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An extra care scheme in Camden designed to offer extra connections to the community evolved to include younger residents, in efficiently-designed flats with the focus on wellness and sustainability. James Parker speaks to PRP Architects about the approach they took to the project

Charlie Ratchford Court is a development of 38 ‘extra care’ apartments in Camden, north London, in a six-storey block designed to not only provide high quality living spaces for older people, but also a series of facilities to be shared with the local community.

The project was initially envisioned by Camden Council to provide purpose-built accessible apartments with a strong sense of connection to their surroundings, to help them feel in touch with the outside world. Part of this would be bringing in the local community to allow residents to interact with people of all ages. It represents something of a rarity among extra care schemes, plus something of a ‘curveball’ for the architects, PRP, in that the extra-care accommodation itself would in the event be used to house younger residents.

The council’s brief included an ‘intergenerational hub’ with community facilities on the ground floor which would encourage residents to socialise and interact, to combat isolation in older age. As well as helping to maintain the independence of residents, this forges a connection between the building and the wider community.

The 38 flats (comprising 32 one beds and six two beds), are accompanied by similarly “accessible and adaptable” facilities, including indoor and outdoor communal spaces, a health & wellbeing suite, and a guest suite for families. The communal aspects support the architects’ goal of creating a project that avoids the stigmas of traditional accommodation for older people.

Site & procurement

The site was a prime vacant location, close to Chalk Farm station, a relatively well-heeled area of Camden, with a host of amenities nearby. As Clare Cameron tells ADF, the site is “embedded in a residential area,” giving a solid opportunity to connect to the community. It is a locally significant scheme, the site having been derelict for many years. Community facilities would be accommodated on the ground floor of the new building, with extra care housing above; the site of the former Charlie Ratchford Day Centre opposite being sold for private housing to fund the scheme.

PRP first became involved around a decade ago, when the council, which owned the “very challenging, long and thin” site, were seeking a housing association to develop it in partnership, and PRP bid for the job. In the end, the council decided to develop the site by itself, and staged a design competition. As the winning practice, PRP were careful to involve the community and input their views as the design progressed. The project backs onto Haverstock School, prompting warnings about potential noise for residents, however the architects “actually saw it as a positive; hearing children is a welcome sound of local activity.”

Traditional later living design best practice normally includes a large, enclosed garden. Here, due to the site’s narrowness, a slightly different approach was needed – with further constraints being the number of apartments required on the plot and it being cheek by jowl with other buildings. However, says Cameron, “what’s really good about the site” is how it is aligned north-south along the road, giving ideal east-west orientation for the apartments.” They are dual aspect, with the front door to the west, and generous private amenity space in the form of balconies with winter gardens to the east.

A broader focus

The explicitly intergenerational aspect of the scheme emerged a couple of years after the project’s inception, says Cameron, with a shift in the brief to housing younger occupants as well as older people. It was something of a surprise for the architects, and a requirement that grew out of the original brief for extra care housing – with community facilities and day care centre on the ground floor, and apartments above. She says that the robustness of the original design was evidenced by how suitable the apartments were. “Nothing needed to be changed, due to the apartments’ flexible design,” which was one key tenet of the “very clear brief” from the client.

Again following the original brief, a series of activity spaces are distributed on the ground floor, for functions such as yoga classes and coffee mornings, and a large commercially-operated cafe provides meals for local people as well as residents. This was “always going to bring an intergenerational use to the ground floor,” says Cameron, adding that “from the outset” the client welcomed the chance to “invite the wider community into the building.”

Wellbeing to the fore

The highly influential 2009 HAPPI Report (compiled by the Housing Our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation), which included a former PRP director) was a key driver for the client and designers. Recommendations from the report were included in this project, such as generous space standards, lots of storage, open plan layouts, and maximised levels of natural light. The report’s launch was timely, and clients “really woke up and listened,” says Cameron; “the quality of housing for older people has improved so much as a result.”

PRP, who specialise in the later living sector, put the health and wellbeing of residents at the centre of their design, and brought all of the HAPPI recommendations into its competition entry. The circulation is provided by open galleries, connecting two stair cores, which provides the apartments with both copious natural light and cross ventilation. The galleries give residents good views of their surroundings, increasing their feeling of connectedness, which is further boosted by being able to hear what is going on outside. To avoid excessive disruption from the schoolchildren in the playing field next door however, the living spaces with their balconies face onto the street side.

Cameron explains some of the benefits of the galleried access: “Rather than have an overheated, stale corridor, the galleries are open to the elements,” with glazed screens giving views to the adjacent school. She adds: “That connection to the community is really important for someone that probably once lived in the area.” The galleries become “balconies in themselves” in the evenings, capturing the sunset.

Having open galleries, as well as giving the feeling of a street rather than a corridor, also allows the straightforwardly stacked, identical apartments, to have a ‘real front door.’ The abundance of fresh air as well as the ability too purge the dual aspect apartments via cross-ventilation also assists infection control, which is a key concern post-pandemic.

The private balconies to the east and south elevations are screened from the elements and other users, provide residents with the opportunity of outside space to enjoy. Most have sliding glazed screens, which close to provide winter gardens offering wide views of Camden. Existing silver birch trees have been retained, and form the focus of the new, largely paved residents’ garden to the south.

