Jack Wooler spoke to the architect of an innovative and sensitive housing project for a mix of visually impaired and open market residents, achieved on a challenging site in Surrey
Work is now underway at the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s (RNIB) Redhill site in Surrey, a unique joint venture with developer Countryside to provide 102 dwellings for both the blind and the partially sighted, as well as open market residents. Designed by Gardner Stewart Architects, the 6 hectare project is to host a mixture of 19 apartments and six houses specifically designed for RNIB residents with differing needs, alongside a host of contemporary new market homes and a community hub. Sitting in the Greensand Valley, the site has accommodated charitable services for almost 200 years, being previously owned by the Royal Philanthropic Society, and once hosting a school and a young offenders institute.
The RNIB has owned and run the site for a number of years, using the land and buildings as a residential college for blind and partially sighted students from the mid-80s onwards. This range of prior uses meant that the existing buildings were never really fit for purpose, and as such, the service the RNIB could offer there was gradually dwindling. The charity didn’t have the funds to make the changes necessary to these old and dilapidated buildings, so in order to ensure it retained its presence in Redhill, it started looking for a partner that would build enabling development. This was to be Countryside Properties, who would then cross-fund the developments of the RNIB’s residential accommodation.
Though the scheme had an initial level of support from the local councils in principle, gaining planning for the scheme was not altogether an easy process. The project being part of the Green Belt was no small part of this, and the fact the location spans two council districts, Reigate and Banstead, and Tandridge District Council, provided further challenges. “It was quite a long process,” says Manoher Matharu, director at Gardner Stewart Architects, “in order to get to a level of development that the local authorities were happy with in terms of the balance of harm on the green belt, but I think we ended up with a good result for everybody.” “The councils took into account the fact that it is very much a landscape-led development, within the Green Belt limits in terms of its design and layout, while meeting Countryside and RNIB’s requirements in terms of the quantum and size of development that was necessary.” The local community was reportedly equally satisfied with the plans, following public consultations held early on in the process.
The vast majority agreed that space was previously inaccessible, whereas the new development will provide a landscaped trail “that people can actually walk through and experience.” Having two councils to deal with inevitably presented challenges to gaining a consensus, with two applications to submit, two sets of committee members to please, and so on. “The project did of course go through however,” adds Manoher. The only buildings that have remained in the masterplan are a Grade II listed farmhouse structure called Tudor House – which was the main building from the early days of the site – and an outbuilding once called the Garden Cottage. Now, the Tudor House building has been designated as the “community hub,” which will include offices for the RNIB and a multipurpose meeting space for residents to host functions and gatherings, and the cottage is being extended into one of the RNIB shared houses.
Integrating the RNIB
In part because the RNIB were setting the agenda from the beginning of the development process, as Manoher puts it, “It’s not necessarily a typical housing project.” He continues: “It was very much a case of, okay, we want to create an integrated community here where residents, be they blind or partially sighted, or open market residents just buying a house, will live side by side.” As such, the RNIB and open market residents’ dwellings are not separated in terms of their location. The RNIB residents are instead spread across the site based on their needs, with the intention of allowing them to live as independently as possible, but with access to help from the hub as and when they need it. The residents that are deemed more independent will live in the set of RNIB apartments, though they will still have help just a phone call away if necessary. Those who need more support will reside in the RNIB shared houses, which will have a regular member of staff on hand. The location of these dwellings on the site also represent the users’ needs – the further they are from the hub, the more independently they are deemed to be able to live. Those that need more support for example will be in closer proximity to the Tudor House building.
Level changes & zones
Making things more challenging, these homes are spread across a steeply sloping site, with a 21 metre change in level from the north side to the south side – equivalent to around seven storeys. The design of all the homes and their placement responds directly to this steep topography. The homes are clustered into different areas from top to bottom. The development of these diverse zones, each with its own character, was partly driven by the idea that the development goes from the more populated town end on the western edge of the site, and the rural countryside in the east, which is reflected in the design of the buildings.
These zones were dictated somewhat by the topography, as Manoher explains: “We were very much looking for clues within how the site itself worked, in order to set out what these character areas should be, and then the design of the building typologies themselves were adapted to suit the local conditions in terms of levels.” Manifesting this, there are a number of dwellings in the scheme that either step up or down the hill, taking up the level changes within the buildings themselves. In doing so, the public realm will remain fully accessible. Achieving this of course has involved a lot of earthworks and retaining walls. The material palette of the buildings are another factor that helps to create a sense of zoning. The Tudor House for example is a red brick structure with pitched roofs, and so the buildings in that location have been specified to reflect that character of building and materiality, while in other areas, the materiality changes to suit the given location.
