When it was built in 1999, the Peabody Trust’s Murray Grove housing scheme in north London revolutionised housebuilding by introducing multistorey volumetric construction. Seven years on, Martin Spring went back to ask the tenants and the management whether the reality has lived up to expectations. The verdict? A respectable four-star performance …
The block of 30 flats is popular with tenants, who are proud of the building and appreciate the rooms, which are larger than might be suggested by volumetric construction. No alterations to form or fabric have been undertaken, but tenants suffer from a faulty lift and lack of secure bicycle store.
The hard-edged five-storey block fits well into central London, and the large green oasis of a garden and generous balconies at the rear are much appreciated by tenants. The sharp urban image is let down by poor weathering in places and by a dingy stairwell. The flats themselves suffer from noise transmission but are cheap to heat.
Build quality ****
The building is standing up well, and has low maintenance costs. The only problem resulting directly out of volumetric construction is noise penetration. Other problems are that electric immersion heaters and the communal lift suffer from frequent breakdowns, and tenants have been frustrated by an erratic maintenance regime.
Credit: Raf Makda/VIEW
MURRAY GROVE BASICS
The award-winning Murray Grove, which was completed in November 1999, pioneered the use of prefabricated volumetric modules in multistorey flats. The five-storey block of 30 flats in Hackney, north London, is made up of self-supporting steel-framed modules, two or three to each flat. The access decks, stair and lift tower and garden balconies were clipped on afterwards. The unit construction cost for the 2150 m2 block was £1015/m2 and the average cost per flat was £77,800, which the BRE reckons was 5% more than traditional construction costs. The developer was the Peabody Trust with Cartwright Pickard Architects the architect, Whitbybird the structural engineer, Engineering Design Partnership the services engineer and MDA Group the quantity surveyor. It was built by Kajima with Yorkon fabricating and fitting out the modules.
Generous room sizes
If modular volumetric housing conjures up images of repetitive boxy rooms, they are effectively put out of mind at Murray Grove. Nearly all living rooms and bedrooms come in the relatively generous and well proportioned size of 5.15 × 3 m, which is the maximum width of module that can be transported by lorry without police escort. The sense of spaciousness is increased by a dining kitchen that is of similar dimensions, running perpendicular to the living room and bedrooms leading off it.
As Paula Chandler, who occupies a 69 m2 two-bedroom flat with her one-year-old daughter, says: “People are shocked when they come in: they don’t expect it to be so large.” Cheryl Willis in a slightly smaller two-bedroom flat adds: “The kitchen-diner is just like another living room.”
By all accounts, the block of 30 decently sized, well-equipped flats, each with open deck access and generous balconies overlooking a well tended communal garden serves its tenants well. Although the flats are intended as shorthold tenancies, only three have been vacated over the past 12 months. “The flats let really quickly,” says Tony Hymers, who manages Murray Grove along with another 570 shorthold dwellings on behalf of Peabody. “And as a whole, we don’t receive a lot of complaints. To my mind, that indicates satisfaction.”
Despite being highly critical of rising rents and Peabody management, Willis says: “I’m proud of the building. They could charge the earth for these flats on the open market.”
Another indication of basic fitness for purpose is the fact that no alterations to the form or fabric of the building have been carried out in the six years since completion.
The evident tenant satisfaction with the building corroborates a survey of Murray Grove carried out by the BRE six months after completion. “Tenants were overall very satisfied, finding it attractive, modern and well equipped,” it stated.
The one lift in the block has repeatedly suffered from breakdowns, and currently two lift indicator lights are missing. “I really needed it when I was heavily pregnant,” says Chandler, who lived on the fourth floor at the time. Estate manager Hymers explains that the “magic eye” that sensed people entering and leaving the lift was inadequate and has since been replaced. He blames the fault on the building’s design-and-build method of procurement, which entailed a loose specification in the client’s brief.
No bike storage
Murray Grove has zero parking provision, which has encouraged tenants to cycle. Yet no bike store has been provided in the communal rear garden, where there is ample space alongside the timber-slatted bin store. As a result, bikes litter the front access decks, and several have been stolen, as the balustrading is easily climbed from the public pavement.
The five-storey block built hard up against the public pavement matches the severe urban grain of central London. The cylindrical stair and lift tower along with the glazed foyer below it emphasise both the street corner and entrance, and even offer a glimpse of the green rear garden. “I like the look from the front,” says Chandler. “It’s quite modern.” On the other hand she points out that the lift tower is no longer embellished by stylish lilac lighting, leaving it as a stark metallic cylinder.
