"It will be the start of an urban renaissance … There is not a town or city in the country that could not benefit from such an integrated and sustainable approach."
Such bullish statements are a lot for any project that has not even broken ground to live up to, but that is how deputy prime minister John Prescott described the winning proposals to build the country's first millennium village, in the shadow of the Millennium Dome in south-east London, four years ago.
Developers Countryside Properties and Taylor Woodrow led a team taking part in a four-way contest to win the 13 ha cleaned-up brownfield site, being sold by English Partnerships as part of the Greenwich peninsula's regeneration. The competition for the site was based on four criteria: design, mixed-use community, impact on the environment, and construction innovation. The winners intended not only to incorporate green technology into the 1377 apartments and houses, but also to promote the broader principles of sustainability by creating a community that could reduce its reliance on the car and would integrate socially. However, only 25% of the new homes are "affordable" – a relatively low figure by the reckoning of London's present mayor.
As well as homes, the scheme will have 4500 m2 of commercial space, a school and a health centre, and has a total construction cost, excluding fees and land, of £216m.
Millennium villages were devised to demonstrate best practice in the regeneration of brownfield sites, and this one started out in the media spotlight for a variety of reasons. It was being built alongside the increasingly damned dome, the start of building works was delayed, and the developers dismissed their design co-ordinator, HTA Architects, after it accused them of intending to water down the proposed innovations.
A third of the way through the seven-year build programme, the brightly-coloured designs of lead architect Ralph Erskine stand prominent on the peninsula, and the developers boast that their targets have not only been retained but that some could be met early. They pledged to make an 80% reduction in primary energy consumption, and are more than two-thirds of the way there, largely thanks to the application of small-scale combined heat and power plants. The team is halfway to its 50% targeted reduction in embodied energy content, thanks to careful specification of materials – the BRE Green Guide helped here. Water-saving devices have taken the company just under halfway to its 30% targeted saving in water consumption, and the project is halfway to meeting its target to cut construction waste by half. However, other targets are proving trickier – construction cost should drop 30% to £612/m2, but is still showing no improvement on benchmarked practice at £975/m2 for apartments and £704/m2 for houses. Also, build speed should reduce 25% over the whole project, but has so far improved only 5%.
The team also pledged that it would achieve the ultimate objective in build quality: zero defects at handover. So far, homes are showing a 45% reduction in defects.
To date, 200 families have moved into the homes. Having trumpeted its achievements early, the government maintains a close interest in the lessons of success and failure emerging from the project, with the chairmen of the two developers giving Lord Falconer a twice-monthly written update on the scheme.
Chrissy Ross moved into the village last August, but knew of the project from its early stages. As the village's chaplain she is part of the community infrastructure being injected into what might otherwise be just another large-scale housing estate.
She moved with her husband and two teenage daughters from a three-bedroom Victorian semi-detached property less than a mile away to a bright blue rendered, monopitch roof townhouse that is part of a terrace block backing onto a semi-private communal garden.
The house has an open plan lounge-dining area/kitchen on the ground floor and four bedrooms. Houses do not have garages and cars cannot be parked in front of homes, except for unloading purposes, as parking spaces are provided in concealed car parks scattered around the village.
Homes asked Ross for her assessment of key aspects of her home:
"I love the design. I love the mix of colour and the weird green chimneys. The first thing that everyone notices when they come into the house is the light, but with two teenage daughters it is difficult to move from a house with separate living rooms to having one living space. You have to be more careful."
- Build quality and maintenance
"We've not had any problems, but we're aware some people here have. We are all finding that the corners of walls chip very easily and are getting damaged already. The house is easy to maintain, and I find the wood flooring easy to look after."
Ross' biggest single criticism was of the communal courtyard garden. "For a garden that is going to be used by a lot of families, it doesn't seem to be designed for children to play in. Children are playing football in it and racing around the paths on the bicycles.
"Maybe the developer should have left the garden unfinished until people moved into their homes, and then let the residents say what they wanted there.
"Overall the storage within the house is really good and we've been pleasantly surprised, but we still could have more."
"I notice the house seems to maintain a stable temperature. In our last house we had to overheat the upstairs in order to warm the downstairs.
"The double-glazing must be good. When the Ministry of Sound had its New Year's Eve party at the dome, our friends in Charlton further out heard the noise, but we heard nothing."
"I find the ecological aspects of the scheme fascinating. The sense of community is starting to grow – we talk to our neighbours and we held a carol concert in the visitor centre at Christmas.
"We have a car and it has been a matter of getting used to a different way of doing things. We get very cross with people who park cars in our street. Not having the cars seems a lot healthier and a lot safer for children. Overall, we do use our car less because now, if we are going into central London, we use the Tube. Even though we only lived a quarter of a mile away before, we used the car then. Now we have a 10-minute stroll to the station and it's a really nice walk."
As chairman of Countryside Properties, Alan Cherry has been involved in Greenwich Millennium Village since its inception. He was also a member of the Lord Rogers' urban task force. Cherry met Chrissy Ross to hear her comments on living in the village, and quickly brought some points to the attention of the site manager.
"We've got to look at the courtyard gardens. Getting them to perform the function they intended isn't easy.
It depends on how the neighbours decide they want to regulate the space. We'll be monitoring this.
"We were seeking to avoid having cars parked in front of the house. The parking is generally working, but it needs to be well managed."
"We're experimenting with a lot of innovation and we're winning. There was concern we'd water down the concept in later phases and we certainly won't do that.
"I thought before we started that masterplanning architect Ralph Erskine's external colours might be too strong, but it does set the scheme apart. In a recent customer survey, we found that very few people didn't like the design. The only negative comments related to the strong colours. On the phase one apartment buildings I prefer the elevations with more timber cladding to the orange elevations. I've also never been a great fan of monopitch roofs.
"The road forms a wider break between phases one and two of the development than I'd have liked. That's my biggest criticism of the masterplan, but the road was imposed on us by the authorities.
"I'd like to see more family homes than we've had so far, as it's important in achieving a sustainable community. There'll be an opportunity to correct that when the next area comes about on the peninsula."
"That's to do with how you go about the project management of something that is so different. Both developers realise that the skills and expertise, and the management of these, require a more dedicated approach. At the beginning we thought we might engage an external project manager, in a way that had not been seen in housebuilding in the past, but this project has proved that you need to have direct involvement in the leadership and management co-ordination. Building communities is not purely a building operation."
Developer Greenwich Millennium Village (consortium of Countryside Properties and Taylor Woodrow) Housing Associations Moat Housing Association, Ujima Housing Association Architects Ralph Erskine (masterplan), EPR Architects, Proctor Matthews Planning consultant Montagu Evans Innovation consultant Richard Hodkinson Cost consultant WT Partnership Environmental engineer Taywood Engineering Structural engineers Waterman Partnership, Thorburn Colquhoun Services engineers WSP, Thorburn Colquhoun Landscape architects Randle Siddley Associates, Robert Rummy Associates