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Living in the landscape

By Ruth Slavid
In its first 10 years of existence, HAB has built some well-regarded housing in which landscape plays a crucial part. We look at the approach, at a number of key projects, and at the role that the developer’s landscape architect plays.
Why do we live where we do? And what makes us happy about where we live? These are the questions that engage HAB housing, the organisation started 10 years ago under the auspices of TV’s Kevin McCloud and which has delivered a relatively small number of well-regarded projects in both the public and private sectors.

HAB stands for ‘happiness architecture beauty’ but from the beginning there has also been an emphasis on landscape, and that is only set to grow. The practice has always worked with talented landscape practices but for the past three years it has also employed an in-house landscape architect, Catherine Haigh. In her time in private practice, Catherine worked for an architect and also in a multi-disciplinary practice. ‘It enabled me to see where the bits were missing in terms of making things happen,’ she said.

Making things happen is what HAB does with a mixed portfolio that is difficult to define but somehow easy to grasp. The very first project, The Triangle, in Swindon, still the most high-profile, was entirely publicly funded, partly because working with a housing association was the only source of funding the nascent company had access to.

It developed a site that several previous developers had dismissed as impossible, and this set a pattern for future developments. Too small to compete directly with larger developers, HAB looks for or becomes aware of parcels of land in the southwest, its chosen patch, that are seen as difficult and finds solutions.

Isabel Allen, who has been design director of HAB from the beginning, said, ‘We are always interested in the vast majority of housing, much of which was previously unloved and uncatered for.’ The practice is committed to One Planet Living (the notion that we should not consume more resources than our planet can provide sustainably), and is trying to make this applicable to as many people’s homes as possible – hence its tendency to build on the edges of towns, rather than providing city-centre glamour or rural hideaways.

And in those places, landscape has a vital role to play. Isabel says, ‘Housing is not meant to be the soloist in the orchestra. If you want some richness it is easier to have that in the landscape.’ As well as creating spaces within the developments that can have social as well as recreational function (typically there will be small private gardens and also communal space), the practice likes to ‘borrow’ from the surrounding landscape. ‘A lot of it is about communication,’ Isabel said. ‘The badgers are already there, the hills are there. What we do is a prompt. It is about wrapping up a story and engaging people.’

The practice has worked with an impressive array of landscape architects, but is always looking for more. Isabel has her finger on the pulse of suitable architects – she used to edit The Architects’ Journal – but, she says, ‘one of the clear briefs to Catherine was to research the landscape architects out there. If, for instance, SuDS are very important in a scheme, she should know who to go to.’

The Triangle

HAB’s first project, The Triangle in Swindon, was delivered by Haboakus, a joint venture between HAB Housing and GreenSquare Group. The 42-home development on a sustainable brownfield infill site sought to create a contemporary interpretation of Swindon’s mid-Victorian railway cottages – flexible, affordable and efficient to build and run.

The scheme consists of two and two-and- a-half storey terraces containing two-, three-, and four- bedroom homes around a central village green. The east and west terraces are both terminated by three-storey corner blocks, each containing three apartments, providing focal points as you enter and leave the site.

The architectural expression is deliberately low-key, deriving its character from proportions, carefully-defined details and high-quality execution; a well-ordered backdrop which allows the extensive landscape and greenery to define the character of the site. Gabion walls to the front of the dwellings minimize the visual impact of car parking, conceal meter cupboards, recycling and bins and provide nooks and crannies to encourage wildlife. Details like these were considered carefully – the gabions were too low to sit on, to maintain some privacy, but the right height to perch a cup of tea. In addition to private rear gardens, the scheme provides a range of public and semi-public spaces to encourage recreational use, hobby gardening and strong social interaction between neighbours. The central green includes a wet meadow, which forms part of the sustainable drainage strategy, and a wildlife garden as well as an area for community activities and informal children’s play.

The landscape strategy throughout the scheme maximizes the opportunities for food production with kitchen gardens, vegetable patches, allotments, planters, fruit trees and currant bushes.

Completed in 2011, the project won a raft awards. Studio Engleback won a SWIG (Sustainable Water Industry Group) award for the project’s approach to sustainable drainage and the Communications and Presentation category of the Landscape Institute Awards for Grow2Eat, a gardening guide/cookbook detailing all the edible plants at the Triangle and giving advice on gardening, harvesting and cooking.

Applewood, Stroud

Applewood is a community of 78 sustainable homes ranging from one-bedroom apartments to four-bedroom houses on the site of a derelict Victorian hospital in Cashes Green on the outskirts of Stroud. The development is 50% market housing with 50% designated as affordable for local people.

HAB was appointed following an open competition to find a development partner that would deliver well-designed and sustainable schemes while also drawing on the site’s history and landscape.

Public consultation revealed that the local community was particularly attached to two existing buildings. The new homes echo the textures and colours of these and other buildings in the area.

Streets have been designed as social spaces with high-quality materials and careful landscape design creating ‘natural’ traffic calming and a pleasant environment for pedestrians and cyclists. Dialogue with local residents informed the design of a sustainable drainage system which not only serves the project itself but also alleviates pre-existing flooding issues in the wider area.