By building hard up against the pavement, a large 500 m2 communal garden has been created at the rear. The garden is attractively landscaped and serves tenants as a welcome soft green oasis in the hard, tight-knit streets just north of the City of London. Added to that, all the flats have their own sunny external spaces, either as stretches of paving on the ground floor that flow into the communal space or spacious triangular balconies that overlook it from the upper floors.
“I love the communal garden,” says Willis. “It really is Mediterranean. And the balconies are fantastic: they’re an extension to the flats and people sit out there with lights on summer evenings.”
Light bulbs in the communal stairwell often fail and are not quickly replaced. “It’s really dark at night and feels quite unsafe,” says Willis. Bare concrete floors and stair treads that are in places stained by lift oil only add to the gloomy effect.
The crisp external appearance is marred in places by poor weathering. The perforated stainless steel panels enclosing the stair tower are caked with dirt that has proved tough to clean. The painted steel balustrading fronting the access decks is visibly rusting. And the rear facade of western red cedar boarding has developed unsightly dark streaks through differential weathering.
Noise and vibration transmitted vertically between flats is a sore point. Willis explains: “Sound insulation between flats on the same floor is excellent: you can’t hear your neighbours’ televisions or music. But you can hear everything from people above and below you, and the base notes of music really resonate. I’ve never had the sense of having a solid floor, so I don’t do any aerobics in my flat. I don’t want to be accused of being the elephant living upstairs.”
Cheap to heat
The flats have a moderately good energy rating of 68 out of 100 according to the BRE’s Standard Assessment Procedure, or SAP, with U-values of 0.38 W/m2K for external walls and 0.2 W/m2K for the roof. As a result, only electric storage heaters were installed, and Chandler says: “The flats are so hot, you don’t need to turn the heating on. My last electricity bill came to just £170 for seven months. But in summer it can be absolutely boiling.”
Many of the original tenants felt squeezed out by rising rents and poor management, according to Willis, one of just seven who remain. “Peabody originally let the flats at low-cost rent to local residents,” she says. “It maintains that the rent is between social and market rent, but they are very much higher than council rents. Every year rents go up by inflation plus 2% or 3%.” A two-bedroom flat now commands £1200 a month including rates.
“At the same time, Peabody became an unwieldy bureaucracy, with one part not knowing what the other was doing. People got angry and set up a brilliant tenants association, but we got so little response that people concentrated on getting enough money to move out, and this affected the whole atmosphere.”
To Hymers, on the other hand, the turnover in tenants fulfils the building’s original aim as shorthold residences. “Tenants move on to shared ownership,” he says approvingly. Rent rises have had the effect of shifting the tenant profile upmarket to professional 30-somethings that include public-sector workers and architects.
“The good thing about Murray Grove is that it needs surprisingly little repair and maintenance,” says Hymers. “In this financial year, with two months still to run, the total repairs and maintenance cost, along with redecorating and replacing white goods in vacated flats, is £7000.” By comparison, the Building Cost Information Service puts the maintenance figure for a block of flats of the same size, both interior and exterior, at £34,400 a year.
There are no signs of cracking or differential settlement. The only problem resulting from the volumetric construction has been the poor sound and vibration insulation, and this led to changes in the design of Peabody’s later project at Raines Court. On the other hand, procurement at arm’s length through design-and-build has resulted in poorly specified components, such as the lift and the immersion heaters.
The terracotta tiles that clad the front facades are showing no signs of wear and tear, slippage or even weathering. In contrast, the painted steel balustrading to the front access decks is rusting severely at several points.
Hymers accepts that the electric immersion water heaters in the flats have frequently broken down. “Ours never really functions properly, and the plumbers who come to fix it say it’s a bizarre make and they can’t get the parts,” says Willis in a comment that reflects again on the arm’s-length design-and-build procurement.
Tenants complain of an erratic system of reporting and executing repairs. “Sometimes it works well,” concedes Willis. “But it’s inconsistent because of the constant staff turnover.”
True enough, Peabody changed its repairs and maintenance regime yet again on 1 January this year. “We now have an electronic database that works much better,” says Hymers. “It takes just two minutes to put a repair order together, email it to the contractor and send a letter to the tenant.”
The regime involves a contractor, Crispin & Borst, for specified repairs and maintenance, and Evolve Consulting, which operates what Hymers calls “a supercaretaker service” of minor maintenance, including window cleaning. In addition, fortnightly checks are carried out by Peabody’s estates monitoring officer.
Chandler accepts that the communal areas are now well looked after and tended. But “it took six years to achieve that”, she says.
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