The Prince of Wales’ Poundbury may not be cutting-edge architecture, but as far as John Prescott’s urban agenda goes, it’s bang on the money.
Poundbury at a glance

Poundbury is the Prince of Wales’ model village, begun on site in 1993. Actually, it is a 2500-home extension to the county town of Dorchester, of which about 400 dwellings have been completed to date. The traditional style of architecture is its most instantly distinguishing feature. Although predominantly made up of houses built speculatively, the first phase also includes social housing, sheltered housing, industry, shops, a pub and a village hall.

Developed by the Duchy of Cornwall, the town was masterplanned by Leon Krier, with Alan Baxter & Associates as highways engineer. The housebuilders were CG Fry & Son, which also built the scheme’s social housing for the Guinness Trust, and Morrish Builders. The architects included Percy Thomas Partnership, Ken Morgan Architects, David Oliver, Sidell Gibson Partnership, David Wren and Saunders & Wheelwright.

Fitness for purpose

High-density spec development

Poundbury has been held up as a model for speculative sustainable development by deputy prime minister John Prescott and housing minister Nick Raynsford because it uses half as much land as the average spec housebuilder’s scheme. Low-rise housing has been developed to a density of 16 dwellings per hectare, about two-and-a-half times that of conventional spec-built housing.

This density has been achieved by a combination of narrow streets, small rear gardens, houses built right up to the pavement without front gardens, two- and three-storey houses (plus a five-storey sheltered housing block) and off-street parking bays.

The result of this planning policy is palpable, with walls and roofs filling every view. One resident comments: “The density is getting on top of us. We have very little space at the back and all we can see is chimney pots.”

On the other hand, layouts have been carefully arranged to minimise overlooking from one house to another. The one controversial exception is the five-storey sheltered housing block, which overlooks a row of existing council houses.

Houses before cars

Narrow roads have been designed to curb the dominance of cars on residential streets. Gravel alleyways cutting between the roads are even narrower and have no side pavements.

Drivers are discouraged from parking in the alleyways. Yet parking provision is generous, with 2.4 spaces per dwelling, and these have been cleverly dispersed among four small, tree-lined squares, informal courtyards tucked behind houses and in private garages built into houses. One of the parking squares is sited in front of Poundbury Enterprise Centre, where it is used by business visitors during the day and residents in the evening.

Live and work community

Poundbury is no dormitory suburb. As well as housing for sale and for rent, Poundbury’s first phase includes industry, shops, a village hall and a pub. A Laura Ashleyesque curtain shop and a chocolate factory may seem fittingly twee, but surprisingly, much of the new industry is high-tech, and has included a state-of-the-art specialist in printed circuit boards.

Mixed social community

Although Poundbury appeals particularly to older people, a rich mix of household sizes, ages and tenures have set up home there. This is not an accident: the first phase includes 20% of social housing developed by the Guinness Trust, and these dwellings are pepperpotted among the owner-occupier houses and built in matching styles so that they are indistinguishable.

A residents’ association has been set up to foster community spirit, and this brings together owner-occupiers and housing association tenants. Yet it is impossible to escape the sense of paternalism in the village, with photographs of Prince Charles, shepherd’s crook in hand, widely on display.

As for binding the community with the adjacent 1950s council estate, there has been a predictable NIMBY backlash. However, councillor Wally Gundry, who was a sceptic at first, now thinks the estate is blending in well. He says: “There will be more intermingling when the pub, shop and market hall are completed.”

Private houses’ commercial success

The two spec housebuilders and local estate agents agree that Poundbury’s speculative housing has been a commercial success. David Fisher, partner in local estate agent Connell, claims Poundbury houses are sold at a premium of 6%. “The prince adds a bit of cachet. But it’s mainly because his team has got it right with the architecture and the quality of building,” he says.

For CG Fry & Son, the experience of developing the first 160 houses in phase one was so profitable that it has paid the commercial land rate of up to £450 000/acre for the privilege of building another 190 houses in phase two. And that is in addition to co-ordinating the work of five architects to provide the variety of house types and the extra thermal insulation demanded by the Duchy of Cornwall. As for the traditional styling, building materials and detailing, Philip Fry says: “We’re a three-generation family builder, and we’ve always built in the traditional style.”

Secure area

The nearest thing to a reported crime in Poundbury is a broken set of swings in the playground, says councillor Gundry. The perceived security of the intimate streets, all with overlooking windows, is appreciated by residents.

