Stealth social housing – Long Lane, Southwark, London

Teodora Lyubomirova looks at how architects Levitt Bernstein applied care and precision to create a tenure-blind affordable social housing scheme on a space-constrained site in the heart of London.

From a leather trade mecca in the 19th century to a bustling cultural and corporate centre today, Southwark’s transformation could not be more striking.

Some of London’s most recognisable new landmarks sit within its boundaries – from the twisted profile of Tate Modern’s Switch House to the Elizabethan era-inspired Shakespeare Globe and the dramatic glass and steel giants looming within the More London commercial development.

Take a walk south past the busy construction underway around London Bridge Station, and a peaceful residential area soon emerges. This shift of dynamics is deceptive however, as the noisy development along Long Lane, where ADF is headed to view a new social housing scheme by Levitt Bernstein, is a reminder of Southwark’s borough’s relentless pace of redevelopment.

On Long Lane, among a diverse mix of building types and uses, sits one of Southwark Borough Council’s most recent developments. Erected on a council-owned plot which previously accommodated the Borough and Bankside Housing office, the scheme comprises two blocks abutting a new private sale residential corner building which falls outside the development on the junction with Weston Street, with a shared rear courtyard linking both blocks. The bigger of the two social housing blocks, a six-storey brick-clad building at 169 Long Lane, forms the main part of the scheme, while an identically clad three-storey block completes the development on the adjacent Weston Street.

This unusual arrangement was necessary in order to use all available space to create what the council hoped would be an exemplar development of tenure-blind council housing development on a busy and constrained site.

Fully affordable, with a mix of 21 council rent flats and shared ownership apartments including two spacious wheelchair units, the project on Long Lane was delivered in the context of a rapidly changing neighbourhood, where challenges presented by both existing and emerging schemes had to be considered.

Close proximity

Perhaps the biggest question facing Levitt Bernstein was how to integrate the new scheme into the adjacent 1960s Kipling Estate, which Long Lane has now become part of. While the existing estate’s two 21-storey high rises have a big influence on the area’s character, it was the low-rise building to the north of the Long Lane scheme which required special attention from the outset.

Heldar Court, which is located as close as 10 metres from some points of the new development, would be significantly affected by the works, particularly in terms of privacy and daylighting.

Through consultations with residents and the local tenant management organisation, the architects devised a strategy which aimed to progressively step the massing of the two buildings down as they got closer to their new neighbour, with Long Lane reduced to three storeys and eventually one storey, while the Weston Street-facing block also steps down to one storey towards the boundary wall.

While this massing approach meant a reduction in the number of new homes that could have been be provided, Simon Lea, associate director at Levitt Bernstein, insists it was worth the compromise. “The project was a delicate balance of protecting quality for existing residents while trying to maximise new homes.”

The architects designed all rear-facing windows to either angle away from the existing building or be fitted with opaque glass to allow daylight in, while also protecting the privacy of the existing residents. They also took care to orientate most living areas away from the neighbouring building, and towards the south and west instead.

The entrance route to the flats goes through the courtyard at the back, which is separated from Heldar Court’s private gardens by a new boundary wall. In a bid to protect residents’ privacy, but also allow daylight to pass through, the top half of this wall features a small yet nicely detailed area of brick lattice in the wall.

During consultations, the existing residents also feared the new external staircase at the rear could also create overlooking issues, so translucent glass balustrading raised to 1.7 metres above landing level was introduced to shield the opposite building from view.

Skin & streetscape

Levitt Bernstein’s love for brick is expressed throughout the building, as has been the case in other affordable housing projects completed by the architects in the past few years, such as the award-winning Buccleuch House in Hackney and Vaudeville Court in Islington.

However, while the aforementioned schemes are clad in a lighter brick, the Long Lane development offers a stark contrast with its dark skin of smooth blue brick (actually more of a dark grey). At the bases of both blocks, textured stack-bonded

brickwork rises up to the first residential floor, while the bin store on no. 169 is marked with a taller ‘hit and miss’ pattern instead of more traditional metal louvres. Ramps access to the ground floor homes have also been added at the base.

Contrasting colours, particularly in relation to the adjacent corner building’s fairly light material palette, makes the scheme a distinctive addition to the street, but one which ties in visually with other nearby buildings. Lea says: “

I don’t think every building has to stand out. Blue brick was used extensively on the building opposite , so we thought that would be a nice link.”

Further adjustments had to be made to level the rooftop railing to match that of the corner building, while the overall height of the new brick parapet was also kept as low as possible to enhance the well-shaped corner of the street.

All openings in the building are ‘cuts’ in the brickwork, with white brick used to mark recessed areas such as the balconies and external walkways (see image, left).

With this being a budget-constrained council housing scheme, the architects had to adopt a well-insulated, robust fabric and make the most of the larger building’s south-facing orientation before deploying additional sustainable measures, so the white brick helped brighten up the spaces, particularly the north-facing walkways in the rear. Lea admits the architects only used it where absolutely necessary, as it was an expensive imported material. “ came from Belgium,” he says, adding that the practice wanted to avoid using white bricks manufactured in the UK because they contain vanadium and can turn green over time.

