1-6 Copper Lane

Rosamund Diamond

The co-housing development designed by HHbR (Henley Halebrown Rorrison) in Stoke Newington north London, coincides with one of London's greatest housing crises. The city's population is rising and house prices have spiralled so that average citizens cannot afford to own property or live in London. Few build their own houses as land costs are unaffordable. Residential densification is needed if London is to accommodate its population within its land mass. Its existing form is characterised by large areas of low rise terraced housing which until recently has resisted densification. Standardised high and mid rise multiple unit schemes are being built on large ex-warehouse or semi industrial sites by private house developers. Simultaneously, individual housing projects are unlocking the potential of wasteland. London is sprinkled with small land pockets trapped behind gardens, in the middle of housing and other blocks. Planning controls and access have until recently made these backlands hard to develop. But these commercially uneconomic sites could be used for much needed housing. 1-6 Copper Lane is the development of a 990m2 disused kindergarten site surrounded by the rear gardens of a triangular wedge of terraced houses, and accessed by a narrow lane. It has been designed to address residential communality, higher density housing, and the contemporary home's need for flexibility. How Londoners live in a period of economic pressure and changing demographics is as pertinent as where. The project's brick and timber architecture engages with the potential of a site whose shape and location liberates it from the homogenising rules of the terraced house with its formalised public front and casual private back.

It is London's first new build co-housing, a project for six households who formed themselves into a cooperative, and bought the land to make homes with shared facilities which would support their intended communality, and maximise limited space. Co-housing is familiar in mainland europe but relatively unusual in the UK. In describing how the architectural design has arisen from the project's social aspirations, Simon Henley cites the 1935 essay 'Architecture and Social Questions'  in which the philosopher Bertrand Russell advocated making dwellings communal, with shared kitchens, nurseries and gardens, to equalise the roles of wage earning and houskeeping between the sexes. Copper Lane's demanding brief was to fit six households with shared space on the small site. The project is an architectural grouping of six homes of between 70m2 and 155m2 and shared internal and external facilities. It has a gross total internal floor area of 795m2. The development depends on the communal aspirations which formed the co-housing group. The design formally integrates the communal external and internal spaces with the houses, so that the architecture sustains the groups social aims of communality. The spatial composition is a cluster of two groupings of attached houses around an elevated external courtyard, with a laundry, workshop and a 50m2 communal hall below, surrounded by communal gardens. The resultant enclave is dense, yet spatially generous in its sectional manipulations.

It presents a spatial and social alternative to the typical London terrace of individual family units. The terraced house constructs a set of formalised relationships in which front gardens, light wells and elevated ground floors set it apart from the street, confining encounters between neighbours to the front garden, with privacy starting at the front door. Inverting the terrace typology, Copper Lane's houses are entered from a central courtyard reached by a staircase onto the lane. The houses are surrounded by unenclosed communal gardens. The courtyard's form supports the communal entity by encouraging encounters and gatherings between the residents. Tables, chairs and plants have quickly appeared in the courtyard. The communal hall beneath has a public entrance from the lane with private access from each house. Communality is embedded in the scheme's spatial structure. It is physically inscribed in the courtyard with its close proximities, whilst its private boundaries are carefully established by its architectural details, including slim balustraded access and subtle entrance inflections, and a lightwell to the community hall which becomes house 5's sunken courtyard. Privacy in the houses is maintained away from the courtyard side towards the perimeter, and by subtleties of orientation and composition. Each home also has a second entrance.

The architecture reads as a collective entity and a composition of semi independent houses. The blocks are consolidated by their volumetric forms and a consistent language of openings which marries the individual house variations. The buildings' overall height was reduced by sinking the scheme 1.2 meters below ground level to respect the lower heights of the surrounding rear terrace extensions. Its courtyard grouping and spatial forms reference scandinavian projects. Its elevated domestic sections recall scandinavian inspired British work such as Aldington and Craig's group of village houses in Bledlow Berkshire (1977). Material changes which prevent a monolithic perception, simultaneously convey the housing's collective form whilst describing its individuality. Three storey houses clad with untreated vertical timber boarding are paired on the north east and south west corners of the courtyard. Two smaller two storey houses on the opposing corners are brick clad with angled roof extrusions providing top lighting. The timber elevations change subtly to respond to their outward and inward conditions. The slim boarded cladding on the perimeter validates a material which in the land of the London brick terrace is associated with fences and sheds. Facing the courtyard, wider boards and profiled vertical timber battening deepens the facades with modelling accentuated by cast shadows. The houses look outwards with windows on the perimeter composed for the different interacting conditions around the site, configured to avoid overlooking, including low strip windows, and balconied doors elevated above the communal garden. Each compact house benefits from its triple aspect with natural light penetrating into its centre and multi directional views. The first house encountered is brick. Unlike a typical London terrace flank, its elevation adjacent to the lane makes a formal show of engagement and display. Its deep ground floor window sill holding plant boxes, and its first floor cantilevered concrete plant shelf, are reminiscent of mainland European town and village contexts, where windows bound directly onto small streets or courtyards. This manifests an urban communal architecture.

British housing space standards are some of Europe's poorest. Because floor plates are so small, typical mass housing schemes have ungenerous living spaces. Despite modest floor areas, living areas in Copper Lane's houses are made to feel spatious by systematic volumetric and tectonic manipulations. Design principles of plan depth, configuration, and materials, have been adapted to individual household needs, resulting in a rich panoply of inhabitation. Tall volumes convey spaciousness and with open configurations, encourage flexible use. By means of an extruded section and the central cutting of the staircase through the upper living space, even the smallest house of only 70m2 feels spacious. One of the design principals is to incorporate flexibility to provide for individual households' living and working patterns. The dual level access and flexible space HHbR have designed into Copper Lane's houses, respond to current household structures. The modern house needs to be able to accommodate the extended family. By means of separate entrances to semi independent floors, teenagers and young adults, or older relatives can gain or maintain their independence, with dignity and privacy. The social ordering of the original terraced house with its untouched formal front room and its back extensions (gradually knocked through in adaptations from the 1970s onwards) with bedrooms above and servants rooms below has long since altered. But confined by their long thin floor plates and internal configuration, conventional terraced houses often lack spaciousness. Copper Lane's houses achieve it through their multiple orientations and extended ceiling heights. On a site which would have struggled to accomodate six conventional houses, by developing the shared components, the co-housing scheme converts a lack of available area into an economy of means. The communal hall offers a room in which the six households could all dine together with friends which would otherwise be unattainable.

In the UK, the micro home has been proposed as a way of addressing the housing crisis. HHbR designed a compact home for the London developer Pocket. Such solutions address individual needs without addressing wider social questions. Copper Lane demonstrates co-housing's potential to humanise dense residential development, and how architecture can manifest that communality as a future model for infill sites.

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