A London council estate with a history of problems is being transformed in phases, thanks to a complex, high-density and high-quality scheme by council regeneration specialist developer Be First. They speak to James Parker about the recently completed Gascoigne West Phase 1.
The Gascoigne Estate in Barking, east London was a neighbourhood which suffered from anti-social behaviour over the decades, but also has an established community who care about their neighbourhood.
A major regeneration of the estate by Be First (a development arm of client Barking and Dagenham Council) is reinventing the estate’s reputation, with a multi-phase scheme which brings environmental quality to residents for the future, and a huge contrast with the past.
Completed in 2022, Phase 1 of the development’s Gascoigne West section provides 201 homes (60% of which are affordable) on a 0.9-hectare parcel. Designed by Scandinavian architects White Arkitekter, this is just one part of the 16.3 hectare scheme. White also designed the first part of the scheme to start on site, the completed second phase of the three-phase Gascoigne East, and have designed Phase 2 of Gascoigne West.
Phase 1 had a constrained site, but the architects produced a range of cleverly articulated blocks to work with the site and offer efficiently planned indoor and outdoor spaces for residents. Similarly, Phase 2 provides high density as required by Be First but avoids the oppressive nature that characterised the previous Gascoigne Estate. The project team had a host of factors to balance – time was of the essence, with the client keen to deliver the apartments as quickly as possible, at the desired level of quality.
Be First was formed in 2017 as an offshoot of Barking and Dagenham Council, which was progressing its own share of award-winning developments, but in the words of design lead at Be First, Jacob Willson, the new company was formed to “scale up delivery,” and focus on important regeneration projects in the Borough. It now has one of the most ambitious local authority housing programmes in the country, with close to 500 units per year, and a target of 50,000 new homes by 2037. As well as the public sector however, Willson says Be First are “active” in the private land market as well, with land agents and commercial agents seeking out opportunities.
Be First benefits from also providing the statutory planning function on its projects, giving it something of a ‘poacher and gamekeeper’ role as Wilson readily accepts. “It’s not just a regen delivery team – we also brought in the planning team, similar to the LLDC (Olympic Park legacy) planning model.”
The stigma attached to the estate previously contributed to it being a “fairly transient” population, says Willson, with many residents moving out much sooner than in other developments, normally into the huge Becontree Estate. He explains that the problems inherent to the original development, with its “typical low-rise blocks peppered with high rise” meant the answer was to demolish it and rebuild a sustainable community in phases which would attract and retain residents.
Ben Addison, assistant delivery director was the project lead for Be First, and he explains that Gascoigne West Phase 1 was previously “low-rise three-storey blocks containing 40 flats.” He adds that as some of the homeowners were leaseholders from Right to Buy, “there were some buybacks,” and with the new scheme having fewer such landlords, there’s a hope that transient tenants will be further reduced.
Addison explains how the overall project emerged from “social inclusion programmes” in the early 1990s, which then led the council to “recommend a holistic regeneration of the area, and that was always involving full demolition, in the case of Phase 1.” There are different approaches for different phases, and not all involve full demolition.
Architects Fraser Brown Mackenna were appointed to complete an outline masterplan for Gascoigne West in 2018, and Be First submitted an outline application in December 2018 which covered all three phases, with a maximum of 850 homes. White Arkitekter were subsequently commissioned by Be First in 2019 to design West Phase 1 and submit a reserved matters application detailing the size and scale of the blocks.
The Right to Buy receipts held by the council helped to fund the scheme, including 201 homes for the first phase (providing much higher density than the original 40 on the site). The majority of the funding came from the GLA’s Housing Zone and Affordable Homes Programme.
Willson points out that the density was already increasing significantly on the west side of Abbey Road, one of the site’s perimeters, “and there are a lot of regeneration initiatives in Barking town centre to support that.” He said that with the context firmly in mind, “we worked really hard with the architects on how we distributed the massing, where we put the tall buildings.” Phase 2 is denser, “because it’s closer to the town centre, and public transport nodes.”
Willson explains that Barking and Dagenham has “huge waiting lists, huge housing need,” including homelessness issues. But building more densely has various benefits, including sustainable land use, although Be First are still incorporating terraces of townhouses, integrated with the higher density blocks on Phases 1 and 2. Phase 2 (completing in March 2024) goes up to 20 stories, whereas the tallest block on Phase 1 is 13 stories. And not despite the mix of medium and high-rise blocks, but assisted by it, the developer asserts that they are “pushing the boundaries on design quality, placemaking and sustainability.”