The only exception to the blue and white cladding palette is the main entrance, where the wall cladding is bright red, to match the logo of the TMO, Leathermarket JMB. Likewise, the only render used is on the staircase, where the budget couldn’t allow pre-cast concrete to be specified.

Lea emphasises that the materials used throughout the scheme – from the high-quality metal ceilings in the walkways, to the tiling on the staircase and the landscaping in the courtyard – are low-maintenance and should last a long time with minimum maintenance costs.

High-spec & tenure-blind

The Long Lane scheme was designed to be ‘tenure-blind’ and in not being ‘obviously’ council housing, thus challenge the often negative perceptions attached to such housing by way of its design and high quality materials. Councillor Stephanie Cryan, deputy leader of Southwark Council and cabinet member for housing, beams with pride as she speaks about the development:

“Our design standards are very high – any directly-delivered scheme has to be of exceptional quality. To see such high-standard council homes at the beginning of a long programme is absolutely fantastic, and demonstrates what that standard is.”

Southwark Council is running the largest programme for directly building council homes in London, having pledged to deliver 11,000 homes by 2043, with 1,500 to be completed by 2018.

This initiative was borne of the need to address the growing housing crisis in the area. Cryan says: “We’ve got 10,000 people on our housing waiting lists at the moment, so we need to make sure that these are the homes that people want.” She adds: “It’s about taking the residents on the journey with you.”

The council employs a 50 per cent local lettings policy, meaning residents of the nearby Kipling Estate and the area in general would be able to apply to live in the new flats. That’s why involving the community and also the TMO in the planning stages was vital.

According to the councillor, residents were “particularly concerned about preventing anti-social behaviour; they didn’t want people sitting on stairwells or causing nuisance to neighbours.”

Residents also provided input on certain specification aspects of the wheelchair homes, such as the request for low level appliances and pull switches, but for all homes the provision of adequate storage – which was pushed to “the maximum possible” according to Lea – was key.

“The biggest thing is the building is tenure-blind,” says Cryan – “we wanted passers by to realise that this is council housing – and it doesn’t stand out as such”.

Another important suggestion came from the TMO resulted in the inclusion of a small roof terrace on the ‘stepped’ area of the Long Lane-facing block. Lea admits the terrace “became smaller and smaller after every resident meeting due to noise concerns”, but it remains a thoughtful addition, similar to the roof terraces on private developments.

“We designed a very nice roof terrace where the building steps down,” explains Simon Lea, “and it’s great, because we provided a family home with a very nice external space.”

Internal spaces & commercial unit

Due to the flats being occupied, ADF doesn’t get a peek inside, but according to the planning documents Long Lane has been designed to comply with Lifetime Home Standards 2012, the London Design Guide and Southwark’s own design standards. Notably, the two wheelchair homes – one in each block – are three-bed. “That’s unusual for this type of development,” confirms Lea. “They’re really big and spacious.”All flats are wheelchair-accessible, and an outdoor lift ensures residents who cannot climb the stairs can access their flats with ease.

Originally, the architects wanted to incorporate open-plan design in the living spaces, but residents requested separations, so all dwellings, except the accessibility-designed ones, have separate kitchens, with separate kitchens and dining rooms in all two and three-bed flats. Washing machines are also situated in the halls rather than the kitchens, which helps to minimise noise issues in the dwellings.

Importantly, the flat layouts allow all apartments to be dual aspect and therefore cross-ventilated.

“We tried to stick to the tried and tested solutions where possible, as with new systems, people may not like them or be confused about how to use them, says Lea, adding: “Ultimately, it’s about designing in simple things to give someone a decent place to live.”

At ground level, the increased floor-to- ceiling areas provide a generous shop front for the single commercial unit, which was very carefully incorporated into the scheme. “Southwark planning requirements wanted to ensure there are employment opportunities on the site,” says Lea.

The unit, which is self-contained and doesn’t require access to the residents’ communal garden, was designed as shell and core, but the dimensions posed a challenge for the architects. “The shop needed large floor to ceiling heights, so that meant the two ground-floor flats also ended up with fairly high ceilings. The separate kitchens would have increased the frontage on a very restricted site, so that was tricky to deal with.”

Sustainability & transport

Tasteful simplicity and practicality seem to be the defining traits of the Long Lane project, from the discreet stainless steel signage on the front, the trace heating on the stairs helping to deal with snow in winter, and the subtle grey frames of the double-glazed windows complementing the dark brick facade.

In terms of energy performance, the buildings rely mostly on a passive energy design, demonstrated in the bricks’ high thermal mass and additional layers of insulation. The inset south-facing balconies can limit the solar gain in warmer months while allowing in plenty of daylight throughout the year. The acoustic insulation exceeds recommendations by at least five decibels.

While gas heating is used – specifying a communal boiler or biomass heating not being financially viable – the development is targeting a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, and the development benefits from sedum roofing and photovoltaic panels. With Long Lane’s close proximity to London Bridge station and various bus routes, the architects devised secure cycle storage for residents but car parking spaces have been limited to two (on Weston Street) and one off Long Lane.

The project’s design and delivery has been carefully thought out as being “robust but flexible,” concludes Lea.

“I’d think that in 50 years’ time, the bricks would have become a bit more dusty, but otherwise the building would look pretty much the same,” he says, adding jokingly, “The blue bricks are virtually indestructible.”