They may have taken longer to build than planned, but judging by their popularity, there's no curse on Crest Nicholson's Ingress Park homes. Josephine Smit talked to director Stephen Stone as he paid a call on one of the residents.
One or two people in Westminster have taken a liking to Ingress Park in Greenhithe, although John Prescott has not had time to fit in a visit to pay a visit to this corner of the Thames Gateway. They're not the only fans: local authority planners come to visit the scheme by the busload.

What is attracting them is the continuing transformation of a tract of bleak contoured land to the east of London into a housing scheme that has set out to promote design quality. Housebuilder Crest Nicholson and architect Tibbalds TM2 have been engaged in some serious placemaking to bring about the change and applied many of the principles of PPG3, although the scheme was designed before the guidance came into force.

The site's two redeeming features were its Thames-side location and a derelict grade II-listed Victorian abbey. The housebuilder has refurbished the abbey as part of its planning agreement and it is soon to be occupied as office space. A series of medium-density "character areas" of predominantly private apartments and houses are being developed around the abbey, its lawns and a green amphitheatre. The character areas each have a distinctive architectural vocabulary, and the housing is set in contiguous streetscapes punctuated by winding roads or alleyways that give glimpsed views of the river or of the roofs of houses. The streets are uncluttered by cars as on-street parking is banned.

The design is intended to give the scheme the kind of aspirational appeal for buyers that you might find in more established areas of west London, but that is seriously lacking in much of the Thames Gateway. The formula has already lifted sales values, although a one-bedroom apartment can still be bought for as little as £150,000.

As this is a housing growth area, the scale of the transformation is massive. When complete, Ingress Park is likely to have more than 1000 homes, as well as a school, and Crest Nicholson is negotiating to develop a further 1500 homes on the adjoining Swanscombe Peninsula. But who aspires to be part of this housing growth area?

The resident's view …
Rick Plowman's business interests include dealing in and renting residential property, but when he set out to buy himself a home he wasn't looking for the best business deal. He started with the intention of buying a second-hand oast house, but then got put off by the thought of its maintenance demands. He began looking at new homes, but was not impressed by what he saw. "Housebuilders often don't give customers what they want," he says. "People are getting peed off at having bog standard buildings thrown at them. They accept high property prices, but they want value for their money.

"I looked at West Malling but that was like Stepford. It was soulless. I also looked at Waterstone Park, but the homes there were more trendy and I didn't want a home that would date."

Plowman and partner Christine decided to buy at Ingress Park because of its convenient location, because he liked the abbey and because of the design of the homes. "I am a fan of Georgian architecture and I love Nash," he says. "Ingress Park has taken traditional ideas and contemporised them. This house has got big windows and light. I love the walk-in bay windows."

The variety of product on the site made it difficult for Plowman to decide which house to buy. "It was a nightmare deciding. It took us two days," he says.

In the end, the couple opted for a house with two garages and extra living space, and took possession in December 2001. The 1600 ft2 four-bedroom house has proved big enough to take Plowman's "really chunky" possessions – including an Egyptian mummy.

Plowman effectively lives the PPG3 vision: he has a townhouse with a small garden and no on-street car parking in a fairly densely built area of the site. "The site looks built up, but when you walk around it, it seems to open up because of the views and vistas," he says. "The roofscapes look like something out of Mary Poppins. Roma in the sales centre let the scheme sell itself. She told me to go for a walk around it and feel it. You experience Ingress Park. Given modern commercial constraints, I'm slightly surprised they've managed to do this."

But not all aspects of PPG3 are quite so easily taken on board. "The restriction on cars is not what we're used to, but I like the fact that the streets are not congested and we do have good parking," says Plowman. "People do criticise the small gardens, but we wanted something low maintenance. The amphitheatre beside the abbey is my garden."

Plowman sees the development of a lot more houses in the area, and other facilities, as a plus and has made an investment in the area's future by buying three rental properties at Ingress Park. "This is not just a housing scheme. It will have everything here. It will get more and more interesting."

The developer responds …
Crest Nicholson Residential's managing director Stephen Stone, an architect by profession, says that he and group chief executive John Callcutt and architect Tibbalds TM2 put a lot of time and effort into the design of Ingress Park. "We bought the site unconditionally in the belief that we could get a scheme that would work. We got carried away with it," he says. "Our big lesson has been in how to take something that looks good on a drawing board and make it work on site, without compromising its integrity.

"One of the problems we've experienced is the sheer complexity of the housing here. In the first phase we had 114 homes and 95 different housetypes – we're not quite doing that now. We forecast the cost of the build correctly, but not the time. It has taken us much longer to build than expected. We're now involving subcontractors and suppliers early on. We get the roof truss designers involved because the roofs are very complex. We're now seeing the benefits of that. Build times for a unit have come down from a year on the first phase to nine months now. But with PPG3 the old days of building a detached house in 16 weeks are gone. This is contiguous development. It is not only more complex to build, but we can't move customers in so easily, because we can't move people into an unsafe environment where work is going on around them."

Stone says the architecture has been integral to selling the scheme to all buyers, not only architectural aficionados like Plowman. "The sales team drive people around the site and the buying decision is made for them, although often people don't know why they like it. We've surveyed our customers and they have all said that they are willing to compromise on garden size and car parking provision, providing we don't compromise on architectural quality. But parking may become more of a problem in the future, especially with it sometimes being restricted to three-quarters of a space per plot."

Although most new homes sell to local buyers, Stone says that Ingress Park has attracted a broad range of people, confirming its aspirational status. "We've got people here from all parts of the country. It's very cosmopolitan, which is rare."

With all the headaches of building at Ingress Park, how will Stone feel about doing it all over again at Swanscombe Peninsula. "We'll have Ingress Park to show to buyers. They'll know what we can do," he says. "I'd be delighted."