Within Phase 1, the 201 homes are roughly a fairly typical 60/40 split of affordable to private rented sector (122 affordable, 79 private rented). The private market rents turn out for the one bed at £1400 per month, and £1700 per month for the two beds, and the affordable homes are at a set scale of discounted rates. The big story is that in Phase 1 alone, the number of affordable homes has increased from 40 units to 122.
There were many of the usual constraints of similar schemes, from the red line boundaries of the perimeter of this narrow site, to the fact that in order to make the high number of affordable homes viable, the density had to be pushed up. “There were a lot of very close residents,” says Jacob Willson, “this is an existing neighbourhood” – this was the key driver of what was a rigorous and careful approach taken by the architect and client.
Jacob Wilson asserts that from a design point of view, Be First has “worked really hard with the politicians and residents to think about how we make tenure blind developments. So when you look at Phase 1, you can’t tell which are the affordable blocks and which are the private blocks.” This is now industry best practice, and it’s crucial to avoid creating an aesthetic division between tenures’ build quality. Willson says there has been a problem with private landlords in London and elsewhere, creating a dichotomy between council and private tenants by underspecifying the former and leading to the widely reported ‘poor doors’ stigma.
Phase 1 has a variety of blocks, from three to 13 storeys, and the overall scale is broken down by the taller blocks having a “stepped lower shoulder,” in the words of project architect Linda Thiel. This reduces the overall impact and helps the scheme relate to the scale of the surrounding buildings. The resulting volumes are six and 11 storeys for Block A, eight and five storeys for the skinnier Block B (which has a block of seven townhouses sitting in front of it), and six and 13 storeys in the case of Block C. The six-level portion of the latter, which is allocated to the private rental market, has a roof garden, located adjacent to the townhouses. The higher levels offer great views into central London.
Blocks A and B are ‘kinked,’ both following the line of retained mature trees, creating a streetscape that has a much more amenable urban presence than totally perpendicular facades would offer, and angling the forms back from the street edge. The result is a series of “strong frontages’’ broken up by “entrance squares,” explain the architects.
The scheme is designed as a car free development with limited parking, and a “pedestrian-friendly public realm.” The trees along Abbey Road provide natural shading to the west facade,
soften the overall look, and have also been used to locate small, sheltered play areas. The external spaces have been designed to be highly usable, and a Places for Girls workshop held by the architects with a local school established what safe outdoor spaces would look like. External spaces in the finished scheme are now being used much more by residents, when formerly they had become a source of fear.
Jacob Willson praises the architects’ work, which aligned with Be First’s aspirations in terms of both sustainability and spatial quality. “There’s a lot of really positive design aspects of this scheme in terms of having very clear front and back doors, private and public spaces.” He says that people were previously fearful of going through certain spaces, and struggled to navigate the estate, “but a lot of those issues were addressed by White Arkitekter in having very active street-based architecture.”
The various buildings in Phase 1 all have reinforced concrete frames but a mix of facades, however the majority have a brick facade to tie in with the local residential buildings. A light colour brick mix was chosen for Phase 1, softening the blocks’ presence along Abbey Road. Brick in a darker hue was specified on ground floors, and adjacent parts of the elevations (either side of the ‘kinks’ in facades) have subtle differences in the look of their brickwork. This is thanks to altering the mortar colour, to break down the mass of the facades, but still give an overall coherence.
In Phase 1 some offsite/MMC construction methods were used to aid fast and accurate construction, such as fully tiled pod bathrooms, utility cupboards, and balconies, supplied by Sapphire. Ben Addison explains that the logistics were tricky for bringing in vehicles to site, however “we were fortunate that a neighbouring site became vacant that was part of Gascoigne West Phase 3. We were able to demolish that and actually set up a larger site compound for the main contractor.” This was especially helpful given that the main work started in March 2020, roughly when the Covid lockdowns started.
The project completed on time in March 2022, with no help from some final commissioning delays to the district heating network connection, although it adds serious sustainability credentials. Retaining the existing, two-storey high trees is the other obvious example of a sustainability win, which as Jacob Willson rightly says, “add so much value for residents, and the light brick offsets them really well.” Their roots may have provided challenges to the contractor Wates, but it was well worth it.
This project is a very successful, significant step in the rebirth of the Gascoigne Estate, and one which in the case of Phase 1 of its West flank at least, provides a far higher number of affordable homes. Thanks to the diligent work of the council, and its development arm and architect, a sustainable community has the chance to flourish on what was a pocket of east London with a lot of problems. As one of the early schemes in this massive endeavour, it has provided many lessons to Be First as they progress the later phases, which include the performance data on buildings that they are receiving from sensors peppered across Gascoigne West Phase 1.
The biggest proof of the success is starting to be seen from residents of this former troubled estate, who are reporting the start of a “real community feeling,” says Jacob Willson with obvious pride, a pride shared by those residents.