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Green living

By Ruth Slavid
Hanham Hall was much praised as a beacon of green living, but how does it work in practice?

The housing development at Hanham Hall in South Gloucestershire has been widely praised. Fulfilling a number of demanding design criteria, it was intended by its designer HTA and its developer Barratt Homes to be not only a scheme that ticked all the boxes but also a real community.

Fine talk and promotional videos, however much they are backed up by figures on energy performance etcetera, cannot really let you know if this has worked. It is necessary to consult the experts, and in this case the experts are not the various engineers and other ‘interested’ parties – they are the genuinely interested parties, the people who live there and enjoy or struggle with both the planned and the unexpected elements of the project. 

So for this feature we have concentrated on the experience of the residents and discovered that, although there are inevitably niggles, the experience is generally a happy one. There is a fantastic sense of community, and everybody is happy to be living there. So, one would expect to see this repeated, wouldn’t one?

The answer is no, and the reason is simply financial. Barrett Homes says that, without the special financial help that it received in this case, it cannot afford to do this again. Environmentally, the impact of Hanham will be greatly reduced in relation to other similar communities – the only real downside is that, as a result of its position, car commuting is common – but we will not see those benefits again, unless financial provision is made for them.

In order to understand why this is, and also what works and what doesn’t work, it is necessary to know what Hanham is. Although it is officially in south Gloucestershire, it is effectively in suburban Bristol. Built on the site of a former hospital, with a retained Grade II* listed building, it has 185 new homes, with a range of tenures. Some 35% are affordable. The density is just over 50 dwellings per hectare.

Landscape plays a vital role, since there are a total of 3.7ha of meadows, play areas, ponds and allotments surrounding the homes. As well as providing amenity, they serve a number of other functions, including rainwater attenuation and noise protection from the nearby major road.

This was the first development on which the Homes and Communities Agencies was aiming to achieve zero carbon, equivalent to Code Level 6 under the then Code for Sustainable Homes. In addition the aim was to achieve Building for Life Gold, the CEEQUAL standard for sustainability 
in civil engineering and public realm and the CIBSE overheating standard.

With HTA acting as both architect and landscape architect, there was no division between the two, so the homes are part of the landscape. South-facing buildings have projecting timber louvres in front of them, creating semi-private spaces for sociability. This is enhanced by the fact that there is no barrier between the small front gardens and the street. In addition, the living rooms, which are on the first floor, have generous balconies that look over the shared space.

James Lord, who leads on landscape at HTA, said, ‘There are a lot of rules and regulations that you need to take into account when you are creating a community like this, but rules and regulations don’t create great places. And we were really focused with Barrett and the HCA on ensuring that this became a really successful community as well as a highly sustainable one.’ One of the suggestions that HTA made was that, rather than turning Hanham Hall itself into flats, 
it should be retained for community use. It houses a crèche and offices as well as a community room. It has now been sold to a private operator, but the community room will remain, and the other facilities are used both by people within and beyond Hanham Hall.

The scheme has high standards of insulation, large south-facing windows to provide daylight and solar warmth, and water butts to collect rainwater and recycle it for use in the gardens. There is also rainwater harvesting supplying some toilets and all washing machines.

In short, the scheme works. So why won’t it be repeated? David Bond, technical director of Barrett Homes, explained, ‘There was no land value generated, which meant that the land had no value. There was no profit in there.’ This is very much a developer’s way of saying that although the homes cost more to build than a ‘standard’ home, this is not reflected in the price at which they can be sold – and particularly not in the value that mortgage lenders place on them. ‘This kind of development may have more longevity of people staying,’ David Bond said. ‘The housing may be under-valued by the mortgage companies. They don’t give it any greater value.’

Despite the overall non-reproducibility of the project, there is much that has been done there that Bond believes will be, and already is being, reproduced on other developments.

In fact, the project as built was not quite as onerous as it appeared that it would be, thanks to a change in the definition of zero carbon during the course of the project. In 2009, when the project began, it was going to be necessary to construct an energy centre, a biogas CHP plant, which would have been owned by the residents. ‘The running costs meant that the energy supply would have been more expensive than to the houses opposite,’ Bond said. And there would also have had to be a sinking fund for replacement. 

The March 2011 Plan for Growth reduced the definition of zero carbon so that it only had to account for regulated energy, and in addition, there was a change that allowed off-site solutions to compensate for carbon dioxide used on site. Despite the fact that none of the technology use was new, some of it was of course new to the residents – and there were teething problems. For instance the rainwater harvesting for use in washing machines seemed to work better in some parts of the site than others – in terms both of quantity of water available and of smell. 

But most of the problems revolve around cars – there are just too many of them. The original scheme envisaged a car club and fairly minimal parking, but lots of cycle racks. Some of the residents do cycle, but most of them have a family car and probably one car per working adult. This is largely down to the relatively poor transport connections. There are buses into Bristol but they are not frequent, and the services keep changing. Many residents work not in Bristol city centre but in outlying areas or nearby towns, or have jobs where they need car travel as part of the working day.

This is hardly unusual, but the result is that,  because this was not planned for, there seem to 
be cars everywhere. This is exacerbated by the fact that some homes have two parking spaces but they are in series and it is too hard to manoeuvre in and out, so at least one car stays on the street. And it is possibly made worse by the fact that there are no demarcated pavements. Mike Gee, one of the residents, said, ‘The place was planned as a home zone, with the roads and pavements on the same level. But it didn’t get home zone status, so nobody can enforce the regulations. Still,’ he added, ‘if parking is the greatest of the problems, it is quite small.’

