Chaucer Mews, a linear scheme of high quality new homes in the in-demand village of Attenborough, near Nottingham, has removed a blot on the landscape next to a popular local nature reserve. James Parker speaks to Cameron Homes about what was a highly successful project for the developer.
Chaucer Mews is a collection of luxury standard new build homes on the edge of the picturesque village of Attenborough, five miles south west of the centre of Nottingham in the Broxtowe borough. The development was completed in 2021 with 20, three, four and five-bedroom homes, but faced a range of challenges in this constrained but desirable site.
The Attenborough Nature Reserve surrounds the southern part of the village, and is a popular, 226 hectare attraction which includes the River Trent and a variety of areas of water including a former gravel pit which fed the cement works that Cameron Homes’ new development replaces. The reserve is across the railway line from the site, extending 226 hectares, and including cycle paths, walking trails, bird habitats and fishing, and hosts numerous events.
The new development sits between playing fields to the north and the nature reserve, and extends the line of existing detached homes along the south side of Long Lane towards Beeston. It remedies one of this very attractive area’s major drawbacks, namely the now-demolished Cemex cement works.
There are many benefits for buyers such as families, including trains running direct from Attenborough to London in under two hours. The linear site is however hemmed in by the railway line, one of the key constraints that Cameron Homes had to wrestle with. It is also in the historic part of the village, with a nearby conservation area containing with two listed dwellings plus a listed church.
THE BUSINESS CASE
Cameron Homes acquired the site in 2020, it was a “speculative opportunity that came to the open market,” operations director Paul Morrissey tells Housebuilder & Developer. The opportunity came at the right time, as the business was looking to expand further into Nottingham and the East Midlands; traditionally it had built the majority of its homes in the Derby and Michelover regions.
There was also an extremely strong environmental case behind the project for Cameron Homes, in disposing of a major cement works which was an anomaly in an area greatly benefitting from nature. “Environmentally, it wasn’t the greatest thing to have a cement factory in the middle of a residential area and next to a nature reserve,” says Paul.
The cement plant was a source of anger among local residents for many years due to the air pollution produced, which meant that the developer faced a smooth route to planning for an infill development of a small number of high quality homes that would mean no more cement production.
Cemex used to quarry the gravel and convey it over the railway tracks, but it was a derelict site once Cameron Homes acquired it with what Morrissey says was a “competitive” bid.
The site had some contamination, and Cemex were “keen to see it cleaned up,” says Morrissey, which added further momentum to its being sold to a developer who would remedy the site environmentally. The old batching plant, mixers and conveyors had to be demolished and removed, and the whole place was “covered in concrete,” he says.
Some of the structures were fairly tall due to the nature of the process, so were “something of an eyesore locally,” he adds.
However commercially, the developer recognised there was a real need for family homes in this area, which led them to “push hard for this site, and bring our offer into the area.” Morrissey asserts that there wasn’t much competition for this level of product locally; “there were a few of the plcs, but they weren’t offering the same level of environment.” As well as the quality of the location, the amenities were top notch, and local schools were good, all key features for attracting buyers.
The demand was also spurred by the fact that there weren’t a lot of four-five bedroom executive detached houses on the market locally, and what did come on “was selling relatively quickly.” The mix of homes in this scheme was decided by the planning department to some extent, while the site didn’t fall under a strategic local plan per se. As well as four and five-beds, Cameron Homes mixed in some three bed homes, based on its research of what would be most viable, “and we’ve been proven right,” says Morrissey.
DESIGNING FOR THE DEMAND
The local vernacular in terms of nearby homes was fairly strong in terms of quality, which meant that the developers had to ensure their designs were up to scratch, to say the least. Adjacent to the new homes were “some really traditional, nice, sizeable existing properties,” says Paul Morrissey, adding that the focus was to try and tie into these Arts and Crafts-style properties in terms of aesthetics, including a carefully specified brick mix (Forterra Hampton Rural Blend). Further down the road were smaller homes, so Cameron Homes distributed the smaller three-beds at that end.
