Lambeth Council delivered its first directly developed scheme in a decade – including the complex conversion of a heritage building into six social housing flats, writes Teodora Lyubomirova.
At first sight, there’s nothing unusual at the corner of the busy intersection of Mostyn and Akerman Road in Lambeth’s Vassall Ward in London. However, this is the site of Lambeth Borough Council’s first directly delivered housing development in 10 years – a significant milestone in times of funding cuts and planning restrictions. The scheme is located in a conservation area and is sandwiched between numbers 52 and 58 on Akerman Road.
The development includes three new build homes, but also the complex conversion of a former hostel, consisting of two adjacent buildings, into six residential flats. Importantly, all homes provided in the project, which the council handed over in January, are for council rent.
While the Akerman Road scheme is not notable for its size – it has created just nine homes in total – its significance lies in the council’s approach to the new build homes as well as the refurbishment of the existing buildings. With a particular focus on sustainability, plans envisaged the new homes to be delivered to Passivhaus – an internationally recognised energy efficiency standard focused on exceptional airtightness, excellent thermal performance and minimum heating demand – with the council keen to upgrade the hostel to similarly high standards.
Huw Jones, a Lambeth Borough Council housing development manager, explained the reasoning: “There’s a lot of interest in building sustainable homes in Lambeth that address fuel poverty. The council recognises that a fabric first approach to building is one way of addressing tenant fuel poverty and as well as also reducing our management costs further down the line. With a fabric first approach you don’t rely on exotic, expensive types of equipment. The attraction for the council is that once we’ve built it, it only requires simple maintenance.”
Lambeth identified the area – a Victorian terrace which had been partly demolished in World War II bombings – as suitable for development. The three new homes would be built into the bomb-damaged infill site, while the team also decided to embark on the complicated refurbishment of the hostel buildings on 56-58 Akerman Road.
The two buildings – organised as maisonettes, with the white-rendered No 58 consisting of two maisonettes, and the brick-clad No 56 housing 11 bedsit rooms with a shared bathroom – had to be extensively retrofitted, with the council making significant alterations to the internal layouts of both properties. An additional challenge was the fact that No 56 is a heritage listed building – it had been the former residence of Victorian-era entertainer Dan Leno between 1898-1901 and has a blue plaque on its front elevation. Despite these constraints, the council was committed to delivering its key objectives – creating sustainable, affordable homes that would require little maintenance in the future while also addressing issues such as fuel poverty.
Lambeth’s planning committee was first presented with the scheme in May 2011, but planners deferred it for design improvements to ensure the development would better relate to the neighbouring properties. The amended designs, presented to the committee in November the same year, included two-storey bay windows created to replicate those on the neighbouring terrace, and to retain the rhythm and consistency of the streetscape. Beyond those relatively simple design tweaks, the scheme had to adhere to the council’s sustainability criteria, which the team worked towards addressing by specifying Passivhaus new builds and the highly-insulated hostel conversion. This process delayed the commencement of the project, which did not begin on site until 2015, despite the fact it had been granted planning approval in 2012.
To support the Lambeth Development Team, contractor Sandwood Design and Build (SDB) was appointed in June 2015, with architects Anne Thorne and Prewett Bizley novated to the contractor. The experience of the architects and contractor was key: Anne Thorne had worked with SDB on other social housing schemes, including Hawthorn Road – a retrofit of two maisonettes in Haringey, in which, similarly to the Akerman Road project, the two firms refurbished the buildings to standards close to Passivhaus. In Lambeth, the contractor converted the 11 bedsits within the blue plaque No 56 building into four highly-insulated self-contained flats (two three-bed, one two-bed, and one one-bed). The development team also created key facilities missing from the former bedsits by utilising kitchens and bathrooms for each home. There was also the addition of a two-storey rearside extension that allowed the developers to better accommodate the flats.
At the adjacent No 58, the internal layouts of the two flats were carefully reconfigured and converted into residential dwellings. Meanwhile, the construction of the Passivhaus buildings (A,B,C 54 Akerman Road) completed the bomb-damaged terrace and provided three new-build large four-bed family houses. The development team also retained the green space located at the back of the former hostel and divided it into private gardens for two of the flats, while the green space within the bomb-damaged infill site provided gardens for the new build homes.
Lambeth’s decision to opt for two practices experienced in delivering low energy schemes was vital for the low carbon and low embodied energy materials specified in the scheme. In the new builds, the walls were made of timber and filled with recycled newspaper and natural sheep wool insulation.
Similarly, the insulation used in the retrofit homes was a type of wood fibre that stores carbon in the fabric, but is also breathable, thus preventing problems such as overheating, condensation or damp. Jones explained, “We used materials that were – wherever possible – sensitive to the environment and the fabric of the building – this decision was down to the architects, but we also supported the low energy design and the material use.” He stressed that the hostel conversion was engineered via the same software used for the new build Passivhaus buildings – PHPP (Passivhaus Planning Package) – which meant the team could carry out complex assessments regarding thermal modelling and thermal comfort and cold bridging.
“All that science was put into the retrofit in the same manner that it was used for the new build homes,” said Jones. The hostel, which was last refurbished in the late 1970s, was described as “generally habitable” by Huw, who added, “The hostel was occupied, so we had to ensure it was safe and suitable by undertaking checks each year. But we had what we call significant asset liabilities – there was a lot of work to be done.” One area that caused delays to the project was the repair of an extensive part of the brickwork – an issue that became apparent only after the internal linings had been stripped.
Once completed in August 2016, the scheme was a success not only for its sustainability credentials, but also because it delivered properties that all exceeded the minimum requirements set out by local planners. For example, the two three-bed flats within the brick-clad part of the former hostel span 86 m² and 95 m² compared to the minimum of 70 m²; in the adjacent No 58, the one-bed and two-bed flats are sized 59 m² and 69 m² compared to a minimum of 45 m² and 60 m² respectively.
More and better homes
Lambeth Council’s development aspirations are underpinned by its commitment to delivering 1,000 new homes for council rent. This is just one way of addressing the local authority’s swelling housing waiting list, to which over 21,000 people had signed up in March last year. In addition, 1,800 families were found to be either homeless or in temporary accommodation at the time, and the Valuation Office Agency estimated that monthly private rents in the area had breached £1,500 on average in the first quarter of last year. All this has prompted the council to further focus its powers on housing supply.
Huw said: “The council is looking to build more and better homes. To do this we are setting up Homes for Lambeth, the council’s own development company, to deliver homes across a range of tenures, but with the objective to increase the number of affordable homes in the Borough.” Lambeth’s Estate Regeneration Programme focuses on six estates, but the development team is also investigating opportunities for underused land or buildings they can turn into homes. “We are looking at an infill programme on similar sites like Akerman Road where we would be able to provide new homes for residents of the Borough,” explained Jones.
Asked whether local authorities should concentrate on delivering more low energy schemes – and whether those are cost-effective – he added: “Normally there would be a slight uplift on this type of development but so far it doesn’t look like it was significantly more expensive than a conventional build – but that’s mainly because we looked at this from the outset.” Huw concluded: “I think we are the ideal organisations to take up this method of building and prioritise it because not only are we building the houses, but we are managing them as well. We’ve got a long-term interest in the stock – and it’s also important for tenants to be able to afford living in these homes.”
This exclusive feature was published in the March 2017 issue of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine.
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