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Homes for the future

WHQ will be featuring projects from the Innovative Housing Programme in the next few issues. This time Karen Tarbox and Wayne Forster share some lessons from Monmouthshire Housing Association’s IHP-funded journey to date.

Monmouthshire is one of the most affluent and desirable local authority areas in Wales. It was recently labelled the ‘fastest growth area in Wales’ by the Wales House Price Index and, with the abolition of the Severn Bridge tolls increasing the commuter belt from Bristol, this trend is predicted to continue.

MHA worked with the Welsh School of Architecture to develop two very different house types for the over-55s…

The concept for ‘homes for the future’ was the idea of Monmouthshire Housing Association (MHA) chief executive John Keegan and stems from his desire to create two small pilots of homes tailored to two specific demographics not available in the current Monmouthshire housing market. The ultimate vision was to create homes where people would aspire to live and not feel they are merely ‘making do.’

… and for the under-35s

Objectives of the project

  • Create a model of repeatable house types and settlement forms that meet the needs of the specific population groups identified.
  • Be carbon conscious in terms of both construction and lifecycle. Design and build would be to Passivhaus standands plus renewables but with user friendly controls.
  • Eradicate the risk of household fuel poverty by including Increased energy efficiency measures – the homes should be affordable to run and heat.
  • Build homes that are robust, low maintenance and adaptable – by using materials that had long life and were easy to maintain.
  • Create healthy comfortable homes that can be integrated within the existing neighbourhood, creating a place with character.

The chosen demographics

  • Young people aged under 35 looking to ‘start up’ on their housing journey, who would typically only have an option of a one-bedroom flat. The house types would need to be flexible, allowing for ‘long life’ as the individual’s needs change.
  • People aged 55+ who were potentially looking to ‘slim down’. MHA wanted to create an aspirational housetype that would encourage older occupiers to downsize, freeing up family-sized accommodation, ultimately both in the rented and private sectors.

Research was key

Before proceeding with the designs, MHA commissioned an independent research company to conduct quantitative and qualitative research to explore the ‘wants and needs’ of the two groups through a range of methods including interviews, focus groups and telephone surveys.

The results showed ‘start-ups’ preferred and aspired to have a spacious two-storey modern, mews-style property whereas downsizers preferred a bungalow style courtyard.  Location, having a garden, a driveway and privacy were their priorities and storage, office space and environmental considerations deemed important but not essential.

Downsizers aspired to live in an ‘in between’ property; something between a family home and traditional ‘older persons housing’. Location is critical; being near amenities and transport links. The property should be fully accessible and adaptable to accommodate circumstantial changes.

MHA worked in partnership with the Welsh School of Architecture, at Cardiff University, to create two very different single bedroom house types. A terraced mews with patio and an ‘interlocking’ courtyard bungalow were developed from both precedent studies and the market testing, in response to needs for spaciousness and manageable private outside amenity spaces.

Two separate infill sites, one in Caldicot (Cwrt Llwyfen – for under 35s) and one in Abergavenny (Cwrt Ffynnon – for over 55s) were identified as suitable to build four units on each site.  Cwrt Llwyfen has now completed and the first tenants have moved in, the homes in Abergavenny will be ready at the end of July.

Both developments have been built by MHA’s own building services team, utilising local skills, resources and equipment wherever possible.

The homes have state of the art monitoring including a weather station, internal environmental meter, hot water meter, smart energy meters and air quality equipment. Each home has been built to be highly sustainable and energy efficient, with a Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) in excess of 100.

The extra height at the front of the building enhances the feeling of spaciousness and the funky, eco-friendly homes are very appealing to the younger demographic – MHA recently invited over 150 people including housing sector influencers, local people and potential residents to recently have a look, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

The house features a large en suite bedroom with a mezzanine office area, overlooking a large open plan living and dining room.  It has a separate kitchen overlooking the street.  Large French doors lead from the lounge onto a sizeable private patio area perfect for relaxing and socialising. The homes are for people under 35 years of age in employment.

Nearly all those employed on the project came from within a 30-mile radius or are employed directly by MHA. 

Important lessons learned

As both developments are pilot projects there was an element of design evolution throughout the build stage. One of the key learning outcomes was recognising that by having a true collaborative approach to the project, from concept through design and into build and then marketing, the project team was able to make decisions quickly for the sole benefit of achieving the desired outcomes for the project. There were no conflicting priorities, any differences of opinion were resolved by keeping focus on the key aims of the project.

Carrying out meaningful consultation: We learned it was ok to do things differently, providing the overall aims of the project could still be achieved. The final product for the mews style house in Caldicot is slightly different from the original design but these enhance the overall outcome. For example – the original façade of the mews house had a real balcony. Following consultation, the feedback received suggested potential occupiers would forgo the balcony for a larger bedroom – so we listened and made the necessary changes. The feedback since has supported this change.

Similarly we changed the design to accommodate an integrated PV roof.  This enabled our teams to learn new skills in construction, which will now be transferable to other sites.

In basic terms, we put the building up so we know, in detail, how it all works, which will mean that it’s easier for us to maintain, but also to build more quickly next time around.

Would we do anything differently if we were starting again? We haven’t yet carried out a full project review but we would make some changes to some materials to reduce build costs without compromising the overall quality of the development e.g. stone walling to front could be replaced by white render to match main elevations.

Looking to the future, we are already drawing up initial plans for two additional sites which together could deliver a further 12 units and we hope to submit these for planning consent later this year. We have also identified sites across our current land holdings for a further possible 20 units and will look for additional sites where we can develop pocket communities of the courtyard bungalows.

Karen Tarbox is director of property services at Monmouthshire Housing Association and Wayne Forster is professor of architecture at Cardiff University, Welsh School of Architecture

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