Morrissey says that designing their homes to fit these existing properties happily fit into Cameron Homes’ existing portfolio well, “we felt it was a good fit for our standard product, but made a few tweaks to make sure it fit with what was further up the street,” for example the type of tudor boarding or roughcast render chosen. Brick cill details and surrounds replicate those elsewhere in Long Lane, and the tudor boards “exactly replicate” some of those found elsewhere in the street. Doors are the ‘70s’ style with the higher glazed panel, again reflecting others in the street. Porch details and bay window roofs are traditionally built by joiners, similar to many of those Cameron Homes has used on other schemes.
He says that with Building Regulations having progressively called for a higher performance design (although this scheme was pre the 2021 Part L uplift), this actually helped reinforce what Cameron Homes has gained a reputation for doing over the past few years, which is “building a solid property.” Not being in a conservation area meant that the developers were able to specify PVCu window frames to gain an acceptable performance result as well as a reduced ongoing maintenance burden for the residents.
One of the reasons such a linear development, building on a single side of an existing through road, is unusual for Cameron Homes, are the challenges it places for the construction process itself, including for planned movements and traffic movements. “We basically created a haulage road at the front of the site,” says Paul, “and tried to access everything from within the site until we got down to the last few plots, where we worked off the side of the road effectively.” Just-in-time materials management was needed, which, says Paul, so that the team only had material on site when they needed it. However this in itself was particularly difficult given that the scheme took place “at the tail end of Covid.”
He laughs: “I remember my construction manager at the time looking at it and saying ‘thanks’!” Paul says that while there weren’t any major S278 highways works on this project, they
had to create 20 dropped kerbs, “so we ended up reconstructing all of the footpath and the drainage in the carriageway.” There had previously been localised flooding, and the Highways Authority asked the developers to improve and repair drainage as part of the project, which added extra time, as well as making the normal foul and stormwater connections to the mains for the new homes.
The demolition process was involved, partly because the team had to work at night, and weren’t allowed to begin until 12.45am on the final hoppers and towers remaining on the site. Permissions were required from Network Rail, because the demolition staff were working at height adjacent to the track, albeit when trains weren’t running, and that was a “challenge in itself,” says Morrissey.
Local residents enjoyed this nighttime spectacle: “Some were sitting out on the footpath with deckchairs and flasks, and there was a big cheer when the tower finally came down!” The whole process only took four hours using specialist machinery, and the team returned to cut up and remove the demolished structures the following week. “It’s the first time in my career I’ve done that overnight,” says Morrissey.
Along with the buildings, there were a lot of “unkept and unmanaged” Poplar trees along the railway that needed “some substantial work,” and thereby entailed further co-operation with Network Rail including them taking a ‘watching brief’ over the developer’s work. Some of the trees were removed during the overnight demolition to maximise the potential of the machinery and manpower at that stage. “It was busy for four hours!” says Morrissey.
There was hydrocarbon contamination in the ground from decades of cement lorries leaking oil, and this was a challenge to address, preventing it leaching into the water table. Boreholes made in the sandy soil identified the extent of the contamination, and part of the soil was excavated and removed, and the remaining groundwater was chemically treated to “neutralise” it, while the oil sitting on it was skimmed off using special equipment. The Environment Agency had to sign this off prior to construction starting, but not before Cameron Homes had inserted piles to protect part of the site following the disturbance caused to the soil.
Cameron Homes weren’t fazed by this task, having done extensive decontamination on several sites previous to this one. They use external consultants due to the specialist nature of the work, but “tend to use local contractors who have good knowledge of the local environment officers,” says Morrissey.
The 20 private sale units comprise three, four and five-bedroom homes, ranging from 1,156 ft2 to 2,083 ft2, with prices ranging between £425,000 to £635,000. Cameron Homes used its ‘Home Sell’ scheme, whereby it helps owners sell their existing homes in order to raise capital for the new purchase, to assist several buyers here.
Work started in November 2020 and locals were happy to see the cement works removed. The 20 plots went on sale in July 2021, shortly followed by a show home in August 2021, and the development is now at 100% occupancy with the last completion in April 2022.