Another aspect of connectedness that the design delivers – benefitting residents but also staff – are the kitchen windows to apartments which overlook the circulation galleries and the school playing field. Cameron explains that they allow residents to see their neighbours, but also allow staff to “discreetly monitor, for example when someone has their light on in the middle of the night.”

There are a range of communal spaces on the ground floor, including a dedicated residents’ lounge with its own garden and a small tea bar. Cameron says that during a visit by judges of a London housing award, a young resident with learning difficulties told the project team that he had newfound confidence to engage in group activities – partly thanks to the staff encouraging him to use the lounge. Close to this area are a cinema room, therapy room, hair salon, and cafe, all of which can be used by the community. Although there’s a single front door, there are also gates to the street to allow the public in, such as for events, while ensuring security for all residents inside.

An important aspect of choice is bestowed on users by the design, in terms of supporting their desire to interact with others, or not. They can remain in their own apartment and private terrace/winter-garden, or use the communal spaces and gardens for more social interaction.

Accessible accommodation

The building was designed by PRP to enable older residents to stay as independent as possible for as long as possible, and incorporates what the practice has learnt over many years of designing projects with a similar goal.

Discrete features allow space for aids, adaptations and barrier free design for wheelchairs, and all areas of the apartments and circulation are generously sized to allow walking aids and wheelchair access. Lifts are designed to allow access for mobility scooters. “We have done everything we can to ensure the whole building is barrier-free,” says Cameron.
At the same time, the balcony screens can be locked to ensure safety if a risk assessment deems that the use of an open balcony is not appropriate. As well as space for wheelchairs, kitchens have reinforced sinks/basins and eye-level ovens.

Wayfinding is assisted through views out to the surrounding area, maximum natural light and the use of different, bold colours for each stairwell. Having designed a building that is “accessible for everybody,” the architect says that there was no physical reason that someone of a different age couldn’t be housed in the spaces. This meant that they needed no adaptation for the younger residents with learning disabilities to be able to use them.

Elevations

The building’s form ties in with its neighbours in both scale and materials. Facades have been designed to offer the best of both worlds, being both “contemporary, while respectful of the historic context, and in keeping with Camden housing typologies.” Victorian townhouses surround the site; in particular an adjacent terrace of locally listed houses provided inspiration. The arrangement of windows on the new building has been carefully chosen to help tie in with the proportions of these houses; at the same time the balconies (when their screens are open) offer depth to the south facade facing the road.

Elevational studies carried out by the architects led them to use reconstituted stone panels for the base to emulate the stone of the adjacent buildings, as well as a London stock brick on the stories above. The council’s ‘Urban Designer’ told the architects, “you don’t need to be slavish, just pick up the key qualities,” which was a boon to the designers, who wanted facades which “fit in with the grain,” but weren’t a pastiche of the local listed buildings. Alongside this however, Clare says that a lot of the local residents were “active during the consultation, and worried about what was coming, and PRP wanted to be as sensitive as we possibly could.” The sixth storey is set back in a grey clad form which refers to nearby slate roofs. Cameron pays tribute to Design and Build contractor Vistry for the work they did to achieve a precise finish on the building.

Sustainability

The project has achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating, a result of a combination of passive design measures, renewable energies and low carbon technologies. Cameron says that when designing to HAPPI standards, it’s “actually quite easy to get to BREEAM Excellent,” as the need for cooling is reduced, with circulation spaces that are airy and pleasant without a need for heating.

The balconies, whether screened or not enable solar gain, to reduce energy demand, and warm the whole living space. Their deep, recessed design provides shading to avoid overheating, plus year-round usability. There’s no car parking on the site, and the roof is covered in PVs. Lastly, an MVHR system provides an efficient source of heating the apartments and ground floor communal spaces. The community cafe is naturally ventilated via doors to the front garden and to a rear courtyard, allowing quick cross-ventilation for events held here. These also benefit from protected external space thanks to overhangs from the galleried access above, which run across the whole north elevation.

The architects will be revisiting the scheme as part of their focus on post-occupancy evaluation in later living schemes, so will be finding out how efficiently the building performs in use.

Conclusion

Intergenerational housing has become “very much the buzzword at the moment,” says the project’s architect, “as people realise the benefits.” However she asserts that Charlie Ratchford Court is a rare example of a local authority which is actually delivering it, saying it’s “testament to Camden Council that they have been able to actually make it come about.”

Cameron adds that another thing that marks the council out as a client is how proactive they were on “ensuring good quality design,” and that they supported the design quality on the project “every step of the way, from the concept to delivery.” This meant that any cost-savings suggested during the Design and Build process were robustly investigated to ensure value for money. This projection of the original design was one crucial aspect that contributed to the project’s overall success.

As the architect says, many older people might prefer to stay at home in their later years. However, as our population ages, many will also be keen to be in a specialist building such as this, with staff on hand to support and care for them when needed. It is increasingly important therefore for residents’ wellness that their buildings are carefully designed to keep people connected to the outside world.

Project Factfile

  • Date of completion: April 2021
  • Tenure: 100% Affordable Rent
  • Total number of homes: 38 
  • Site size (hectares): 0.16 ha
  • Size of principal unit: 57 m2
  • Smallest unit: 55 m2
  • Largest unit: 74 m2
  • Architect: PRP
  • Developer: London Borough of Camden
  • Contractor: Vistry Partnership
  • Planning authority: London Borough of Camden
  • Planning consultant: PRP