Wayne Hemingway may have got the kudos for de-Wimpefying Wimpey, but it’s his wife Gerardine and architect Jane Massey who are doing the detailed design work on their first project, Staiths South Bank in Gateshead. Now the first phase is complete.
A reporter, a photographer and a stylist from a lifestyle magazine are looking around the kitchen. Meanwhile six burly anoraked men are gathered in the lounge, ready to start shooting a gardening programme. What makes this congregation of media workers extraordinary is that they are not present to bear witness to the breathtaking confection of a cutting-edge architect; they are here to look at an average Wimpey home in Gateshead. What makes this house into a story is the fact that it is part of a housing development that was styled by two fashion designers, Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway. And now it’s owned by them, too.
This experiment in cross-fertilised design was the unexpected outcome of a newspaper article written by Wayne in which he described mass market housebuilding as the “Wimpeyfication” of Britain. Wimpey responded by challenging him to do better, and gave him the chance to prove it a former garden festival site next to the Tyne. Thus was the Staiths South Bank development born.
In return, Wimpey got more than just a trendy fashion designer who wanted to hang kitsch Tretchikoff paintings in the show home. At the scheme’s launch in January 2003, Hemingway promised features that sounded as retro as his fashion taste, with garden gates that children could swing on and places where residents could hold street parties. The designer said Staiths would not have monotonous streets of standard housetypes, and, as if he hadn’t stuck his neck out far enough, he promised that sales prices would be affordable and that his business would design products for the homes if it helped keep quality high and costs low.
Two years on, the first 159 of the 778 houses and apartments to be built at Staiths are in place and the media are here to see what the fashion man has come up with. However, although Wayne’s is the face fronting the scheme and chatting to the media, behind the scenes it is his wife Gerardine who is doing the hands-on design. She is a feisty Lancastrian, who has progressed from designing clothes to homes and believes it is “bonkers” that most homes are designed by men. It is lucky, then, that her first housing project involves working with Jane Massey, a partner with IDPartnership Northern, the scheme’s architect. The two quickly established a rapport. Massey says: “It has helped that we’ve got
on from day one. The time we spend together once a week when we’re putting a planning application together and making the final decisions is the most enjoyable in the whole process.”
On first glance, the scheme lives up to the Hemingway promise: instead of streets of standard housetypes, there are small clusters of variegated houses, grouped around neatly landscaped courtyards. The houses are laid out in groups of about 20 with private rear gardens backing onto small landscaped communal gardens. Communal gardens are accessible to the general public, but Massey doesn’t envisage many strangers straying into them. She says: “They are overlooked and are so much part of people’s homes that there is ownership of them in a way that you wouldn’t find with, say, a pocket park.”
To encourage that community spirit, the communal gardens have brick barbecues, children’s playgrounds, outdoor seating and even the occasional table tennis table. Pedestrian and child-friendly streets and traffic calming complete the modern version of the Hemingways’ nostalgic vision. But on a summer holiday lunchtime, there are only two little girls in the playground living the dream. These days, garden-gate-swinging has to compete with DVDs and Playstations, but could it be done? “The hinges are pretty strong, but I’m not too sure about the mechanism …” says Massey.
The new environment is, so far, sales-brochure perfect and graffiti-free – and the clear sight lines of the layout, providing natural surveillance, may help to keep it that way. The Hemingways set out to keep private gardens free of wheelie bins by dotting central bin stores, complete with recycling facilities, around the site. Homes can have their own individual bins if they wish, but refuse is not collected from them. Massey says that has an added benefit for the estate’s layout: “If you have bin collections from the house then you have to design the roads for access by refuse lorries. The fact that we don’t always have to do that means we can create quieter areas.”
Within the courtyards, 80% of the housetypes were actually designed from a Wimpey standard house footprint. “Wimpey asked us to stick to their plan because they knew what that cost to build, and what they could sell it for,” says Gerardine. With their brick, render and timber exterior treatments, mono and traditional pitched roofs, open-plan interiors and contemporary specification, the houses betray no trace of their origins now. “We wanted to change the standard housetype, so that when you come into the scheme it doesn’t look like a scheme designed by Wimpey,” says Gerardine. “We’re working with other architects [on subsequent schemes] and they like the uniformity of a block being the same, whereas here we did the utmost to make things different, to give people the feel that their house is individual.”