“As you move down towards what we call The Oaks, we’ve got a number of contemporary flat roofed houses, and then up on what we termed Hawthorn Hill in the eastern quarter – which is the first phase of the development – is more of a rural aesthetic with slate tile hanging and pitched roofs again,” explains the architect. The landscaping changes as befits the different zones too. As residents and passers by move through the different zones, they will experience varied planting and treatments to signify a certain area. Not only for aesthetic reasons, the architects have used landscaping to design what they call a “sensory trail,” which runs east-west across the development. This is essentially a pedestrianised footpath, but one that has been designed with various changes in texture and planting so that, as residents pass through the site, they are made aware of where they are via different sensory clues. Further to this, there are also some physical features that add to this sense of place. These include a sensory garden in the south east of the site, and the Chapel Gateway, a retained part of a chapel bombed during the Second World War. “We’ve kept that as part of the landscape treatment within the site,” explains the architect, “so it becomes a navigational wayfinder as you move through.”
Sensitive, but inclusive
The architects have included many more design considerations for the RNIB residents to add to the sensory trail, following what Manoher says are “best practice principles for the blind and the partially sighted.”
“One of the key things is maximising natural daylight,” he continues, explaining what may seem a counter-intuitive idea. “Good lighting is really important for people that have issues with visual impairment, because actually a fairly small percentage of the registered blind population in the UK are totally blind – the majority have some degree of vision, ranging from moderate to severely restricted.” Manoher says clear and logical layouts were another key consideration. “So, thinking about orthogonal plan forms where, if for example someone is having to pace out a route through a building, they can do it very much in a way that’s quite simple. “This means making clear right turns here and there, and having a linear distance between one point and another that can be counted in steps – then residents can create a mental map of the space more easily.”
Both the practice and the RNIB were clear in that, in the process of making them safe and accessible, the homes would not be made to feel “institutionalised”. One example of a way in which they achieved this was by employing colour contrasts. For the partially sighted, it is hugely beneficial that adjacent elements of a property, such as the door relative to a wall around it, be of sufficiently contrasting colours so that they can be seen more easily. The designers followed best practice of a 30 point difference in LRV – light reflectance value – between colours specified for adjacent elements. In a more institutionalised environment, this may be achieved using contrasting colours but, as Manoher reveals, employing tonal contrast can be a more appropriate route. “You may go into an old RNIB building and see that there are lots of blue doors and yellow handrails everywhere, and that’s because those colours contrast quite well, and they also tonally contrast quite well. “However, you can achieve the same effect using a dark grey and a light grey, which can have the same level of tonal contrast as blue and yellow. This provides more of a refined feel to a scheme, and doesn’t rely on these primary colours that can make it look institutional.”
Anything but simple
There have already been some significant challenges for the practice to overcome in the project, beyond just the difficulties of planning and upgrading existing buildings. One interesting challenge during the early stages of development was how to present the scheme to the RNIB’s residents and board members. “Ordinarily we rely heavily on drawings and diagrams to describe our designs. In this case we were encouraged to use very descriptive language and assume that the audience could not see what we were talking about,” says the project architect. “For example, whenever we talked about the site, we talked about the fact that it’s the shape of the side of a foot, and we tried to describe different features in a way that someone can create a mental picture in their mind.”
The vital process of viability assessment was another challenge, having to ensure, for the client Countryside and RNIB that the business case for the scheme was viable. This included consideration of how the scheme would operate once complete. As Manoher puts it: “You have to make sure that you keep the balance – this is not just a charitable venture, it has got to stand up financially.” With these challenges now overcome however, the scheme is already shaping up to be a desirable community for both the RNIB residents and those buying in the open market. For the RNIB residents especially, the architects appear to have put a considerable amount of thought into the designs. “It’s about trying to make sure that it is sensitive, but that it’s not going over the top and making it feel institutional,” says Gardner Stewart’s Manoher Matharu. He concluded: “Our aim is to create a stimulating sensory environment for all residents. At the end of the day people are going to live here – it’s got to feel like home.”