Village vanguard

Overlaying the former site of a piecemeal-built country club just west of Bristol, a new retirement village offers a refreshingly social approach to long-term living, combined with sympathy for the local vernacular. Sébastien Reed reports

Ascending to Clifton Village to cross Brunel’s suspension bridge was an impressive preamble to visiting high-end retirement village specialist developer Audley’s latest creation. Nestled among green pastures, golf clubs and a local amateur rugby club, and 15 minutes drive from Bristol’s city centre, Audley Redwood boasts an enviable array of nearby amenities combined with the perks of countryside living – in short, a great location for the newly-completed retirement village.

This is London and Cardiff-based Gaunt Francis Architects’ sixth collaboration with Audley. The key to the success of their partnership is a deep understanding of the Audley brand, together with an appreciation for quality, and, in Audley managing director Kevin Shaw’s words, an aptitude for “foreseeing the future needs of the owners.”

Designing for accommodation of a hybrid nature, bringing in aspects of high-end residential, care-living, and hospitality, as well as the master planning imperative, the project’s typology is something of an enigma. Of the numerous ways to approach the overarching aim of the brief – to provide a care community while maintaining the green surroundings – Gaunt Francis attribute introspection as a primary means.

Rope lines & scale

The previous building had fallen into disrepair and was not listed, so the architects decided to start from scratch. “Redwood Hotel and Country Club comprised a little lodge with disparate facilities. It was a sprawling mass – rambling and ugly with lots of tarmac, which we wanted to break up, softening the ground more,” says lead architect and Gaunt Francis Cardiff director Gavin Birt.

Located on Bristol’s green belt, the architects had to fulfil stringent criteria to enable the project to progress. They were fortunate to have a highly co-operative as well as assiduous planning officer, who met regularly with the architects. As Birt explains: “He wanted quality design – I think we ticked that box. Footprint was also a factor – everything had to be designed within a strict ‘rope line’ justified by the planning need to conserve the local green environment.”

He continues: “What was interesting was that the existing building was a series of accretions, which had just grown over the years. The planners wanted more permeability, and more gaps and views from north to south.” Splitting the project’s mass into small fragments produced a more comfortable domestic scale, favoured by the planners. The master plan aimed to develop “a village along a street that was never there.”

As a result, segmented volumes of 124 housing units and common accommodation sprout neatly at the sides of the village street carved into the site, which follow a slight double curve and incorporate a range of scales. Multiple visitor car parks, green landscaping, and a drainage pond separate the street from the main road to the north which allows vehicles to access the complex.

The new focal point and community hub for the village is Redwood Hall. Located at the centre of the road plan, offering optimal accessibility to residents, who start at 55 years old. Previous mock-ups done by the architects placed the main communal hub at the ends of the road, making it more distant from some of the housing units and probably less desirable to Audley’s user demographic. A decorative central tree feature and lodges square the space off as the primary node to the site, while southerly views obstructed by the hub building are balanced by more visual permeability to the green grounds at the north of the site.

Redwood Hall’s internal layout is distributed across three floors. The ground floor entrance presents an airy reception area rising into a three-floor atrium, the left wing of the building houses leisure facilities including a gym, swimming pool, and library, while the right contains dining facilities and a kitchen. Flats occupy the upper floors of the hall and plant room extending from its eastern elevation houses the combined heat and power system which provides electricity for the entire village.

Setting the scene

“What we’ve done as architects is to create an efficient product for our client,” says Gaunt Francis’ Birt. “We’ve been looking at standardising apartment and cottage types and we’ve looked to create a central building that works efficiently, that we can use and adapt”. The idea of having a main house is pivotal to harbouring a sense of community for the owners across Audley’s villages.

Dovetailing the scheme into its historical context, the architects gave more than a nod to the rich architectural heritage of nearby Clifton, Long Ashton and other areas of north Somerset. This produced a range of neoclassical and Georgian forms that the architects sought for the client and presented successfully to the planners. Redwood Hall’s exterior is dressed with grand columns, chimneys and an entrance portico which combine to provide an elegant backdrop to the feature landscaping. Formally, it is quite regular, made up of one large primary volume and three secondary volumes which protrude at ground level; one from its easterly elevation housing the plant room, and two from either side of the north-facing entrance portico, which seem to embrace the user into the building while giving a distinct sense of arrival.

