Contemporary design examples – could they help solve Brighton’s housing problems?

Contemporary design examples – could they help solve Brighton’s housing problems?
Accordia site model credit Alison Brooks Architects

Good contemporary design – four case studies

How might contemporary housing design respond to the challenge of fitting comfortably into our modern streetscapes here in Brighton & Hove?

In this article I discuss four leading case studies of well-designed contemporary housing projects.  These are:

Accordia housing in Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge (built in stages between 2005 – 2006 and 2006 – 2010).
Goldsmith Street Housing in Norwich.
Both these two have won the RIBA Stirling Prize. Both are high density but are low-rise between 2- 4 storeys high.
BedZED housing in Sutton, Surrey
Marmalade Lane Co-housing in Cambridge


The masterplan of the Accordia housing project was designed by Feilden, Clegg Bradley Studios – who are the architects for the current Brighton Dome refurbishment – in conjunction with Maccreanor Lavington Architects and Alison Brooks Architects.

The developer was Countryside Properties.









It was the first housing scheme to receive the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2008. It comprises 212 houses and 166 apartments – a total of 378 new homes – not far off what we consider would be a reasonable target for the Gasworks scheme in East Brighton.   30% was affordable housing.

Large balconies








The aim was to produce an exemplary urban environment, a desirable place to live that balances usable private space within an overall structure of high quality public space. A variety of house and apartment types in the form of terraces and courtyard houses are set within public landscaped gardens. Private open spaces in the form of courtyards, roof terraces and large balconies are integral to the scheme.

What an inspiring contrast to the depressing conglomeration of tall tower blocks proposed by the Berkeley Group for the Gasworks site.

Goldsmith Street housing Norwich (above)

This is a social housing scheme designed by Riches Hawley Mikhail for Norwich City Council. It won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2019.

Norwich City Council held an international RIBA Competition in 2008 to select architects and the right scheme for the site, which Riches Hawley Mikhail won. The original intention was to sell the site to a local housing provider and the design team to be agreed beforehand. The development had been on hold since the financial crash. However, the City decided to develop the site itself, without a housing association or development partner. With approximately 100 new homes being provided, with about 50 individual houses, and 50 flats, this represented a significant new departure for the City.

It is a highly energy efficient, high density Passivhaus design and is Low Carbon, where all houses and flats face South and achieve full ‘Passivhaus’ Certification. It is to date the largest social housing scheme in the UK to achieve Passivhaus. The design seeks to provide sunny, light filled homes with very low fuel bills of approximately £150 per year. In the main these properties will be socially rented.

It provides 105 terraced dwellings designed to be an affordable high density alternative to apartment blocks – which other unsuccessful entrants to the competition used as the model for their proposal. The architects said;

”We wanted to put back streets in an area of Norwich that had lost them. We looked at the nearby popular conservation area in Norwich, which has terraced streets 14 metres apart, significantly less than the guidelines for overlooking allow,” explained Mikhail Riches.
“By emulating this street pattern we were able to get significantly more family houses in the scheme, which matched the local housing need. Within the site boundary we were able to fit four linear east-west terraces with a combination of strategies.”






One of our committee members visited it recently. She said,

The point really is that it seems to work for its residents.  The rarity with which such modestly down to earth, yet practically elegant housing schemes are publicly recognised, might perhaps be a more damning comment on the attitudes of the architectural establishment bubble.

Considering that it would have been done to a very stringent budget, the amount of simple detail they managed to get in to break up what is essentially two rows of very plain terraced houses is pretty good.

My taxi driver knew all about it and strongly approved. I think the RIBA should be encouraged to continue doing all they can to jolt the ideas of council housing planners.”

How many taxi drivers in Brighton would know all about our (grossly overdeveloped) new housing schemes?

BedZED – Beddington Zero Carbon Energy Development (above)

The idea for BedZED was conceived in 1997.  Architect Bill Dunster and engineers Arup were looking for an opportunity to create a zero-carbon eco-village.

In 1998 the London Borough of Sutton, the site’s owner and the local planning authority, backed the idea of an exemplary, sustainable mixed-use development, more ambitious than anything previously attempted in the UK. The council agreed to sell its plot of land to Peabody at a price slightly lower than the full market value, having sought assurances that the government would have no objection. It justified this on the basis that building BedZED rather than a conventional housing estate would secure wider community benefits including reductions in climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions. Construction began in 2000.

Completed in 2002, it was the UK’s first large-scale, mixed-use sustainable community comprising 100 homes, office space, a college and community facilities.

BedZED was designed to achieve big reductions in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions and water use. The aim was to make it easy for people living there to have a greener, lower impact lifestyle, relying less on private cars and producing less waste.

