Magnus Andersson + Homes by Skanska Cambridge

University Challenge

It’s the city known globally for its university. Not to mention a world leading science park, hospital and biomedical industry which attract la crème de la workforce across Europe. The latest Centre for Cities report states that it has the most highly skilled workforce in the UK. It has the third fastest growing population in the country and one of the highest average earnings.

Little wonder Homes by Skanska chose Cambridge for its first UK residential development. The company launched last November at the DesignMuseum, appropriately enough. Now the show home at its Cambridge development Seven Acres has just been unveiled. Magnus Andersson is President of Skanska Residential Development UK.

“Skanska has a long tradition of Scandinavian home building,” says Magnus. “We’ve brought the best of it to the UK. High floor to ceiling heights and flexible open plan living are just some of key elements.” All the homes meet Code for Sustainable Homes 4. “One of our homes even meets Code 5!” he states. “It’s been sold already.” Rainwater harvesting and heat recycling take it to the next level.

Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman of the Home Builders Federation, approves. “If this is what Code 4 and Code 5 homes look like, we have little to fear.” Seven Acres is mercifully free of the usual unsightly environmental accretions such as wind turbines. The approach is much more design integrated. Photovoltaic panels are hidden behind low parapets on the flat roofs. Natural light permeates the top floor bathrooms through circular skylights, a clever Victorian idea recycled. Mini allotments are another sustainable feature.

Seven Acres is a mortar board’s throw away from Addenbrooke’s Hospital. A new guided bus corridor connects the two. The hospital is at the centre of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus where 200,000 sqm new laboratories are being developed.” The development forms part of the southern fringe expansion of the university city. An estimated 16,700 new homes are required.

“There is nationwide demand for 250,000 homes per annum,” reports Stewart. “The population is growing older and changing shape. Yet nowhere near enough residential development is taking place. Causes of the shortage of new homes include lack of bank credit and the planning system. Homes by Skanska is a rare new entrant to this challenging housing market.”

Toby Greenhow, Residential Development Director at Savills, knows more than most about the challenging housing market. He explains, “Any development should tick at least two out of three boxes. That’s: be a well known brand; have a recognised location; and sell a traditional product. Seven Acres had none of these!” Skanska may be an international name but hasn’t to date been associated with housebuilding in England. Up until a year ago, Seven Acres was, well, seven acres of farmland. And Formation Architects have ensured the architecture is anything but traditional.

Nonetheless the development is a commercial success. “A professor and his wife who works in academia were two of our first customers,” Magnus confirms. “It’s attracting an educated sophisticated Euro mix,” adds Toby,” and proving very popular with academics and scientists. They are very sustainability aware. It’s not a coincidence that cycling is the most popular mode of transport in Cambridge.”

The show home is an end of terrace overlooking a village green type space. It’s faced with pale grey brick reminiscent of the stone architecture forever associated with Cambridge. Homes by Skanska’s trademark full height timber bench stretches elegantly up the front wall. A garage with cycle spaces, natch, is incorporated into the building envelope.

The remainder of the ground floor is occupied on either side of the staircase by a downstairs loo to the front and the combined kitchen and dining area to the rear. Airiness and spaciousness pervade. Spare Scandinavian elegance. Where’s the clutter? It’s not just show home tidiness – storage spaces abound. A door sliding into the thickness of the wall allows for a flow of light and circulation from the glazed entrance door to the patio doors and to the garden beyond.

A dual aspect sitting room is located above the garage. A sweep of terrace embraces the full width of the house. Two spacious bedrooms including one en suite are also located on the first floor. The attention to detail is unmissable, from clever lighting insets to an intelligently placed window strip positioned to allow direct views from the bed on lazy Sunday mornings. Full height windows, 2.9m tall, meet eco credentials as they are triple glazed. Two more bedrooms are on the top floor. The landing opens onto another expanse of terrace over the sitting room.

Homes by Skanska are willing to invest in research and development,” believes Stewart. “They are pioneers, not followers. No doubt by 2016 when the Government’s mandatory low carbon agenda kicks in they will be even further ahead of the game.” Academic par excellence Stephen Hawking believes intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. In that case, the future looks bright for Homes by Skanska.

Country Houses

Eltham Palace London + English Heritage

Style Collision1 Eltham Palace ©

Some buildings are so ugly they are just asking to be covered by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the artists who wrapped the Reichstag a while back). With others, it’s down to a matter of personal taste. Take Tate Modern‘s plans for an extension designed by Herzog + de Meuron, the team that conjured up the original gallery from a former power station. The gallery’s monumental success wasn’t planned for and the new extension would offer much needed space to breathe.

