Review: Council led estate redevelopment

Camden Council is working with residents to redevelop the Bacton Low Rise Estate with homes in clearly defined streets and squares, finds Clare San Martin.

Homes are faced in low maintenance materials, including flecked brick (PIC Karakusevic Carson Architects)
Homes are faced in low maintenance materials, including flecked brick (PIC Karakusevic Carson Architects)

Camden Council’s phased redevelopment of the Bacton Low Rise Estate in Gospel Oak, north west London, will provide 294 new homes including 177 for private sale, 10 for shared ownership and 107 council rented. These will replace 99 existing apartments, the district housing office and industrial workshops. Phase 1 is almost complete and partially occupied.

The surrounding area, which suffered extensive bomb damage in World War 2, bears testament to the council’s ambitious post-war social housing initiative.  Fine examples of social housing are interspersed with less successful examples, including the Bacton Estate; all cheek by jowl with the remnants of Victorian streets. Other notable features are the very noisy Euston-north west rail line, which runs alongside the Bacton site, and the grade 2 listed St Martin’s Church.

The high rise element of the Bacton Estate, a single tower block, was recently refurbished. The low rise part is a four storey deck access structure over undercroft garaging, which now stands empty awaiting demolition. Its poorly designed courtyards attracted criminal and anti-social behaviour. Inadequate sound insulation caused misery for residents, and poor thermal insulation meant children were forced to wear coats indoors to keep warm, despite eye-wateringly high heating bills. Leaking flat roofs, poor construction and a plethora of maintenance problems led to the decision to demolish and redevelop.

Resident involvement

A notable aspect of the redevelopment is the proactive role played by the tenants’ and residents’ association. The group received training in reading plans, and understanding design and planning issues, from the Glass-House Community Led Design Trust. They also visited and learned from successful new housing developments elsewhere.

The association was then actively involved in selecting architect Karakusevic Carson and worked closely with the practice during the design stage, frequently questioning and challenging design decisions. 

Design quality and innovation

The council, the association and the design team were all keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and to learn from the many good design precedents in the neighbourhood and further afield.

Integrating the estate with the surrounding neighbourhood and avoiding spaces prone to anti-social behaviour were key design objectives. The outcome is a well-crafted piece of townscape based on clearly defined and well overlooked streets and squares. Views of St Martin’s Church are opened up by the creation of a street and public open space. Buildings create strong edges to new and existing streets and the whole arrangement achieves a comfortable integration of new and old.

Awareness of the council’s limited maintenance budget led to specification of high quality but low maintenance materials. The external grey and brown flecked brickwork cladding, which is simply and elegantly detailed, blends well with adjacent older buildings while being confidently contemporary. Bad experience with leaking flat roofs led to the design of asymmetrical pitches, creating a distinctively modern skyline.

Innovative cross laminated timber construction has helped decrease noise and vibration from the railway line, and determination to avoid high heating bills has resulted in a specification close to Passivhaus standards.

The scheme demonstrates how participatory design can drive innovation and enhance design quality. This is a high quality housing development but the council might have considered including more mixed uses at street level, which would have helped to create a more interesting neighbourhood.

Clare San Martin is a partner at architect and masterplanner JTP.

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