The spectre of the housing crisis is one that looms over many governments as population growth, urbanisation and immigration continue to put pressure on the homes available, especially in high-density areas where they are most needed. The UK has been dealing with an affordable housing capacity problem for years; new homes built in the country rose 5.7% to more than 155,000, but the figure still fell well short of the approximately 200,000 residential units a year that is needed to meet growing demand.

But the rush to build new homes that working families can actually afford shouldn’t prompt a rolling-back of 21st century design and construction standards. No one wants to see a return to the stark, brutalist council blocks of the 1960s and 70s, after all.

So what’s the key to building new affordable homes that are cost-effective, environmentally efficient and popular with residents? To get some insight, the £3.2m Le Tour Way housing project in Acomb, York, which officially opened in May 2015, provides a good case study.

Many of the traditional social housing design challenges were present on the project, from an oddly-shaped brownfield site that was previously a waste depot, to the need to integrate a 50/50 split between private and council housing. But the finished product – an intimate, human-scale development with open courtyards, warm materials and passive environmental features – went down a storm locally, with the project winning the Residential Large category at the annual York Design Awards earlier this year.      

Atkins architectural associate Richard Johnston, lead architect for Le Tour Way, describes how user feedback, environmental responsibility and careful project management helped achieve an end result that worked for City of York Council and the development’s residents.

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Chris Lo: Could you describe your feelings upon winning a York Design Award for the Le Tour Way scheme earlier this year?

Richard Johnston: It was a great feeling, particularly on a project of this size and nature. Credit must be shared though with both the project and client teams. With this social housing project, the City of York Council set out to dispel historic preconceptions about ‘council housing’ with good quality, high value – as opposed to high cost – design. The recognition of the project’s achievements ratified our success, but it was the ecstatic reaction of our client that was the most heartening!

CL: What were the original objectives for the project set out by the City of York?

RJ: Aside from the fundamental need to provide affordable social housing as fast and efficiently as possible, Le Tour Way set out to define and develop a new social housing and sustainability standard for The City of York Council and in doing so, regenerate a brownfield site. The project contained a mix of house types and an apartment building, and used modern technologies in both its design – through BIM – and its construction, through off-site manufactured timber frames. As this was part of a programme of housing projects, there was very much a focus on continual improvement.

CL: How did the Atkins team try to subvert the usual expectations of a social housing scheme?

RJ: A great deal of credit must be awarded to our client here as subverting the usual expectations of a social housing scheme was a part of our brief. Many of the techniques we used, such as the arrangement and grouping of buildings, subtle stepping of facades and the overall design language, did not add significant cost, but allowed both a contemporary look, and perhaps more importantly, feel. The ability to explore a wider range of materials was also a key factor, but with longevity and robustness always at the back of our minds. A great example of this is the timber clad panels at Le Tour Way, which for the most part are applied at first and second storey only for this reason.

CL: The award praised the Le Tour Way project for pushing the design through “the often difficult constraints of a local authority scheme and a design-and-build contract”. Could you elaborate on what was meant by that?

RJ: Design-and-building procurement routes, regardless of the development type, usually afford the building contractor the ability to substitute products or materials specified in the original contract. If not carefully managed, this can lead to a gradual dilution of the quality of the scheme as cost savings and programme efficiencies are sought. At Le Tour Way, we managed this by providing a good level of information in the early stages of the design and retained a constant dialogue with the contractor to explain why various design quality decisions had been made. From the very outset we made sure to consider whether our design details and materials were cost-effective and realistic. With that said, there are pros and cons in any procurement method and the use of design-and-build did allow construction work to begin much earlier!

CL: What were the initial design challenges when you started considering how to approach the Le Tour Way site?

RJ: The proposed site, a former household waste recycling depot, was an unorthodox shape. Much of the design was shaped by the desire to achieve a Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 rating. Our approach set out to minimise energy through passive design before incorporating low and zero-carbon technologies. The homes and apartments, wherever possible, were designed on an east axis with a west orientation. Le Tour Way varied from previous developments in that 50% of the houses were to be sold to the private market, and our client was very clear that the mix of social and private housing should be integrated rather than segregated. Consideration of both of the above informed the arrangement of accommodation on the street, with the aim of creating not just a housing development, but a mini-community with an intimate atmosphere.

CL: How did feedback from residents on other housing estates inform your designs for the apartments and houses themselves?

RJ: We had previously completed a Code for Sustainable Homes level 5 project with the City of York Council, a scheme in which we set out to prove that social housing can be sustainable. As a technical benchmark, it was a great success. In day-to-day use, feedback was received around living with resource-saving features, such as shallow water saving baths, rainwater harvesting and energy systems. This feedback, alongside cost lessons learned in the development of the Code 5 scheme, played an essential part in the development of Le Tour Way.

CL: How did you go about achieving the development’s environmental features while keeping to budget and minimising running costs for residents?

RJ: On Le Tour Way we focussed very much on passive energy saving methods. This includes features such as super-insulated walls and very low air leakage rates for improved thermal performance, the specification of low-water use fittings and rainwater harvesting to reduce water consumption and the use of low carbon and zero-carbon technologies. An important consideration here was that the City of York Council was both the developer and the long-term operator, allowing greater consideration to be given to the whole life costs versus the capital costs of such measures.

CL: The development has a more intimate scale and welcoming feel than is often seen in council housing, with open, pedestrianised courtyards and green spaces. What were the key design choices that helped achieve this result?

RJ: The arrangement and scale of the buildings was key to this. The decision to group houses into blocks of two or three and to consciously step rooflines and design cues up and down between houses gave a sense of individuality that surpasses a straight ‘terraced housing’ option. The adoption of the home zone principal for hard landscaping is also key, using brick and block paving and reduced pavement heights to dissolve the boundaries between footpaths and roads instead of opting for black tarmac.

CL: Do you think the Code for Sustainable Homes, to which the Le Tour Way development is compliant, has been an effective boost for sustainable homebuilding in the UK? How do you feel about its withdrawal last year, and do you think remaining building codes are sufficient to make up for its loss?

RJ: The Code for Sustainable Homes definitely drove forward the sustainability agenda, but I think the greatest lessons learned were on the higher levels of compliance which for the most part were optional. It is unfortunate to see the withdrawal of a sustainability standard, but if building regulations continue to evolve their sustainability targets, as was the intent at the time of the Code’s withdrawal, then I think we can still look forward to continual improvement. Organisations such as the BRE [Building Research Establishment] are looking to continue learning and drive forward the agenda through new standards such as the Home Quality Mark. We can all, clients and designers, continue to influence the sustainability agenda through good design within our given constraints.

CL: With the urgent need for council homes in the UK, what do you think is the key to raising quality standards for affordable housing that is also cost-efficient to build?

RJ: Without doubt, I think there is still a great deal of learning to be had from standardised design and offsite construction which will allow economies of scale to recognise higher value, higher quality and lower costs. These can be recognised on even the most niche of sites over time. The other major factor is the availability of good-quality sites on which to develop these schemes, particularly in the dedicated social housing sector. Many social housing schemes are faced with small, oddly shaped parcels of land that require bespoke developments to maximise the potential of the plot. Great schemes like Le Tour Way can arise from such developments, but to build housing at the scale and programme being discussed now, we need to think bigger.