The ground floor of the hall houses and reception area – lit by natural light which pours in through a rooflight at the top of the triple-height atrium – and lounge which splits off into kitchen and dining to one side, and further lounge areas, the pool and gym to the other. Keeping common facilities at ground level maintains easy access for village owners while the upper floors contain apartments.

Birt likens the interior feel of the main building to that of a boutique hotel. In keeping with the scheme’s external language, the main hall’s interiors are Georgian-inspired; with a calm and sober colour palette of blacks, greys, white and bronze. The architects took particular care in making the interiors not appear too flamboyant or challenging – with the aim instead to provide a statement of quality and ease which befits the intended experience of life on site.

The design of the buildings went beyond referencing historic architectural language – the architects imbued each building with their own narrative. For Birt, who undertook the feasibility and original concept of the project, “the idea was to create the apartment buildings as big Georgian villas, each set within a hedge and a gate so it’s as if you’re actually seeing a large villa that’s been converted into apartments.” He continues: “For the cottages, as well, we tried to create a storyline for how the buildings developed.”

The street is characterised by repetition of simple forms and roofs articulated with classical features such as parapets – making a sequence of villas and terraces with elegant metalwork and feature bay windows. With authentic traditional motifs repeated throughout the scheme, it may come as a surprise to some visitors that Redwood Lodge is an entirely new-build project. This sets it in contrast to other Audley developments which tend to emerge from the rejuvenation of a listed building acting as the centrepiece of the site.

While the palette of materials is simple – soft off-white renders, red bricks, and artificial slate for the pitched roofs – no quarter was given in terms of quality. Local Limpley Stoke Bath stone is used extensively for the facades of the main building, along with quality interior furnishings which altogether instil a high-calibre feel.

While stock finishes are applied to each of the units’ interiors, they can also be customised upon request by owners, in partnership with the architects and interior designers. Further flexibility is offered to create a bespoke layout as some units are fitted with knock-out panels between kitchen and living area to cater for a more open-plan preference. Units are also unfurnished as occupants “tend to prefer kitting out their new apartments with their own furniture and appliances,” says the architect, confirming that it helps to foster a sense of ownership and transform their new apartment into a home.

Community of care

Given that some owners of Audley Redwood are physically less able, the site has no kerbs – reducing the potential of trips significantly. In addition, the street’s surfacing has been engineered to encourage optimal water percolation into the soil below, reducing the likelihood of slipping on wet surfaces.

With future flexibility to apartment owners’ needs in mind, the units have been designed to high structural specifications. Walls and ceilings are ready to bear the load of hoists, and other heavy medical equipment which may need to be brought in and fitted. Also, most residences are designed as two bedroom units, providing extra space, if necessary, to accommodate a full-time carer, or to host family and friends for the night – further elevating that crucial sense of ownership among occupants.

On cultivating a sense of community, Birt comments: “What we felt was really important was the space between the buildings and those connective corridor spaces”. Audley’s original brief stipulated a library for the scheme. Instead of confining it to its own room, Redwood Hall’s library is situated in an extended part of the main balcony, a location which will attract more owners and increase circulation.

Outside, balconies and terraces promote social interaction and facilitate different ways of experiencing of the space, all the while enhancing the village feel – “it’s all about creating ways for people to interact.”

Gaunt Francis’ empathic approach to the brief is summed up by Birt: “We had to design this as a place for our parents to go and as a place that I’d like to go. It’s a quality country club – somewhere I’d be happy to stay for two weeks in May.”

A new standard

Birt’s introspection-oriented view was layered with a more extrovert, international design outlook, as driving Gaunt Francis’ design was the ethos of a care community that “does not replicate the standard institutional product that we’ve had in the past in the UK,” explains Birt. He notes also how care provision in the UK lags behind that in other countries such as in New Zealand, South Africa, and the US, where such villages are more commonplace.

There is however an increasing desire for high quality, aspirational retirement housing options in the UK, which allow older homeowners to downsize without having to compromise their quality of life. Although Audley are at the top-end of this drive, Gaunt Francis have contributed a model that raises the national bar for this typology. Birt adds: “this model could eventually permeate through so that you can have these sorts of communities at different pricing levels for everyone.”

PROJECT FACTFILE

  • Architect: Gaunt Francis Architects
  • Soft landscaping: Soltys Brewster
  • Interior design: Inside Design Co
  • Structural engineers: CSP
  • M&E: SVM