The homes all offer spacious, light and airy living accommodation with energy efficient heating including programmable thermostats that allow customers to set heating schedules based on their daily routine, and what Cameron Homes calls “proper insulation and sealing” to ensure that heat is retained. There is also a zoning system that divides the home into different heating zones, allowing customers to control and use heating in spaces as required. The show home had a trial PV array on the roof, “just to get a handle on our own running costs and compare with other sites,” Paul comments, adding that “obviously it works really well when homes have a high daytime use.” Although PV was an option for buyers, in the event none chose to take it up at Chaucer Mews when the homes were released for sale.
Morrissey says: “For a housebuilder, it’s difficult to upsell PV as you need to have them really early in the process; they need to be committed to the house financially and be mortgageable. It doesn’t really work to sell it as an extra.” Cameron Homes is however now selling a range of sustainable homes driven by the 2021 tightening of Part L, with PV and battery storage, plus various upgrades to the fabric of the building.
Some of the specifications did, for pragmatic reasons, see Chaucer Mews go beyond the Regs requirements. Due to noise from the railway, trickle vents were not an option, so an MVHR system was used to provide fresh air internally, plus acoustic glazing. In addition, waste water heat recovery was also installed, making the homes compliant with new Part L.
The homes have open plan kitchen/diner/living spaces situated to the rear of the ground floor, and the rear gardens are accessed by French doors in the main, and some of the five-bed homes have bifolds. The latter also has two bedrooms with ensuites plus a family bathroom. The landscaped front gardens sit alongside paved driveways, and powered garage doors were offered as an extra.
The standard of internal finish is very high, befitting the customer demographic that Cameron Homes is serving here. For example, bathrooms have a choice of Porcelanosa tiling, ensuites come with double rain showers, and homes have downstairs guest cloakrooms.
The kitchens have laminate or stone work surfaces, depending on the home type, Neff or Zanussi appliances, and a separate utility area. And, backing up Cameron Homes’ claim to build to “exacting standards,” with “premium materials”, all homes have a 10 year warranty.
GARDENS & LANDSCAPING
Despite the site being long and thin, says Paul Morrissey, “because they’re quite wide plots, they didn’t feel that tight.” The planners required an acoustic treatment due to the railway noise, so there’s a substantial 3.2 metre acoustic timber and steel fence all the way along the railway boundary. Because this was “semi-retaining,” says Morrissey, it enabled the developers to elevate the gardens by around a metre to provide level external spaces for residents, rather than sloping down to the railway embankment. A further benefit was that the fence’s visible height was reduced (in combination with the homes’ height being set due to avoiding flood risk), so the view of the nature reserve behind was not as impeded as it could have been.
The homes needed to follow the line of the existing houses, but a further planning requirement was that people would be able to turn cars on the drives, so on the larger units they had to incorporate turning heads. “It worked out really well, the customers love it because they have private drives with enough space to turn.” There’s an additional new low wall all the way along Long Lane, and hedging and planting behind.
Due to the linear nature of the site, constrained by the railway, it wasn’t possible to deliver the range of natural SuDS features for achieving surface water management that Cameron Homes has managed to provide at other, larger sites like Breedon On the Hill near Derby. Paul Morrissey sums up the challenge: “Natural SuDS features look great, but they take up a lot of room.”
The new homes are linked to the nature reserve thanks to a retained pedestrian passageway beneath the railway, meaning that owners have the best of both worlds. This is a highly connected urban location (the train station is close by), but residents also have access to some very beautiful natural parkland.
As operations manager on this highly successful project, Paul Morrissey pays tribute to the close working between site manager Jeremy Goodwin and sale negotiator Tracey Sawbridge: “They were really joined up and worked together to bring this through.”
Being a linear scheme, Morrissey admits Chaucer Mews offered an unusual challenge to the firm, however he says that its smooth progress has meant they “won’t be afraid of doing more.” These might be high-quality homes without the full set of eco ‘bells and whistles,’ but the overall impact is a transformation of this location. The project’s 100% customer satisfaction score is the ultimate proof.