The key to housing workers

A 264-home project for key workers at the University of Cambridge has been completed by architects Stanton Williams. Jack Wooler spoke to the practice’s Gavin Henderson on how the space between buildings has been utilised to embed the community into the site.

Architects Stanton Williams has completed its 264 key worker homes for the University of Cambridge, blending social and retail spaces in the expanding community of Eddington, based in the north west of the city.

After being appointed in 2013 as part of an architectural competition, the architects brought inspirations from the historic city – which is known for its varied but distinctive architectural style – as well as developing their own ideas as to how key worker housing can, and should, function.

The new development is focussed around a network of communal spaces, framed by 10 new buildings in a loose orthogonal shape. This shape has been moulded thoughtfully by the architects, utilising open space and sight-lines to create a sense of openness and comfort for its users.

Between the 10 new buildings are hosted 100 one-bed apartments measured at 50-54m², 161 two-bed apartments at 62-64m² (two of which are wheelchair accessible), and three four-bed homes of 155m². It is hoped this range of sizes will suit the similarly varied expected occupants, of which the likely shortened tenancy of post-docturate employees required design consideration.

Now a leading part of the wider project – which is eventually set to bring 3,000 new properties to the area – the new homes contribute significantly to the ambitious new neighbourhood of Eddington, displaying an exemplar in building cohesion. The wider development of Eddington is the largest capital project in the University’s 800 year history, offering homes for university staff alongside additional market housing, as well as the necessary amenities to enable sustainable day to day living and working – with the Stanton Williams led project adding a supermarket and copious cycle facilities alongside the homes.

Through the market square

When the architects were commissioned, the brief provided for the project was to create a new urban quarter – fulfilling the University’s aspirations of a place ‘teeming with its own life,’ including shops and communal amenity space alongside quality housing.

To achieve this, explained Gavin Henderson, principal director at Stanton Williams, the practice placed a firm focus on “fostering communal life,” with “the spaces between buildings as important as the buildings themselves.”

This is evident when walking through the plentiful public realm in the project. Entering along Eddington Avenue, which has its own dedicated bus route, the new site spreads along to the East, with the 2018 RIBA Stirling Prize winning Storey’s Field Centre to the West – the latter offering locals community rooms of varying sizes, from groups of 20 to 180 people.

Residents and visitors can then turn East into the site, directly into the Market square – a large paved pedestrian area surrounded by housing blocks and a dedicated supermarket. While this could have easily led to a blocked-in, imposing layout, long sight-lines through the wide open spaces between the buildings retain the sense of freedom in the square.

Further encouraging this sense of openness, the square itself invites the public to linger and commune in the space. Around these grounds is a large quantity of open seating, which helps host the various programme of food outlets and vans that frequent the square, providing a social hub for the site’s users to meet and socialise.

As well as the dining offerings, the Market Square is set to host a range of events, again helping to make it a natural meeting point for its users. The retail offerings too are set to grow, with the Sainsbury’s supermarket and Argos store intended to be supplemented by further retailers in the coming months.

Once the sun sets here, the Market Square is then lit up with “magical projections” of artworks, poems and patterns, all inspired by Cambridge and the history and heritage of its University. As well as a constant flow of images, there are hourly “shows” with interactive works to mimic the idea of a town clock – adding an innovative character to the area.

Into the courts

Heading further through the development, users are led towards the residential blocks, all of which are centred around various courts – each of which offering similarly wide open spaces, masking any imposition from the buildings’ heights.

These courts – built around a difficult topography of changing heights – rise and fall with the land, which is now easily navigable through a system of slopes and stairs. These are always surrounded by carefully hidden waterways to lead flow towards the site’s various swales – themselves made into a feature in the centre of some of the courts – and abundant planting, again adding to a fully realised sense of character.

Gavin explained this site design further: “Being former farmland, the site presented interesting opportunities to respond to typography and to exploit the clear change of levels across the site – something that both the masterplan and our scheme have successfully embraced.”

As to the residences these courts play host to, the buildings are expressed as brick plinths, connected visually with the materials and activities in the landscape.

Above this level, building forms are strongly articulated through the use of recessed brick piers and horizontal precast concrete cills, “with the level of detail on different buildings varied to respond to their prominence within the surrounding context,” added the architect.

These varied buildings differ in scale and function, moving from the large, urban and public Market Square, through to the semi-public Landscape Court, among the multiple other courts. Throughout these spaces area are passages mediated between them, providing a more intimate sense of scale.