The project includes a variety of green spaces which draw on and enhance the site’s environmental qualities and are available for use by residents and the wider community. These include: a ‘pocket orchard’; a natural wildlife corridor which runs through the scheme and incorporates an existing badger sett; a landscaped public square and public allotments that are being bought back into use after decades of disuse.

Gabion basket retaining walls provide habitats for wildlife. A new allotment building incorporates a purpose-built bat roof and there are bird and bat boxes throughout the site. This modest building has become an important social hub.

The project, which was completed in 2015, merges into the surrounding area, becoming part of a wider neighbourhood.

Avon Wildlife Trust Cabin

This tiny project provides a semi-seasonal shelter for volunteers, school classes and visitors to a new nature reserve in the Avon Gorge.

The Trust was clear that it wanted the building to celebrate the view of the reserve and to enjoy good natural light, but stipulated that there should be no visible glazing – there have been issues with vandalism on the site. Crucially, the project had to be delivered for a total cost of £30,000.

Hugh Strange’s solution was to take a simple, ‘off the shelf’ agricultural building and to extend it and adapt it to meet the requirements of the brief.

The building sits on an existing concrete ground slab in order to minimise disruption to the site and to reduce cost. Native herbs and flowering perennials have been planted into cracks and trenches in the concrete to attract insects and make the slab a more attractive base for visitors to congregate and linger.

The project was built in 2015 and was the joint winner of the 2015 AJ Small Projects Award.

The Acre, Cumnor Hill, Oxford

The Acre is a development of five detached family houses in Cumnor Hill, a suburb of Oxford. It is HAB Housing’s first foray into high-end private housing.

The 0.49 hectare site was previously an area of coniferous plantation woodland within the private garden of Larkbeare, an Arts & Crafts style house designed by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. The new houses are arranged as a cluster around a common court, within the sloping site.

Each house is designed as an L-shape – a two-storey house with a single-storey garage wing – enclosing a protected, private garden space. Whilst modest in size, the gardens have been designed as an integral part of the architecture, with an emphasis on functionality and aesthetics. Living rooms spill out onto outdoor seating areas positioned to take advantage of the particular orientation of each house. Some houses have external stairs to large first-floor terraces; others have green roofs above the garage – the result is a multi-layered landscape that echoes the terraces of the sloping site.

Robert Bray Associates has turned the challenge of keeping water run-off to pre-development levels into an opportunity rather than an engineering problem. Surface-water drainage has been carefully designed to complement and enhance the development’s character, with runoff managed within two catchment areas containing interconnected SuDS elements within the private gardens and shared space. Rainwater is collected from roofs and areas of hard surfacing, and conveyed via a series of pools, channels and rain gardens into basins and gravel storage layers, and at the end of the train into an existing ditch.

The project is currently on site with completion scheduled for June 2017.

Lovedon Fields

Lovedon Fields is a 50-home residential scheme which forms a new edge to the village of Kings Worthy in Hampshire. 

From a single point of access off Lovedon Lane the houses cluster round the upper part of the site around a triangular open space – the Grove. An avenue, with houses on both sides, runs along the lower contours and re-defines the village edge against a new 4.6 ha park.

The new park is a significant extension to Eversley Park, and has been designed as a low key, ecological landscape with allotments, a bike track, running circuit, natural play area, wildflower grassland, footpaths and enhanced boundary plantings. The project as a whole has been designed with local wildlife in mind. New habitats and movement corridors are being created, at varying scales within the park and housing areas; for birds, slow worms, bats, hedgehogs, invertebrates and swallows. Bat boxes, bird boxes and bee bricks are incorporated into the houses’ brick walls.

The project is currently on site and with the houses scheduled for completion in September 2017 and the park due to be handed over in 2018.

As part of the park works, HAB is trialing the establishment of four hectares of wildflower meadow without the use of herbicides or chemicals.

Elderberry Walk, Southmead, Bristol

The project, which was won in a Bristol City Council competition, has been designed around a central Green Lane – a 20m wide route for people, wildlife, drainage and play which provides a strong social and focal identity for the development and links the surrounding residential area to local bus routes and to the park which lies to the north of the site.

Sustainable drainage has been designed as part of the streetscape, using a combination of permeable paving, rain gardens, swales and basins to convey and hold runoff.

Housing is designed to be efficient and economical to build and run, with an emphasis on simple two-storey terraced forms. Houses are arranged in courtyards offering a range of different conditions: private rear gardens or more modest private gardens opening onto a shared garden square. Irregular geometry at the corners of the courtyards offers opportunities to play with more unusual forms.

Thirty per cent of the homes will be affordable housing for United Communities – both for rent and shared ownership, whilst 25% will be for a new form of private rent. Construction will start this year with completion in 2019.

Looking ahead
If it is hard to see where HAB is going next, that is only because it grasps the opportunities as they arise, rather than having a rigid road map. It will continue to concentrate on the southwest, and primarily on the edges of towns. Its commitment to sustainability in all forms and to creating decent places to live is indisputable. And it will continue to do that by creating and borrowing landscape. Being HAB’s landscape architect is an exciting job, and one that will actually affect more people’s lives for the good than may be the case for many practitioners embedded in design practices.

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