Original features: Smaller firms are offering inspiring alternatives to the big developers' boring family homes

By Gwenda Brophy Friday, 13 August 2010

The last few years have certainly been something of a roller-coaster for those whose business is building homes. Just three years ago private builders – from the volume big boys to niche developers – brought more than 210,000 new homes to the market. By 2009 this had plummeted to just 142,000. And the Home Builders Federation – the body that represents the industry in England and Wales – has called for a change in policy to facilitate increase in building levels, which are currently, they say, at their lowest since 1923. Meanwhile, pre-recession, government density requirements, sheer commercial opportunism and a buy-to-let market giddy with seemingly limitless opportunities saw an increasingly skewed balance in favour of flats and apartments over family homes.

By 2008-9 completions of houses made up just 54 per cent of all new properties. In London flats and apartments made up a heady 90 per cent of new homes, while from the North-West to the East of England and South-East apartments were near or actually half of all new private builds, regardless of demographic reality. The results – a clamour for family houses whose supply shortage resulted in the phony recovery in prices during the last year and empty city-centre apartment blocks have been well-documented.

At the same time though, another – less apparent – undercurrent has also been making itself felt. New family homes have often – deservedly – been berated for being bland, uninspiring and box-like. But while the one-off architect designed home remains the powerhouse of new ideas and concepts, there are an increasing number of house builders and small developers who are constructing properties that genuinely stand out from the norm. It may be self-preservation in a tighter market or the growing numbers of buyers no longer prepared to buy into a cut-and-paste or pastiche produce, but even at more modest price levels there are new builds of architectural panache.

The copper-clad Newhall tower development in Harlow, Essex is a prime example of the increasing number of new builds from architects and house builders willing to think outside the box.

Peter Chlapowski of PCKO architects, who designed the building for house builders CALA – winning a raft of design awards – says the copper cladding was chosen precisely because it would stand out and offer something different to buyers.

An ongoing project Newhall has often been cited as an exemplary blueprint of urban architecture and residential development – from inception the landowners commissioned a master-plan for the scheme, subsequently inviting architects to design the different phases. And like other innovative new build developments Newhall has made great use of unusual materials.

More recently ECD Architects was given the design brief for a new apartment building opposite the tower. Using a facade of copper, which mellows over time, the building will acquire its own unique and individual look – unlike so many other new housing projects. Two bedroom apartments as well as a two or three bedroom live/work studio are for sale, priced from £189,950-249,995.

Sandy Harrison, head of the British committee of the European Copper in Architecture Campaign is, unsurprisingly, a big advocate of copper and its use in contemporary housing, citing its lightweight and long-lasting qualities as "making it appeal to architects and designers who also love it flexibility, enabling different forms – curved shapes can be difficult with other materials."

An additional characteristic appealed to Louis Hamston of Mulberry Builders. "The material can be worked by machine or by hand, giving a bespoke appearance, a feature that is missing from a lot of new builds. We've found buyers are looking for something different from the large-scale non-descript apartment blocks of the 1990s."

At Mulberry's development The Copper Apartments in London's SE3, copper has been incorporated into each of the thirteen apartments split over two blocks, one of cream brick, one black brick. The two bedroom homes, with some duplexes, all with balcony or terrace, and gated parking available, start from £330,000. It is these design possibilities that are firing up the new interest in copper, believes Harrison and taking it into the mainstream: "Surface finishes are now available that offer multiple variations – I've recently seen projects with exciting uses of copper bronze alloy and one with the golden glow of copper aluminium alloy. It takes the material into more artistic territory."

It's not just copper though that's proving popular. It is, surprisingly, Wood's End, a house using wood rather than a more predictable glass and steel construction that has been described as a '21st Century masterpiece', as well as winning a Campaign to Protect Rural England award for its unique design and several other awards.

The brief for Wood's End was to create a home that would co-exist with its surroundings without compromising architectural integrity or flair. The timber-framed house, clad in Redwood Cedar, features an expanse of full-height hardwood windows and doors with views over the gardens and landscape. However, it was the choice of a particular wood that opened up new possibilities, says Nicholas Wordie of Roderick James Architects. "Normally we work in green oak; but in this instance by using Douglas Fir we were able to achieve longer spans. We formed barrel vaulted 'bow-string' trussed ceilings and utilised stainless steel bracing."

Under the gently curving roofs, flowering sedum blossoms with white and pink flowers during the summer. "The moss-sedum barrel roofs minimise the visual impact on the site and allows for the building to blend in with the wood and natural setting," says Wordie of the property, currently on the market with a guide price £1.395 million.

Wood is also being used to produce a contemporary rather than a rustic look at Avante in Coxheath, Kent, a development of one and two-bedroom apartments and two, three and four-bedroom houses designed by architects Sheppard Robson. It combines exteriors of white render and timber cladding with varying roof elevations. While angular shapes as well as a distinctive central glass lantern also allow for more daylight and natural ventilation as well as improving solar gain. Prices start at £202,500.

Back at Newhall, developer Linden Homes's "be" project has won seven national awards for design and innovation, using a very striking dark timber on the exteriors. Created by architect Alison Brooks, who is working on the London Olympics athletes' village, a one-bedroom apartment starts from £184,995, with three and four bedroom detached homes priced £369,000-£399,995.

Finally in a nation whose favourite houses tend to be variations on the rectangle in brick, a change of form can be something of a culture shock and a house design given planning permission for a cliff-top site – the latter priced at £650,000 – near Ilfracombe, has raised eyebrows locally.

Designed by Guy Greenfield, Stirling Prize finalist and RIBA award-winner, the four-bedroom 5,000 sq ft house will include a lower floor with a media room and playroom, plus two upper floors with most of the living space. The triangle design was chosen to allow views from as many rooms as possible and the architectural impact achieved by the horizontal form of the triangle – producing a highly angular building.

Visibility has been deliberately curtailed at a nine-acre site at Ravensdane Wood Charing in Kent. In an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the 3,000 sq ft low-lying three/four-bedroom house has been given planning permission and will feature state-of-the-art green technologies – architect Laurence Abbott was with the Richard Rogers Partnership.

Abbott has set the design in a natural valley, away from the prevailing winds, and only its largely transparent upper storey is visible through the trees from the surrounding area. The site is for sale, for £485,000.

Useful contacts

  • * The Corner Place (Northcase.co.uk)
  • * The Copper Apartments (Mulberry builders.co.uk; 020 8853 3843)
  • * Avante (Crestnicholson.com; 0870 755 9830)
  • * 'be' (Lindenhomes.co.uk; 01279 443 183)
  • * Wood's End (Bedfords.co.uk; 01328 730 500)
  • * The Bay (Knightfrank.co.uk; 01392 848 844)
  • * The Triangular Building (Knightfrank.co.uk)
  • * Ilfracombe and Charing (Themodernhouse.net)
  • * PCKO Architects (Pcko.co.uk)
  • * ECDA Architects (ECDA.co.uk)