St Matthew's estate in Brixton was drab and crime ridden until architects PRP gave it a makeover. They tell us how they made it a little more divine

St Matthew’s Estate was constructed in the late 1960’s, originally comprising 7-storey ‘H’ blocks alongside traditional terraced housing.

Two Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) partnered with Lambeth council. London & Quadrant Housing Trust (L&Q) and Presentation. Tower Homes, the ‘for sale’ arm of L&Q, was brought on board to develop one of the new build blocks for shared ownership.

A failing estate

St Matthew’s Estate had extensive open space which lacked defined uses and boundaries. The random patches of worn grass bore witness to the ad hoc pattern of foot traffic that made the open spaces into no-man’s land and part of the general chaotic circulation rather than out door amenity places for repose and enjoyment. The concentration of footfall along the limited desirable routes has increased the sense of security and ownership. Even where no new fences are introduced around retained buildings, there is a clear definition to where the casual passersby can go and where they are out of place.

The ‘H’ blocks were drab, with unpleasant access arrangements that doubled up as pedestrian routes - creating an unsecured and complex maze of paths. The entrances to the flats were previously tucked away and hidden under the ‘bridge structures’ of the retained H shaped blocks but have now been pulled out and placed on visible frontages whereas they were.

In 1996/7, four of the blocks were refurbished. However, the works cost approximately £1m per block and Lambeth was unable to complete the exercise. One of these blocks was decanted before works stopped and subsequently sat largely empty for over five years, becoming a magnet for squatters, drug users and prostitutes.

It was recognised that with the transport hub of Brixton Station only a five-minute walk away, St Matthew’s Estate was ideal for a high density development, not only requested by Policy 12 of the Lambeth Plan but also demanded by Planning Policy Guidance 3.

Engaging existing residents

Several public meetings were held between 1998 and 2001, during which residents and tenants’ feedback was gathered through questionnaires, Open Days, newsletters, interviews, assembly of a steering group and a permanent exhibition on the site. Security and play areas, crime, parking and poor housing emerged as key problems.

Funding was secured through three main sources – the Social Housing Grant from the Housing Corporation, loans generated from rental income and subsidies from each RSL – and used to cover land purchases, build costs and future maintenance of the housing stock.

No stock transfer vote was required as residents were re-housed elsewhere and new residents were sought for the new and refurbished homes.

Redevelopment plan

Outline planning was obtained by PRP in November 2003, who were novated to Mulalley & Co Ltd – they built all three phases under a ‘Design and Build’ contract.

Phase 1

The refurbishment of Marchant House, the construction of a new keyworker block on Brixton Water Lane and eight new family houses on St Matthew’s Road.

Phases 2 and 3

Two blocks, Gale and Romer Houses, were demolished to make way for three new villa blocks. Eight wide-fronted houses, eight narrow-fronted houses and all associated play areas and external works, including re-locating a sub-station.

The new layout is based on six key principles:

• Defining clear edges to existing streets and to current and proposed open space

• Clarifying the boundaries of public and private ownership using railings and gates with the patio gardens of the houses surrounded by full-height fences

• Reinforcing and facilitating the existing positive pedestrian routes

• Discouraging undesirable pedestrian traffic to improve safety and security and stimulating use of well-defined routes

• Overlooking and animating the streets and public spaces

• Accommodating cars unobtrusively and giving priority to foot traffic, children’s plan and opportunities for social interaction

Families in the city

The net result of the demolition, refurbishment and new-build will be 41 additional dwellings (127 in total), a mix of one and two bedroom flats and larger family houses all in accordance with Policy 15. The mixture of tenures helps to reduce the concentration of deprivation on the Estate and ensures a sustainable community.

Of particular note is the emphasis placed on providing housing for families – 24 new 3 & 4 bedroom family houses have been provided.

Densities could have been much higher but it was important to balance an increased density with the needs of the existing residents and the preservation of the open and green character of the estate.

Defined external spaces

A new sequence of public open spaces helps to define buildings, making them easily surveyed by residents all around and acting as ‘outdoor’ rooms. They each have a character of their own, created by the careful selection of materials to create neighbourhood areas which are identifiable and enjoyed by residents.

People, not cars

Homezone principles were adopted to meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. Other measures to reduce vehicular speed were introduced, including:

• On-street parking – encouraging caution when passing

• Chicanes and pinch points – forcing a change in the direction

• Speed tables at junctions with feeder roads – signifying the new priority

• Tightening road widths and kerb radii

• A ‘shared surface’ between the carriageway and (identifiable by changes in surfacing and landscaping features such as smart bollards, trees and planting beds)

Well designed family homes

Large family kitchens provided on ground floors give direct access to gardens and garden sheds for bicycle storage. Most kitchens and living rooms have views of the street to maximise surveillance of the public realm.

Lifetime Homes features include spacious rooms that accommodate wheelchair turning circles; large ground floor WCs incorporating showers and wider hallways and doors, amongst others.

Importantly, the provision of private front and rear gardens provides additional amenity space and encourages residents’ sense of ownership.

Sustainable tower refurbishment

Merchant House is a prime example of a typical sustainable refurbishment, where it is possible to improve fabric insulation through over-cladding. Energy requirements are further reduced through the use of photovoltaic panels used to power common parts lighting and lifts. Winter gardens were added to provide additional living space and amenity benefits. Residents’ fuel bills have been reduced by £100-£200 per year. SAP Energy Ratings have been improved from 45 to 75 or better.

Villa blocks

The three new 7-storey Villa Blocks align with Rush Common. Architecturally, they provide a strong edge, helping to demarcate the Common whilst improving the sense of enclosure. The common now benefits from ‘benign’ surveillance from residents – all living rooms overlook the parkland and have generous balconies, which also encourage residents to grow plants – a ‘greening’ strategy in St Matthew’s urban regeneration.

Secured by Design, all apartments are built to Lifetime Homes Standards, including 2 units for wheelchair users, which have been positioned on the ground floor of 2 blocks.

Greener buildings, greener living

Part of the project included the innovative build of a new keyworker development block. Challenge funding was obtained to build this scheme of 12 highly energy efficient 1 and 2 bedroom flats, which won the Low Energy Building of the Year Award in 2006.

The energy bills (around £100 per annum per household) are the result of adopting a super-insulated and airtight building with zero carbon space heating standards. Roof-mounted solar thermal panels supply hot water during warmer months whilst in winter, it is generated by a wood pellet burning boiler. All living rooms face due south and have large windows and direct access to attractive south-facing winter gardens and balconies.

A new and desirable place to live

Phases 2 & 3 were completed in mid 2007 and its regeneration has already started to deliver visible results.

All units from both L&Q and Tower have been taken up by a mix of existing residents from the estate and new residents from within the borough. Resident satisfaction levels are high with many commenting on the effective use of green spaces and the quality of their homes.

L&Q was particularly pleased with the number of larger family-sized properties it was able to provide as these are in high demand from Lambeth residents. Families that have moved in especially appreciate the size of their new homes.

Similarly, Presentation has had a 100% uptake of their properties. Despite initial teething problems with the development, residents in the keyworker block have particularly benefited from the reduced energy bills and have expressed pride at being part of such a ground-breaking and pioneering project within the estate.