Social housing with a human face

A new Build to Rent project for a housing association in central Manchester saw Mecanoo use a difficult site cleverly to provide a mix of human-scaled dwellings. James Parker reports on how it avoids the anonymity of the area’s previous social housing

Since its founding in 1984, Dutch practice Mecanoo has always had a strong drive to create good quality affordable and social housing projects, with a design ethos that housing that’s cheaper to buy or rent shouldn’t be precluded from being beautiful.

Continuing its focus on elevating social housing, a project in Hulme, a deprived part of central Manchester enabled the firm to enact its founding partner Francine Holden’s theory that “the present and future is still about urban renewal.” The firm already has a large presence in the city, where it set up an office to support recent major schemes. These include the 2015-completed ‘Home’ theatre and cinema project, and the colossal Manchester Engineering Campus, currently under construction for Manchester University. This connection was one of the factors that helped Mecanoo win the competition for the Hulme housing project, but their long-standing reputation in housing design also spoke for itself.

The scheme in Hulme is humbler than Mecanoo’s other Manchester schemes at 9,500 m2, comprising a mixture of 85 apartments and 20 townhouses, both of which will be at ‘market rent.’ However, the way it provides a variety of human-scaled volumes at the client’s required density on a long, narrow site – not to mention how it connects users to each other and landscaped areas to foster community spirit – renders it just as important.

The site
‘Urban renewal’ in the area around Hulme’s Leaf Street has seen several large-scale attempts at housing Manchester’s lower-income communities over the last century, making this the fourth generation of housing on the site. Its first regeneration was in the 1930s, with what project architect Dick Van Gameran of Mecanoo (also a housing professor at Delft University), says were “typical interbellum, relatively modest apartment buildings,” replacing some of the Victorian terraces. However after the war, an “incredibly drastic tabula rasa approach” saw all of those terraces removed, the notorious Hulme Crescents erected in their place.

This project comprised four vast C-shaped, brutalist concrete blocks, connected by multi-level bridge walkways. However, following the death of a child falling from a walkway in 1974, they became abandoned by residents, and increasingly derelict until demolition began in 1993. Then some “very different, but not very appealing” housing was erected, which remains on the other side of Leaf Street, which the new scheme runs the length of. There is also new student housing, with the university encroaching further towards the residential areas of Hulme.

To the east ‘rear’ elevation of the new scheme (dubbed ‘The Aaben’ by the client, housing association One Manchester, after a local cinema demolished in 1993) is the sunken main thoroughfare, Princess Road. The large steel arch of Hulme Arch Bridge runs over the road, the new building’s entrance placed to face this local landmark. The tight rectangular site, hemmed in by streets on all sides, was the first challenge for the architects to grapple with.

The original brief included a parking garage for residents, and with a drive to include good outdoor space in the scheme, Mecanoo designed a raised, communal garden, retaining trees on the site, to cover it. This would have sat above a single-storey structure, and connecting low-rise apartment blocks.

However, despite the practice winning the competition on the basis of this scheme, the client then changed the brief. They decided they didn’t want to include an enclosed car park, as they would reduce the number of apartments in favour of townhouses for families, with car parking space at street level instead.

The architects had to “rethink the whole project,” says Van Gameran, and revisited the site, deciding to maintain the approach of retaining trees and providing strong landscaping to the scheme, combined with private outside space for residents. So in order to avoid separating the townhouses and apartments, and therefore unifying the scheme, the architects came up with the solution of a long, ‘meandering’ flat-roofed volume snaking its way across the slim site, and framing green spaces. This shape would keep apartments connected to those public external areas, which are also accessible for the wider community. The three-storey townhouses are arranged in a near-quadrant at the ‘snake’s tail,’ the volume closing to form a courtyard of back gardens.

The undulating frontages particularly benefitted the eastern flank of the S-shaped volume, along Princess Road, says Van Gameren, which could otherwise have been a forbidding ‘back side’ to the building. “We wanted to avoid it being an anonymous and not very pleasant space because there’s a pedestrian and bicycle route.” The resulting elevations present “fronts on both sides,” he says.

The building steps down from five- and four-level apartments at the south to three levels in the townhouses to the north, the massing here helping The Aaben blend with surrounding 1930s housing. The apartment blocks, common in Holland, can create density that competes with tower blocks in a more open setting, Van Gameran asserts. He says they “create a more urban feeling than terraced housing,” and provide an “intermediary scale which is urban but still humane.”

Continued connections
With social housing schemes having had a problematic past when it comes to outdoor spaces, Van Gameren says the designers were aware “it was very important to create safe outside space” at The Aaben. From the initial competition submission, connection to the outside was a major driver, and this remained in many aspects of the built scheme, such as how entrance halls open up to the exterior, says Dick. He adds that while safety was key, “we didn’t want to fence the project off, you see that too much around housing in England.”

