Can you design a community? Yes, but it takes a lot more than simply a construction process, as both Philip Davies of developer Linden and resident Marie Hart have learned at an urban village in Surrey.
The last time Philip Davies was walking through the streets of the Village at Caterham on the Hill in Surrey, it was a bright sunny July day and the Linden Homes chief executive was proudly showing Prince Charles around the flagship scheme. The project had plenty to interest the prince, with its community-based planning approach, urban village design, converted Victorian army barrack buildings, mix of affordable and private housing, and community amenities such as a skatepark.

Now it is a frosty February Monday morning and Davies is on his way to meet Marie Hart, a buyer whose four-bedroom house was handed over just before Christmas in that period when housebuilders are traditionally hurrying to complete homes for year-end. Hart has moved into an estate that is in the process of becoming the community it was designed to be. The 348-unit Village is two-thirds of the way to completion and has its own village green, surrounded by rows of new-build and barrack conversion homes. The order and discipline of the site's former military use seem to linger on. There is not a piece of litter to be seen on the site, all the homes' front doors are painted the same shade of dark green, and the front gardens are uniformly neat as the developer's management arrangements for the site include gardening services for both private and affordable homes.

Although the scheme was formulated four years ago, it incorporates many of the ingredients that deputy prime minister John Prescott is advocating in his new communities plan for sustainable development. But community building is a lot more than simply a construction process, and both Davies and Hart have learned some valuable lessons from the Village.

What the resident thinks
As might be expected with a scheme completed at year end, Hart's home had its share of snagging problems. "We were warned that we would have minor snagging problems and there have been a lot," says Hart, a beauty therapist who shares her four-bedroom mews house with partner Andrew and 21-month-old son Liam. Cracks in the ceiling, a loose banister and, most irksome, no fittings in the wardrobes in the master bedroom were among the items on a snagging list that Hart handed over to Linden's site manager.

But Hart is still delighted with her home as Linden has dealt with the snags well. "Customer service has been very good. Problems have been rectified in 48 hours."

We weren’t sure at first about the open plan living space but it works. I haven’t needed a formal room to shut off

The new home, with its timber loggia on the front, big windows, balcony and open plan living space, is very different to the Victorian cottage nearby that the family previously lived in. "Part of its appeal was that it was so different – it is not a doll's house," says Hart. "The fact that the balcony is big enough to take a table and chairs was a big selling point for us. We weren't sure at first about the open plan living space but it works. I haven't needed a formal room to shut off. I like that I can work in the kitchen and keep an eye on Liam while he is playing."

Hart's only complaint is that the housebuilder did not turf the back garden and left the area as a patch of mud, a far from suitable play area for Liam.

Hart first came to the Village as a business tenant, taking space in a new on-site health and fitness club created in one of the old barrack buildings last September to set up a beauty salon. "I wasn't looking to move house," she says. "Many of my clients at the salon live here and I got good feedback from them. They invited me to their houses, so I had the chance to look around before I bought." Since Hart has bought, friends of hers have bought neigbouring homes, adding to a friendly community feeling, and a testament to the power of referral in generating sales.

For Hart the village environment with its on-site amenities is a definite plus, although she admits that partner Andrew uses the car rather than the Village's special bus service to commute to the station. It has also proved to be an excellent location for Hart's own budding business: "I thought it would take six months to build up a client base, but it hasn't taken that long," she says. Hart rented a room in the health and fitness centre, and has partitioned and fitted it out to create two treatment rooms. She is already contemplating expanding.

We have ended up with somethinG commercially viable instead of lots of open space and nothing to pay for it

The developer responds
The site's diversity of architecture posed as much of a build challenge as year-end pressures, according to Linden chief executive Philip Davies. "They're brand new housetypes with things that work well on drawings, but not so well on site," he says. The design, however, has been popular, Davies says. "The main lesson that we've learned from these homes is that people like the open plan layout."

Linden is applying both the designs and the community management principles tested at the Village to its latest major scheme, Queen Elizabeth Park, in Guildford, Surrey. "As a community the Village has worked better than we expected," says Davies. "The only graffiti we get is on the wall in the lane outside the site. The scheme has lifted the area quite a lot."

The housebuilder worked with the existing community in devising the mix of homes and facilities in the scheme. Scheme architect John Thompson and Partners carried out a community planning exercise with local people, some of whom were initially wary of the barracks' redevelopment, and that has proved a valuable process, says Davies. "We got people to realise you can't have something for nothing. We have ended up with something commercially viable instead of lots of open space and nothing to pay for it."

Whereas affordable housing and community facilities are often the last elements to be developed in large-scale private housing schemes, Linden made them a priority. Rented homes were already occupied by tenants of housing association the Guinness Trust when its patron Prince Charles visited last summer, and the developer opened the Skaterham skatepark on the site four years ago as it started building.

Today, Skaterham is used by some 400 youngsters, the health and fitness club has 470 members, more than half of whom are not residents at the Village, and a new Tesco store is a big draw for the surrounding neighbourhood and villagers. "We have also adjusted the bus route to take it past the schools so that it gets better used," says Davies. He says the 10,000 ft2 health centre Linden is building for local GPs will be the biggest local benefit, although residents are also looking forward to the opening of the site's bar/restaurant, which could happen at the end of the year.