And apart from the parked cars, Hanham Hall looks fantastic. The residents pay around £350 
a year for upkeep, some of which goes into the community centre. And there are strict covenants governing the external appearance of houses, so they all look, and will remain looking, consistent. And, while there may be cars on the street, there are no bins, because those are all housed in dedicated bin stores. So a potential eyesore is removed.

If it just looked fantastic, that would be something, but it feels fantastic as well. There are community activities and, even more important, a lot of informal interaction. Everybody we met seemed really happy to be there. Even allowing for the sense of community that builds in a new place, that seems a real achievement. 

Jules Burnett, a woman living on her own, summed it up when she said, ‘I felt very isolated 
in a town further south. Here I have a community. I do lots of gardening for people. I have gone from being invisible to being part of a community.’

© Tom Lee

Cynthia Filipiak 
Cynthia is a landscape architect who has recently moved jobs to work with Arup in Bristol, so she 
has both a personal and a professional interest in Hanham. She and her partner are both keen wind-surfers and they find their ‘three bedroom’ home relatively small and lacking in storage. But she is very happy to be there. 

Elements like the resin-bound paving should, she says, be used in all new developments, but are not. She likes the way that a Roman wall has been preserved and used as backing for greenhouses, and the design of the central swale and pond. ‘On one side there is a gentle slope with vegetation and a different approach on the other side,’ she said. ‘There is nothing outstanding here,’ she added, ‘but people really enjoy it.’

She and her partner are busy filling their garden with a profusion of plants and taking part in the communal life. She regrets that there has not been denser planting to shield the noise from the adjacent ring road, and that some protective fencing has gone up round a play area that she does not feel is needed. And, of course, that ‘sometimes it feels that there are cars everywhere’.

© Tom Lee

Hélène Schwartz and Danny McCarthy
Hélène works in social services and Danny is a firefighter. He brought a fire engine through the development since there was some concern that the streets might be too narrow when so many cars were parked. They previously lived in the centre of Bristol and Hélène said, ‘I thought I would miss the city centre. But we have friends everywhere. I walk in front of people’s houses to get home, so I feel a sense of community.’

She and Danny were not impressed by the planting in front of their house. ‘They never told us what they had put in,’ he said. ‘It just looked like grass. We wanted flowers and colour, so we redid it.’ 

© Tom Lee

Maria Flook
Maria is in a wheelchair and is unable to move from the neck downwards. She is looked after by 
a constant rota of carers, but has also made friends and does not regret not being in a city centre. 
‘I love the area and the community spaces,’ she said. ‘If I need to get out and about, I just find a way. Nothing is inaccessible. I utilise everything I can – it really enriches my life. People take me for walks around the area. I love my garden and my neighbours. And I love my cul de sac so much because my house is in it, and my good friends are in it and its just beautiful to look at and beautiful to be in.’ In the summer she spends a lot of time on her balcony.

© Tom Lee

Mike Gee and Chloe Chalk
Mike and Chloe were among the first to move in, and Mike in particular is a great enthusiast for the outdoor life. In addition to a garden, the couple have both an allotment and one of the very sought-after greenhouses. And he has done a lot to improve not only his own surroundings but those of the community. ‘While they were still building,’ he said, ‘I went through a phase where I would make anything I could for free. The best resources were the skips on site with all the offcuts of wood from the site.’

As well as making furniture for himself and Chloe, he made planters for the site and rebuilt the previously unsuccessful composting area. He loves having a greenhouse, but finds that they tend to overheat. Nevertheless, he has adjusted his cropping and is enjoying it. ‘It is a shame that there aren’t enough greenhouses to go round,’ he said. But these are not the only source of produce. When we visited, Chloe had just made raspberry jam from the raspberries on the allotment.

© Tom Lee

Yvonne and Ian Hopton
Ian is vice-chair of the residents’ association and is also one of a group that is learning beekeeping from a skilled beekeeper who visits regularly, and approves of the quality of the beehives that have been installed. And this is not the only way that Hanham Hall interacts with the area beyond. ‘Quite a few of us have become involved in the campaign to save Hanham Library,’ he said, ‘and I have recently become involved with the community engagement forum.’

He and Yvonne have both retired and wanted a garden, but one that would not be too big. But 
in fact they have also taken on half an allotment. The pair deliberately waited to buy because they had previously lived on an eco-development where the builder went bust partway through, resulting in what Yvonne described as ‘half eco, half little boxes’. But they are very satisfied with Hanham Hall and loving the community activities as well as the fact that it is easy to have a three or four mile walk from the front door.

Like any new development Hanham Hall has its teething problems, but the standards are very high and the facilities and landscape are superb. Some of the adults are tempted by the more adventurous elements in the playgrounds, and there are free redcurrants to pick around the edge of the allotments, and apples in the orchard. The problem with cars is mainly due to unreasonably high ideals given the location. It is a shame that this can’t be repeated, since it has many lessons for the future, but at least some of the elements are likely to be incorporated in future developments. It is a fine example of the benefits of making landscape integral to the development from the beginning.

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