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But the 11 storey ‘ziggurat’ as everyone’s calling it, would apparently ruin views that no one gave a toss about until the Tate Modern came along. It may be that some of the sniping is part of the backlash against the grandiose projects of the ‘starchitects’. The furore is enough to make the 1960s controversy over Francis Pym’s bold and brilliant Brutalist extension to the Ulster Museum look mild. Recently, plans to enlarge this 20th century modernist wing caused a stir. Not to mention painting the concrete ground floor wall white. Sacrilege.

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When it comes to houses, things get even worse. They are not so much castles as minefields. We left the caves for our first built homes about 11,000 years ago yet there still is no general consensus on domestic architecture. Flaubert said all architects are imbeciles because they are always putting stairs in the wrong place.

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In the 1930s Eltham Palace attracted lots of architectural criticism. Initially, Seely + Paget’s proposal for resurrecting the ruinous medieval royal palace was welcomed as a means of halting the creeping suburbanisation of southeast London. There was, of course, inevitable debate surrounding the propriety of building on an ancient monument. But it was the design of the Courtaulds’ new house that polarised opinion.

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A leading article in Architect and Building News was headed ‘Romance dies at Eltham’. The architect Herbert Baker was critical; the artist Gilbert Ledward countered, pointing out that at Soane’s Bank of England building Baker had destroyed ‘really beautiful work, while at Eltham everything of historic interest and beauty had been saved’.

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More criticism came from the historian G Young who moaned in The Times, “In order to provide the tenant with a modern mansion, three distinguished architects [Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments Charles Peers acted as a consultant for Seely + Paget] united their talents and intelligence to destroy one of the most beautiful things remaining in the neighbourhood of London… The other day I found myself confronted with what at first I took to be an admirably designed but unfortunately sited cigarette factory.”

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We chatted to Jon Wight, caseworker for The Twentieth Century Society, about changing taste in architecture and how to sway it. “The Society was founded in 1979 as The Thirties Society and indeed Art Deco buildings were one of its first major concerns, alongside other buildings from the Modern Movement. In many ways that battle has been won. We became The Twentieth Century out of necessity to try and give weight to buildings from later periods.”

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“We strive to inform, educate and promote 20th century architecture to the public wherever possible,” says Jon. “There are other reasons why the Society has registered as shift in public perception. Most obviously, the older a building or style is, the easier it is to assess. We’re now reaching a stage where post war buildings are being looked at and considered in a way they’ve not been before.”

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“There are many styles of architecture that are not seen as important at the time of construction, but which subsequently become revered,” he continues. “The Society strives to judge buildings on merit, through the medium of casework. We are concerned as much with the re-appropriation and re-use of buildings as with the straightforward conservation of them.” As a result, some structures are now getting the plaudits they deserve.

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“Eltham Palace is an interesting example of two seemingly disparate styles in some degree of harmony with one another,” enthuses Jon. “Seely + Paget were well known for their mastery of styles. Indeed, they designed many ecclesiastical buildings which melded modern styles with more traditional church architecture. It’s a building that illustrates that if we are to judge architecture as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it shouldn’t be a stylistic decision. ElthamPalace is a hybrid. It proves how careful consideration of existing fabrics and sympathetic planning can result in noteworthy architecture, whatever the style.” Screw G Young, then.

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London has no Hamptons or Punta del Este. Instead, the Courtauld family created their own slice of upscale nirvana, a totemic presence in a sensitive setting. It’s a landlocked Queen Mary liner. But from the Louise Brooks bowl haircut-dome in the entrance hall onwards, the cutting edge design and bespoke craftsmanship of Eltham Palace has enough wit to charm. Much of the décor was by Rolf Engstromer, the David Collins of his day. This fertile profusion of Art Deco, Moderne and vintage Venetian draws a parallel with the mélange of styles around today.

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‘Good & Bad Manners in Architecture’ by Trystan Edwards was a pocket-sized book published in 1924, a decade before Eltham Palace was completed. The author writes, “This book asks the novel question, how do buildings behave towards one another? It contrasts the selfish building, the presumptuous building and the rude building with the polite and sociable building; and it invites the public to act as arbiter upon their conflicting claims.” But taste evolves. While yesterday, Eltham Palace was viewed as an unwelcome aberration, today it’s a respected poster child for the Jazz Age.”

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