It is possible to square the circle of city-centre location and affordable rents, as a development pioneered for young people by the Rowntree foundation demonstrates.
One of the serious problems confronting not only demographic planning consultants but also young single people coming into the job market is the lack of affordable rental accommodation in city centres. Either you are lucky enough (or, given the benefit funding system, unlucky enough) to have a nice, cheap, housing association flat, or you are living in the squalid basement of a rat-infested fire-trap with condensation weeping over your Pumas. Faced with this choice, young single people inevitably opt for the mortgage treadmill and a boxy flat on the fringes of the city, or suburbia.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation believes, however, that it is possible to provide affordable accommodation in city centres that also makes commercial sense, and has pioneered two developments in order to encourage interest from institutional investors.

First, the foundation identified inner-city sites in Birmingham and Leeds where accommodation of this kind was required, formulated a clear, well-researched brief, and then set about finding a suitable scheme. The spec for each site was to build a given number of flats at £50 000 a unit inclusive of everything but the land. Five architects were invited to submit proposals for each site and to bring a builder to the party. The architects were paid £5000 each, and the winning team was invited to take on the project.

The first scheme, of 46 units on five floors in Birmingham, was won by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. John Sisk finished building it just before Christmas. The client has since been carpeting the flats and hanging the curtains; three in four of the flats have been let. I went to look at it last week and, although I didn’t see Sir John Egan cheering in the front hall, it is clearly the sort of partnering project that would get him excited.

The original contractor pulled out shortly after it won the competition, which was a bit of a sickener for the architect. But, undaunted, it set about putting the work out to tender to find another partner. As a result, it established a working partnership with John Sisk, which agreed to appoint Allford Hall Monaghan Morris once planning consent was secured. Sisk also asked it to prepare detailed drawings and secure building control approval.

There was then a hectic two months during which the architect and contractor grappled with the £50 000 budget ceiling and then with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation after it found the budget had been exceeded by £1800 a unit. (For comparison, the Caspar scheme in Leeds, on site with Levitt Bernstein/Kajima, is £1100 over budget.) Planning consent was obtained and work started on site.

“Sisk could not have been more helpful, when it did start,” said Allford Hall Monaghan Morris partner Simon Allford. “Its head of design, Warren Groves, was really interested in the scheme and helped us enormously. We had to lose a few items, and it was God’s own job fulfilling the energy audit when we had to install electric heating, but basically the scheme has been built as we designed it.”

The building takes the form of two butch-looking five-storey brick rectangles shaped like matchboxes on their ends. These are spaced about 20 m apart with rectangular windows and a big, partially glazed roof oversailing the central courtyard between them. The flats look out into a street and courtyard, and can be reached by galleries/walkways across the central void on five levels. They are served by a single lift. Everyone gets a view of the canal and there is a shared terrace overlooking the towpath.

Each flat has a generous 50 m2 of space. They are well lit, and most have balconies. Part of the brief was that the dwellings could be adapted for lifetime housing, and the increased door widths for wheelchairs makes the hallways and passages feel more generous than they might have. Bathrooms are internal, prefabricated and can be adapted for wheelchairs. The construction is steel frame with precast concrete floors, metal-stud partitions, external redbrick skin, purpose-made timber windows and galvanised (natch) balconies. The internal walls of the courtyard are lined in opepe, a sort of iroko-lite, as are the floors of the galleries.

The central space, nearly 20 m high, is impressive, as you would expect. The criss-crossing walkways are striking and ensure a high level of security and privacy (no more than two flats share access off the same balcony).

There is plenty of opportunity to saunter out on your balcony just when that nice looking PR girl on the floor opposite decides it is time to go to work, and all that sort of thing. Although the set-up is geared to young people (rent is £100 a week, excluding utilities) it could accommodate all ages. The brief called for secure parking for each resident.

Residents with no car get a rent rebate and the management lets the space. The rent includes maintenance and repairs, including the servicing of mechanical equipment. This provides the flexibility that the foundation sees as the key to repopulating city centres.

The most striking feature in the inside of the building is the set of giant donkey steps up the middle. I asked if this was some arcane part of the brief.

“Hardly,” said Allford, “Sisk suggested it as a method of saving excavating and retaining work between the front and back of the site. We are quite happy to take the credit.”

The end result, on time and on budget (40 weeks; £2.5m), is a genuine example of what partnering is all about. It had two players: the builder and the architect. I asked Mark Yeomans, Sisk’s contracts manager, what he thought about the project. “More please,” he said.

The result is a more striking contribution to the housing debate than most developers offer, despite the hype. I would have liked to have seen a bit more colour, but no doubt the residents will add this as walkways become colonised and flora starts sprouting from big pots on the landings.

Some sort of canopy over the Reglit-flanked front entrance would not have gone amiss, either. This is slightly daunting as it stands, and offers no shelter for those trying to negotiate a latch key under the influence of seven pints and a chilli doner when their other halves inside refuse (not unreasonably) to answer one of the 45 bell pushes on the sexy, stainless steel entry-phone plate.