the piece.” The new development is not without its tall buildings however, with blocks up to 20 stories planned in the FDS, but they are relatively slim towers.

Morton describes how HTA undertook a study that took a piece of Mayfair (“an area of London very much based on streets and squares,” and overlaid it onto the site:

“It was fascinating overlaying that on this site and how you get a real sense of place and how you would navigate the streets and the open spaces. They bring shape and character.”

The masterplan attempts to reduce car parking as part of a key focus on encouraging cycling (which will help towards its BREEAM Communities accreditation). However car parking in a variety of arrangements, along tree-lined streets, has been planned in as part of the urban fabric.

Using trees as a design tool
One of the benefits offered by the existing estate being harnessed by the masterplan is the large number of mature trees, many of which will be retained; a key driver from the AAP. David Morton says that in contrast to the replacement of the nearby Heygate Estate, “where very little tree retention was proposed, and which was a “significant factor in responses against the application,” the design team has used trees extensively to help guide street plans.

“As part of the street and square response we started to look at where we could retain groups of trees and really work with those. This was seen as a good driving point for a good street layout and an opportunity to retain something of the previous estate that was of value, providing ecological benefit.”

Tree retention will be maximised by using some of the existing road layout, and the streets and squares approach will link tree-lined streets to open spaces positioned where clusters of existing trees are located. In some cases buildings have been aligned to ensure that particularly good quality trees are retained, and new trees will be planted throughout the plan, helping to reinforce the street hierarchy, emphasise key routes, and provide continuity across the development.

The First Development Site: tenure-blind design
The First Development Site (Phases 1b and 1c) will provide 830 units, and is in itself an exciting new quarter of the city with a rich mix of tenure and building types in response to the overall plan’s drive to knit into the city. It will form the template for other areas of the masterplan, as Morton says:

“It sets the tone for the broad strategy of what will happen on Phases 2, 3 and 4.”

The overall design approach was to provide a strong and defining perimeter edge to the development along the park, but also a “gentle neighbourhood connection linking the surrounding area with the park.” It combines an urban response reminiscent of a mini-Park Lane with its three towers stepping down rapidly to lower density massing of eight, four and three-storey buildings to the north of the FDS.

Six blocks are included – HTA designed four of them, including four and five bedroom houses, for a mix of affordable rent and private sale, with the ratio weighted towards affordable. One of the lower density blocks also has seven one bed flats for residents with learning disabilities, and another has a six-storey building containing a mix of shared ownership flats and maisonettes.

On the higher density Blocks 5 and 6 adjacent to the park are buildings ranging from 18 storey towers to medium rise (5-8 storey) buildings for private sale, sitting cheek by jowl with shared ownership and affordable rent buildings of a similar scale. This follows the AAP’s requirement “to get affordable housing to the park edge,” explains Morton.

He says that the design attempts to avoid differentiation between the different tenures:

“The architecture of the FDS blocks is tenure blind – they are different blocks but they all join up to make a continuous whole. There is greater detailing on some of the affordable rent blocks simply because of where they are on the park edge.”

Good quality landscaping is planned throughout, whether first-floor courtyards in the case of the park-edge blocks or back gardens to maisonettes on the lower-density blocks behind. Views out are optimised as are connections to these green spaces.

In terms of their external appearance, the blocks’ design features extensive use of brick cladding, partly to enable aesthetic variation while achieving some consistency to link the blocks together visually. Says Morton:

“There are some bricks we are using across different blocks; sometimes it may be about using the same brick with a different tone.” There is even talk of using glazed brick on maisonettes.

At the same time the designers are standardising some constructions where possible such as wall and floor build ups across the FDS, “so won’t have to reinvent things across the rest of the masterplan,” Morton adds.

The provision of a large number of maisonettes in the FDS (70 per cent of which are dual aspect) grouped around streets and green spaces can create a strong community feel, prosaic but crucial issues such as arrangements for locating the proliferating numbers of refuse bins need to be considered. ‘Defensible space’ in the form of small front gardens is the preferred strategy. HTA has focused intensely on “getting the streetscape right” on the FDS and will be sharing this work with the architects for Phase 2.

Design collaboration
HTA is used to working collaboratively, so working with two other firms on a challenging project such as FDS was home from home, and sharing was beneficial. Morton:

“The fact we have different teams within the firm working on different buildings fitted very comfortably within that.

“An architect working on one aspect, for example doing a study on balconies or brickwork could see their design applied across the whole thing. It was a good way of working through some of the design issues.” However he says that despite the benefits of design collaboration, the masterplan wanted it to feel like different architects had worked on different buildings to impart richness to then scheme.”

He adds:

“When we presented to the planners it was always about the scheme, it wasn’t about this or that architect.”

HTA’s David Morton says that this project, from the bid process to the strength of collaboration between clients and the architectural team “has been unlike any other project I’ve been involved in.”

He concludes:

“It has been incredibly collaborative and we are working towards something that’s mutually beneficial to everyone. It’s very different from a lot of development-led projects and has been rewarding. It is a credit to the team that we got such a strong application into planning in such a small window.”