Spacious interiors, classical contortions

Given the traditional designs and dense layouts, houses on the whole do not suffer from cramped interiors or poky windows. On the other hand, the neoclassical townscape has resulted in several contortions of internal layouts. This is particularly true of the enterprise centre, where a symmetrical classical plan has produced two courtyards so poky as to be unusable and an obstacle course of fire-doors, staircases and passageways to reach the upper floor.

Gravel nuisance

One of residents’ few practical criticisms of is of the gravel used to cover Poundbury’s public alleys and pavements. “It gets into your house on your shoes, especially when it’s wet,” says one resident.


Chocolate-box architecture

By far the most conspicuous – and the most controversial – feature of Poundbury is the ubiquitous olde worlde styling of the architecture, favoured by Prince Charles.

This retro architecture is what infuriates architects, yet it has an undeniable appeal to the people who queue up to live there. “The new residents absolutely love it,” says ward councillor and long-term resident Gundry. Not content just to return to traditional styling and building methods, Poundbury is a museum collection of historical styles and building materials mixed tightly together. A cluster of Dorset vernacular cottages in random rubble stands close to a short terrace of neo-Victorian redbrick houses, with a stuccoed Regency villa in one corner and a grand colonnaded mansion at the other. The traditional styling and

high-density layouts produce a picturesque, richly textured townscape with incident-packed views that change with each twist in the winding alleyways.

To be fair, if the styling is retro, the construction methods are not pastiche but the real thing. Traditional materials have been used by experienced builders, with walls in hand-made brick, Bath stone ashlar and regional random rubble, roofs in second-hand slates, clay tiles and even stone tiles, timber sash windows and porticos with lead flashings. No false fibreglass canopies or plastic roof vents can be spotted.

The building designs are also as close to the real article as is possible on a commercial budget, thanks to a battery of architects specialising in traditional architecture. Windows are on the whole decently proportioned, roofs have steep traditional pitches, timber porticos are carved in classical style and most houses culminate in functioning brick chimney stacks.

Even so, several absurdities do crop up in the tightly mixed-up picturesque layout. The mansion’s 6 m run of colonnade, for instance, does not form part of a larger classical square, but looks as out of place on the village road as a woman in a ball gown in a country market.

The well-executed repro architecture would look acceptable as a two-street extension to a historic village, but as an entire town suburb of 2500 houses tacked on the side of a 1950s housing estate, it assumes the unfortunate character of Disneyland.

Château Colditz

The most absurd and widely criticised building in Poundbury is the five-storey sheltered housing block at the main-road entrance to the village. It takes the form of a French château with mansard roofs, french windows and two steeply pointed roofs, one of them conical. Named the Fleur-de-Lys, it is better known as Colditz by Dorchester residents, who point out correctly that this ostentatious piece of traditional architecture has no tradition in Dorset.


Sheltered from the winds

The tightly winding streets and an outer ring of houses and garden walls protect the village from the fierce winds that sweep off the exposed hillsides west of Dorset. The houses themselves are highly energy-efficient and well insulated, with National Home Energy Ratings as high as nine-and-a-half out of 10, claims housebuilder CG Fry & Sons.


Durable traditional materials

The well-built traditional materials promise to remain durable for many years and to mellow attractively with age. However, they also impose a regular five-yearly maintenance cycle to repaint external windows, doors and timber trim.

The traditional lime wash on the stuccoed walls has become blotchy and needs reapplication.

Star rating (***** = perfect)

Fitness for purpose **** Look beyond Poundbury’s chocolate-box styling and you will find a practical model for sustainable housing in the 21st century, as defined by Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce. Its housing density is twice as high as the average spec-built scheme. A tight layout of alleyways promotes the pedestrian over the car and creates a secure environment. It encourages an inclusive community by tightly mixing private and social housing, and by putting jobs, shops and leisure close to homes. And even with the intensive architectural design and labour-intensive construction involved, it has proved to be profitable for commercial housebuilders. Minor irritations are gravel roadsurfaces and the contorted layouts of non-residential buildings. Delight *** Expertly designed and built and unfailingly picturesque, Poundbury’s collection of nostalgic architectural styles has an undeniable appeal to would-be residents. But despite the genuine materials, the contrived mix of retro architecture on such a large scale cannot avoid descending into a cloying theme-park. Comfort *** The tight layout of winding lanes protects the village from sweeping winds, and the houses are well insulated. Maintainability *** Traditional materials, competently built, promise durability over the years, but external timber work and lime washes need regular maintenance.