The Phoenix, Lewes: a first look at the future

Kathryn Firth of Arup reveals a groundbreaking residential scheme in East Sussex that seeks to turn the drivers of climate emergency and sustainability into opportunities for better design and placemaking in shared amenities, plus affordable living

Now granted planning as a mixed-use neighbourhood on a neglected 7.9 hectare brownfield site, the Phoenix project is being brought to life by a ‘transdisciplinary’ team of architects, urban designers, planners and sustainability experts from across the industry. I have been lucky enough to work as part of the core masterplanning team alongside Periscope, spearheaded by the project’s instigator and developer Human Nature.

The Phoenix pushes the boundaries of typical placemaking approaches to demonstrate the ways in which multiple challenges, in climate, nature and health and wellbeing, can be addressed at neighbourhood level. Made up of 685 energy efficient homes connected to seven public gardens, the design has inclusivity and connectivity is at its core.

30% of the development will be designated as ‘First Homes’ and ‘affordable rented housing.’ A total of 92 two and three-bedroom homes within this category are defined as Lewes Low Cost Housing, a bespoke category of affordable housing introduced by the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan and defined as affordable on the average salary in Lewes.

Sitting within the South Downs National Park, the Phoenix is made up of 18 buildings by 12 different architects. Human Nature assembled the delivery team of multiple disciplines to reflect the approach and principles of the initiative: highly sensitive to its surrounding landscape, diverse in thinking and design, and empowered by a deep collaboration of people focused on shaping the neighbourhood. 

 Work commenced in 2020 with the creation of 20 Blueprint Principles. These are the foundations of key concepts that remain relevant to the community now as it comes to life, including shared living and mobilising a regenerative economy, founded by a collective commitment to positive climate impacts. 

The core team worked closely with community groups, residents and more than 60 local businesses, with more than 4,000 people visiting exhibitions and workshops over the last few years, bringing groups who may not otherwise be involved with the design or decision-making processes into the early conversations. It is our shared belief that this is integral to shaping a truly socially impactful community, as well as considering people, nature and place interconnectedly to create a new template for future towns and neighbourhoods.

Now granted planning approval, this same level of collaboration will run through the project as the community is created.  The first phase of detailed design – ‘Parcel 1’ – is being delivered by Ash Sakula Architects in partnership with the core team, including structural engineers Whitby Wood and flood and civil engineers Expedition Engineering.

Parcel 1 comprises 44 terrace homes overlooking the River Ouse and The Pells; woodlands adjacent to Lewes. Made up of townhouses and apartments designed intricately for contemporary, community-based living, most front doors will open onto a shared courtyard that includes a rain garden, communal cycle store and spaces to sit. Built with timber panels integrating hempcrete and wood fibre insulation, this first housing illustrates how the development will take shape once complete, in harmony with its surroundings. 

A masterplan for social value & mobility 

Once a core masterplanning team was created,  architects were commissioned to shape initial designs across the site, eventually settling into plots divided among the different practices, offering a simultaneous sense of deep collaboration and distinct approaches.  

As it comes to life, the Phoenix will hopefully provide a benchmark for the future of high-quality housing and neighbourhood design that demonstrates a different model is possible. The masterplan is dedicated to a more sustainable way of living, with social value and sociability embedded in its identity. The neighbourhood embraces a shared ground plane – from courtyards through to shared plots for food harvesting.  

With more than 3,000 m² of business, employment and flexible workspaces provided, many housed in adapted industrial buildings, the neighbourhood is anticipated to create 381 permanent jobs. It was conceived as a neighbourhood of exchange and interaction, with its grounds and buildings designed or repurposed to embrace shared use. 

Furthering the sense of community and productive local economy, the Co-Mobility Hub on the site will offer an electric car-share service, and bicycles for hire. This will reduce the need for private vehicles and encourage residents to embrace the neighbourhood’s walkability and cyclability.

Balancing circularity & efficiency

Environmental concerns are broadly shared by locals, with Lewes being one of the first ‘Transition Towns’ pledging to use self-sufficient approaches to tackling the climate emergy, and it now has a Green-led Town and District Council.  

Engaging with the South Downs National Park on the project’s Environmental Statement, the technical team has focused on going beyond net zero to incorporate embodied carbon emissions – what Human Nature refers to as ‘whole-place carbon’ as part of its holistic approach to sustainability. Simply put, the design and delivery considers the impact of all materials, construction and transport, recognising that compound effects can be achieved at neighbourhood scale.

Circularity is also integral, immediately demonstrated through the repurposing of two Victorian industrial structures on the site. Working with Local Works Studio based nearby, an audit has been conducted assessing where and how materials can be reused, including steel trusses, cladding, brick walls and buttressing. 

This ideology is embedded in the Phoenix’s culture, including through upcycling, repair and reuse ventures. Food waste will be composted to provide fertilisation for urban farming, with the food grown then used in the neighbourhood’s canteen, restaurant and cafes.  

The Phoenix will be powered by onsite PVs, and through an additional renewable energy facility utilising a data-led energy management system. Heat will be provided through open loop ground source heat pumps, delivering district heating on an ‘ambient loop.’ This means that heat produced can be transported around the site more efficiently and that any heat rejected, for example from a commercial refrigeration system, is reused elsewhere in the neighbourhood, reducing waste and increasing overall system efficiency. Combined with expertly designed
housing, this hugely impacts the cost of living for those in the community – heating bills are anticipated to be up to 80% less than an average household. 

I am proud that Arup is an advocate and accelerator of this type of sustainability-at-scale thinking. We work with a spectrum of city and developer clients at district, regional and national levels to unlock equity and sustainable solutions through innovation. The Phoenix is bringing this industry – and societal – progression to life, and my personal excitement stems from knowing we will be able to use it as a future benchmark of how sustainability principles can truly be delivered. The Phoenix will catalyse and mobilise others in the industry to match or exceed its realised ambitions. 

Kathryn Firth is director of masterplanning and urban design at Arup