Material cohesion

There are a range of typologies around the site, including a wide variety of tenures and house sizes – as Gavin put it, the typologies “reflecting the aspirations of the client.”

One such aspiration was to attract international and wide ranging workers in order to host the best talent. When hosting such workers however, it was important to consider that they are less likely to stay for as long as a standard family might occupy a household.

“Our occupants are mostly post doc members of staff,” explained the architect. “Some of them will be there for no longer than 5 years.” This meant that the design process needed some separation from a typical house type, which would generally hope to house its occupants for many years to come, while appealing to the latter. “As such,” he continued, “creating a sense of community and belonging as quickly as possible was key.”

One way in which this sense was created was by placing a firm focus on fostering communal life – something that the courts have achieved largely through their connection to the city, and the spaces’ own connections to each other.

To action this, the courts and square have been designed as a network, creating a transition from the life of the city to the heart of a new community. The spaces are interconnected at multiple intervals in order to form the network, creating what the architect called a “social landscape,” recalling the differentiated spaces of the traditional city and the historical collegiate spaces of central Cambridge into the design process.

The palette of materials used reflects this, being carefully considered to mirror the local vernacular. Such materials include two tonnes of brickwork and traditional cobblestones, which reference that of Cambridge’s domestic architecture. This helps to link the community to the city, ensuring that new inhabitants can see the city and the new neighbourhood as one, allowing them to settle far faster and familiarise themselves with relative ease.

Rain or shine

As mentioned previously, the site presents a highly developed water management system, which has been embedded into the development into the get-go to produce a cohesive structure which feels as part of the landscape itself.

The masterplan provides for significant rainwater harvesting, offering a 100 year storm water strategy for example. Much of the remaining water strategy involves cobbled rills, which channel water across the site discreetly, following primary routes and terminating in attenuation pools.

This proves to be an extremely successful SuDS system, which hides in plain sight. Instead of frequent and often bulky drainage pipes above ground, the drains run as part of the pathways, culminating in the feature swales, which provide their own focal points and green areas between the buildings.

Adding to this strategy are living roofs, which both further the drainage strategy and encourage biodiversity – the latter also achieved through the facades supporting wall shrubs and fruiting climbers.

Landscaping as a whole was heavily considered throughout the design process, with edible plants interspersed across the site. Wildlife was further encouraged through bird boxes and ponds, and a combination of wild meadows and manicured lawn areas.

Gavin told that this kind of ecological living was “fundamental to the ambition of the North West Cambridge Development,” which is not just actioned through planting.

The masterplan provides for limited car use for example, site wide combined heat and power energy generation means that individual homes do not need boilers, and photovoltaic panels have been roof mounted to all 10 buildings. As well as this, the apartments have been designed to meet the Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5, while retail units and nonresidential spaces will reportedly achieve BREEAM Excellent.

The homes themselves display a high performing building envelope to match and fulfil these specifications, including low U-values and high standards of air tightness and sound insulation. The residences include passive solar design to supplement the energy usage, with generous levels of both daylight and views out to the surrounding landscape offered om all occupied areas. The homes also offer natural cross ventilation, achieved through open plan layouts and dual aspects.

These designs are even future proofed to a degree – adaptability being considered through a 120 year design life of principle structural elements.

Aside from the residences, cycling proved to be another avenue for sustainability. With cycling a part of the culture in Cambridge, it was clear from the outset that the mode of transport needed special provision throughout the site.

This is enacted through timber pavilions scattered throughout the site, which not only provide secure storage space, but also provide an opportunity for social interaction. Acting as garden wall-like elements, their slatted timber facades connect the enclosed spaces to the landscape beyond, and create a lantern effect after dark. The single storey cycle pavilions also serve to break down the scale and massing of the surrounding buildings, celebrating arrival by bicycle.

Positive feedback

The project, now completed, is already beginning to bustle and teem with life – the Market Square in particular proving to be a vibrant social hub for the new community.

Heather Topel, project director of the North West Cambridge Development was “delighted” with the projects completion, calling it the “final piece” of Eddington, and one which “establishes a high quality environment for the new and surrounding communities.”

Gavin himself was similarly “delighted,” especially with the positive feedback the practice has received from the first residents.

Only time will tell, but it appears as though this community-first style of development is set to provide an example of well-catered key worker housing – blending the urban with the natural so effectively it feels as though the brick genuinely belongs in the landscape.