A greenfield landowner is trying to ditch the carriage lamps and half-timbering and bring a contemporary look to the suburbs. But loft-style homes? With raw finishes? And gabion walls? In Harlow? Whatever will the locals think …
If Essex man, or woman, drives to the outskirts of Harlow in search of a new home with cosy mock stonework or Tudorbethan half-timbering, they are going to be sadly disappointed. In fact, they are in for a bit of a shock, as this autumn they could be confronted by funky-looking properties topped off with a thatched roof, or a home fronted by a wall made from stones packed into wire-mesh cages.

Gabion walls are not the stuff of the mass-market new home, but the Essex development of Newhall is becoming the exception to the mass-market rule. It is a multi-developer, volume site in a suburban location where familiar industry names are producing the kind of modern, metropolitan product that you would expect a niche London developer to build on a Camden car park.

Development of the 200-acre greenfield site kicked off last autumn with Barratt Homes' scheme of 92 units designed by the site's masterplanner, Roger Evans Associates.

Copthorn Homes is building 82 apartments and houses to the more radical gabion-walled and thatched-roofed designs by Proctor Matthews Architects. Cala Homes will be developing the third phase, which is designed by PCKO Architects – and so it will go on until a community of 2800 homes has been built.

What is making this site so different from every other large housebuilding site in the country is the approach adopted by its landowner, Newhall Projects. This company has retained a high level of control over the design and development process, working closely with Roger Evans Associates, and is selling small parcels of land through design-led competitions. For the third phase, it is looking to set up a joint-venture development company with the housebuilder. The objective is to create a high-quality residential community with non-kitsch design – a sort of modernist Poundbury.

This radical scheme is the outcome of an unhappy experience. The two key landowners, Jon and William Moen sold land unconditionally at nearby Church Langley and were disappointed at what the housebuilders produced.

As a result, landowners and housebuilders are having to develop a working relationship that yokes together idealism and the commercial imperative. Barratt found itself drawn into lengthy negotiations over what it built, and there was some dissent over the way the scheme was marketed. The housebuilder chose the not-so-urban-and-contemporary name of Maypole Green. "Because Barratt were the first on site, they didn't realise it was to be that different," says Jon Moen. Barratt responds, carefully, that "as a pioneer, you have these sorts of problems".

Both say relations between them are now good, and Moen adds that the response from the rest of the housebuilding industry is improving. "It's getting to be less of a struggle. There was a fair amount of enthusiasm for the third site, for which PCKO won a design competition, and we were selling the site with the design. We are trying to get diversity here; we want to continue to change. As the site progresses, we will be focusing more on energy efficiency and sustainability."

In turn, the housebuilders may have to win over Essex buyers. Barratt says its homes have sold well – so much so that it is keen to work on future phases at Newhall. But Copthorn admits that it is an audacious move to sell homes where the similarity to the standard product begins and ends with a pitched roof. As well as gabion walls and thatch, the homes use such diverse materials as aluminium, shiplap boarding and profiled tile hanging. Externally, the homes "pick up on the Essex farm aesthetic", according to Stephen Proctor, director with Proctor Matthews Architects. Inside, homes will have loft-style layouts with mezzanines and exposed areas of raw blockwork, and the four-storey townhouses will have ground-floor workspaces. Despite Barratt's success with phase one, Copthorn is concerned that their radical gabion-walled dwellings in phase two will be difficult to sell.

"I think we're going to find it difficult to locate the people who will be interested in this kind of product," says Neil Armstrong, marketing director with Copthorn, frankly. "That is going to make it difficult to market." Copthorn has had some experience of marketing modern design, having worked with Proctor Matthews Architects on the contemporary Chronos Building in east London, and its parent company, Countryside Properties, is involved in the Greenwich Millennium Village. But those schemes are both in the capital, not wedged between town and country in a location that would normally be considered suburban.

Not that anyone involved in this site would dare to call the housing suburban. "It is more of a new town," says Stephen Proctor. "It is urban living in a rural location," says Andrew Ogorzalek, director with third-phase designer PCKO Architects. "They have been described as urban cottages," says Jon Moen. Whatever you call it, it is different.