The meandering shape aided this “defining of protected spaces,” he says, with the ‘snake’s head’ containing a glazed entrance lobby as a “welcoming gesture,” whereas on the western, Leaf Street side, there’s a courtyard garden with a playground. The landscaped public spaces are connected to each other via generous ‘gates,’ ie apertures in the building which also mark entrances to the apartments. The gate that effectively bisects the apartment section of the block at ground level is funnel-shaped, widening towards the larger central landscaped courtyard, to create what Van Gameren calls a “picturesque” view through to the more southerly courtyard. A further gate between the apartments section and the townhouses both adds permeability and reinforces the connection of the upper stories as one volume.

The entrances were made as transparent as possible, with glass on both sides, to increase the sense of safety, and the gates between outdoor spaces being close to these light-filled areas avoids the former being “dark and creepy,” says Van Gameren. It also means a greater volume of people using the entrances is likely, making them “spaces that are watched and used,” reducing the likelihood of them becoming venues for antisocial behaviour.

The fact there are four entrance lobbies for the apartments not only reduces the long access decks or internal corridors of past projects such as the Hulme Crescents. It also further helps create movement through common spaces across the project rather than risking quiet corners. On the other hand, with broken-up volumes served by several entrances, a single, more anonymous lobby could be avoided.

On each floor there are five apartments at most, “so at least you know the other people on your corridor,” says Van Gameren. “More than 12-15 apartments per lift or staircase, and it starts to become anonymous, and people take less care of the communal spaces.”

The site has new cycle and walking paths, helping connect the residents and the scheme with the wider city, and aiding the project’s sustainability credentials. Further ‘green’ features include air source heat pumps, thick windows and insulation, and a district heating scheme.

Playing with bricks
For the key material for cladding the project, initial conversations at Mecanoo saw ideas bandied around on a variation to London stock brick. But, following a discussion between Dick Van Gameren and practice partner Francine Houben, the project team went for a lighter colour to better fit the red brick vernacular of the nearby 1930s and 1990s housing. The Scala red facing brick is laid in both stretcher bond and a ‘specialist bond,’ with dark mortar and recessed joints. However, in contrast to many surrounding buildings, there is more colour variation within the brick itself, and therefore nuance to the new building’s exteriors, says Van Gameren.

The most distinctive visual feature of the facades is the vertical brick fins, one brick wide but in groups of differing height, which cowls the entire length of the building. Changing as the shadows they create lengthen, the fins play against the horizontal rhythm of the overall volume and also bring down the scale further. “The contrast is nice, but also starting at different levels enhances the idea of the meandering change in shape, height and position,” says Van Gameren.

In addition, nearer ground level the architects have here and there introduced a playful spottiness to the facades, with a sprinkling of darker bricks, and a ‘hit and miss’ section framing the gate connecting the public spaces that omits bricks at regular intervals to create a lattice effect. He says that the slightly experimental approach (although the architects have gone further on many Dutch projects for example, inspired by the Amsterdam School), represented a “big decision” to be made with the builder. Van Gameran says that they were unable to guarantee the facades, concerned about performance in freezing weather, but as he protests, “It’s never happened before, so why should it happen now?”

Further research and demonstration of reference projects which had stood for many years in the Netherlands persuaded the builder however. While the contractor was challenged by the brick artistry required, the architects were taken aback by the decision to use a steel frame on the project “which I’ve never seen on a project like this in the Netherlands,” says Van Gameren. There, an in situ concrete structure would be poured, with services embedded into load-bearing internal walls, requiring very early decision making. However, in the UK, he says Mecanoo have “had to get used to” the fact that layers of material would be fixed to a frame of either steel or concrete.

Residents’ private external space is provided by sizeable balconies, which are present in most of the apartments and townhouses (some of the latter also having roof terraces which work as loggias). Van Gameren says the balconies are very important for relating the apartments to the world outside and the courtyards within the scheme, helping create a community feel.

“In low rise architecture I think it can work well, and economically, it’s simpler to deliver the space with balconies than with internal loggia,” he says. With the balconies facing into the courtyards as well as out to the streets, there is an opportunity for them to help foster communication and appreciation between residents, hopefully enhancing the cohesion already likely to be possible within what is a relatively small-scale scheme.

Taking its cues from the existing red-brick architecture of Manchester, this scheme however moves away from both the historic, yet problematic ranks of the city’s past terraced housing, and the austere, isolated towers and monoliths of 20th century social architecture, to provide something more readable and friendly. Designed with care by an influential practice, it has potential to inspire designers of further affordable schemes, by providing a pragmatic halfway point that balances density with outdoor space, form and safety in a refreshing, even elegant way. It is far from showy, and yet shows the way to housing which embraces its community without trying to slavishly emulate the past, and celebrates its urban nature in so doing.

The major housing schemes of the mid-20th century, however well-intentioned, produced some of the most inhuman and anonymous architecture we have yet seen, much of which is reviled, but some celebrated albeit on its own terms. The Aaben is a conscious move towards something which smacks far less of architectural ego, and is also somehow equally powerful for that.

Project Factfile

  • Client: One Manchester
  • Architect: Mecanoo
  • Project management: R-gen
  • Structural engineer: Renaissance
  • M&E engineer: Max Fordham
  • Brick manufacturer: Vandersanden Group
  • Acoustics advisor: Max Fordham
  • Cost consultant: Simon Fenton Partnership