The time we spend together once a week when we’re putting a planning application together and making the final decisions is the most enjoyable in the whole process
To achieve variety, the design team had to get the most out of the Wimpey supply chain. For example, the team did not like the three colours of concrete brick that Wimpey uses, so it visited the supplier and selected five shades from its range, thereby remaining within Wimpey’s group purchasing deal. The team also worked with window company Bowater Windows to get the large single-pane windows it wanted, with cream and grey frames instead of Wimpey’s standard white or brown. Gerardine designed the front doors, as Wayne had promised, to give the scheme a unique selling point (see “Behind the designer doors” above).
But the design team did not always get its own way. They were not allowed to sell some houses as shells, nor to use more contemporary styling for the interiors. Gerardine also failed to persuade Wimpey to build the scheme using concrete tunnelform construction instead of traditional brick and block. “And blooming heck, look at what’s happening with modern methods of construction now,” she says in exasperation.
Gerardine has been equally exasperated by the rules and regulations of the building process that the industry takes for granted. One buyer wanted Wimpey to convert their ground-floor cloakroom into a utility room prior to handover, but the housebuilder turned down the request. The Hemingways intervened on their behalf, but Wimpey explained that the Building Regulations demand a ground-floor toilet accessible to the disabled. Gerardine cannot see the logic in that, despite what Massey tells her. “But the buyers are able-bodied,” she says.
In spite of the Hemingways’ determination to keep build costs down, John Taylor, managing director of George Wimpey North, admits the housebuilder has paid a premium for the Hemingway touch. He says: “A scheme like Staiths is a learning curve and it has been that in all aspects, from design through to build cost. The initial costs have been higher than anticipated.” The company has, however, carried out a business review of phase one and believes that it can make cost reductions on future phases.
The buyers have ultimately voted the scheme a success with their wallets, although some have been investors aiming to make a quick killing (see “What the residents say”, page 37). Forty reservations were taken in the first four hours at the scheme’s 2003 launch, and the first phase was reserved and contracted that year, with prices ranging from just under £80,000 for a one-bedroom apartment to just under £200,000 for a house. Two unconventional “upside-down” houses, with living space upstairs and bedrooms downstairs, were among the first to sell, at about £135,000, and one is now back on the market with the bullish pricetag of £290,000.
The relationship between George Wimpey and the Hemingways is evidently one that both consider worthwhile. While other celebrity designers have worked for housebuilders on a one-off basis, the Hemingways are working on three more Wimpey schemes. Taylor says: “The Hemingways bring a very valuable and interesting aspect to our larger schemes.
The relationship works well in the ideas they stimulate and the way they challenge traditional housebuilding thinking. They bring creative new thinking.” And they have no plans to stop.
housebuilder George Wimpey
architect IDPartnership Northern
landscape design Glen Kemp Landscape Architects
structural and civil engineer Arup
design-and-build contractor Kendall Cross
What the residents say
We bought a townhouse a year ago. We loved the space and style. Normally we’d buy a house, strip it out and do it up, but we love this
What the residents say
We found this place by looking on the internet for something to rent. Once we found this we didn’t look anywhere else. It’s like being in a holiday village
What the residents say
I’m renting a townhouse. I love the layout – it’s much better than my Persimmon house, and the communal bins are a good idea
Staiths South Bank key points
- Housing development spurns standard housetypes in favour of design individuality
- Layout and landscaping promote community spirit and provide safe play areas
- Designers worked with the supply chain to achieve design variety
- Designers from outside construction imported fresh thinking
The bigger picture
Here’s how one courtyard in the first phase of Staiths South Bank fits together
1 The homes
2 Landscape courtyard
3 Private back gardens
4 The pedestrianised “homezone”
5 The barbecue area
6 Where the communal wheelie bins are parked