BedZED retains the warmth generated by people, appliances and electronics and the sun. Its eight main accommodation blocks are solar oriented, arranged in east-west rows with double glazing covering all of the vertical south-facing (and sun-facing) facades. The southern side of these blocks are occupied by terraced homes heated mainly by the sun. Along most of these rows, the north facing side of the blocks consists of stepped terraces, descending at an angle which prevents any shading of the sun for the next row along. Even in winter, when the sun is low in the sky, it can shine on to all of the glazed facades of the adjacent row. These northern side terraces are covered by compact ‘sky gardens’ at first or second floor level, each of which belongs to a nearby home.

After it was completed in 2002, BedZED became famous for the scale of its ambition. It remains, arguably, the most ambitious attempt at all-round sustainability in a major new housing development and has attracted thousands of global visitors.


It won the Housing Design Award for sustainability from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2001 and was shortlisted for the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2003.

Marmalade Lane Housing Cambridge

This is another scheme where the Council played an important role in getting this project off the ground.

It was conceived and developed in response to the needs of residents rather than the profits of house builders, a place where land was allocated with the best long-term value in mind, rather than flogged off to the highest bidder, and where politicians’ claims of “creating communities” actually rang true.

City Councillor, Rod Cantrill said, “It’s probably the only occasion when I’ll say thank goodness for the crisis”. (2008 financial crisis)  “The developers walked away from the site, so we had the opportunity to consider an alternative path.”

“We had originally imagined a self-build project,” says Cantrill, “but the economics couldn’t work for the council, because the residents would spend all their savings on buying the land. We needed the equity to come from an established development partner.”

Following a tender process in 2014, developer Town was selected with Scandinavian eco-house builder Trivselhus and Cambridge-based architects Mole, who then worked with the residents to customise their vision for the site.

A co-housing group had formed in Cambridge around 2000, but faced the usual obstacle of finding a site. The council, meanwhile, couldn’t attract a developer for their leftover plot. With the help of community housing consultants Stephen Hill and Adam Broadway, the council took the bold step of allocating the site for co-housing, securing funding from the former Homes and Communities Agency to develop a lengthy brief with the K1 co-housing group.

As a co-housing development, Marmalade Lane aims to be a real community. – a place to know and be friends with your neighbours. And as well as being highly energy-efficient, modern homes, residents have access to extensive shared facilities and a large shared garden.

Marmalade Lane is laid out in terraces creating attractive, people-friendly streets to the front with gardens behind. Car parking is kept to the periphery and bins are kept in communal stores, conserving the outside space for people’s enjoyment.

Homes are contemporary versions of the townhouses and low-rise apartments traditional to Cambridge, and are finished in one of four brick colours with large porches, balconies and private gardens.

Lessons for Brighton & Hove

Simon Jenkins, the author and journalist (and President of Brighton’s own Regency Society), said in concluding a recent article about the Goldsmith Street housing:

The customary claim that cities need to build high to cram in more people is simply untrue. Except at Hong Kong densities, towers rarely house more people than “high-density low-rise”. London’s new council estates in the 1960 and 70s housed fewer, not more, people than what they replaced. Most of London’s highest densities remain in the Victorian seven-storey terraces of Kensington and Bayswater. But planning should never pursue density at the expense of community. Community should be the sole arbiter of urban renewal. Without it, cities default to Blade Runner.

The fashion for high-rise urban living has passed from public housing to towers of luxury flats. These are sold not to families – let alone neighbourhoods – but to transient single people and overseas investors seeking anonymous bolt-holes. Such ugly structures do nothing to house people or promote communities. They are social excrescences.”

What lessons can we learn in Brighton & Hove from these four outstanding housing schemes?

Firstly – in three of the four case studies above, the Council played a vital role in getting these projects off the ground for the benefit of its residents.

Secondly – all these schemes are relatively low rise high density housing with properly designed attractive public and private external spaces.

Thirdly – they incorporate highly sustainable and energy efficient design features which would make a major contribution to achieving the city’s zero carbon aspirations.

So the questions which have to be asked are:

  • Why isn’t Brighton & Hove Council setting its sights on achieving the high standards for its residents who desperately need truly affordable but good quality sustainable housing which meets their aspirations far better than a tiny apartment in a high-rise block of flats?
  • Is there a shortage of political will?  We have a Green-run Council – why is it not actively promoting the highest environmental standards of design and construction?
  • Why is it deliberately encouraging big development companies to take over all our potential large development sites in the city?
  • Are our elected representatives – councillors and MPs – not aware that there are better examples of high quality but affordable housing which other cities like Cambridge and Norwich have achieved?
  • Is there a shortage of talented, committed planning officers who want to see a better vision for the city than the boring uninspired tall blocks that seem to be the standard developer’s response to every development opportunity?
  • Or has the Council given up entirely on promoting its preferred planning policies because it is effectively now being run by big development companies like the Berkeley Group, holding a gun at the Council’s head – ie the threat of appeal against any planning refusal they don’t like?

If so the Council should be honest with the public who elected them and admit it.

We all deserve some answers to the questions above from the people running our city.  Or should that be “ruining”?