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Home Run

Adelaide Court

Sergison Bates, Adelaide Court, Broadway Estate, Tilbury, Thurrock, Essex, 2003
The materials chosen for the front of the courtyard area have matured well and
therefore highlight a level of detailing and care missing in the newer infill blocks
erected without the input of Sergison Bates.

A modest housing block for a run-down estate in Essex presented London-based Sergison
Bates Architects with the opportunity to explore the cohesive effects of an assisted selfbuild scheme for a group of young tenants. Bruce Stewart describes the practices
strategic thinking behind the project and how the design intentions were, to some extent,
frustrated by external forces.

The Broadway Estate in Tilbury, near


Thurrock, Essex, is typical of many
council housing estates built by local
authorities during the 1960s and 1970s.
Consisting of largely two-storey, flatroofed terraces of family homes placed
around a large, open, green space, the
estate is bounded on its northern edge
by three medium-rise tower blocks. As is
the case with very many of these largescale, postwar housing developments,
time has not been kind to the Broadway
Estate, and the initial street layout has
proven to be less than successful. The
Modernist ideas of space and light,
thought to be the saviour of mass

housing, have been shoddily


implemented and have led to the
abandonment of the public spaces, such
as the large green and the wide
footpaths and alleys, and to residents
feeling no sense of ownership.
Alongside the failure of the design of
the estate is the again very familiar tale
of increasing unemployment and
benefit dependency.
It was within this rather inhospitable
environment that architectural firm
Sergison Bates was asked to provide a
small intervention that would
transform a particularly tricky plot into
a safer, better-loved space. A young firm

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founded in 1996, Sergison Bates has


won several awards for its work. A keen
interest in the quality of the spaces it
designs is matched by a thorough and
innovative interest in the nature of the
materials used. The range of scale of the
practices projects from modest singlefamily dwellings to large-scale urban
planning solutions is always
approached with care and sensitivity for
the end user and the environment in
which the architects find themselves.
The site within the estate was a small
area that, due to the layout of the
surrounding streets, was well hidden
from outside observers and as such was

From the upper-level access of the 2003 building, views out across the industrial landscape that
surrounds the estate are quite striking. The wooden cladding of this elevation has matured well, as has a
sparse amount of planting. It can only be hoped that the newer blocks, one of which can be seen here in
the near background, will mature as well.

a prime area for drug taking and


underage drinking. Working with the
New Islington and Hackney, and the
New Essex, housing associations (now
known as Mosaic Housing), the scheme
was the first phase of a larger
regeneration programme envisaged for
the community. After discussions with
the agencies involved, and as part of the
New Deal for Communities initiative,
it was thought most appropriate that
the scheme should focus on the very
disenfranchised youth of the estate for
whom there were little or no amenities
or targeted housing units a deficiency
that was leading to a migration of the
young out of the area.
Once the end users had been
identified it was then a natural
progression for the architects to
consider how the process of
architecture could further help the
targeted group and give them skills and,
hopefully, the confidence to try to break
free from the despondency that being
young and unemployed can create. The
scheme was therefore designed around
the idea of the prospective residents

being heavily involved in the


construction of the new flats a process
known as assisted self-build alongside
attendance at a local community college
to gain skills and qualifications. In order
to keep their benefits, those who signed
up had to commit to attending college
and to working alongside the main
contractor on the building of the flats.
It was the hope of both the
architects and the housing associations
that allowing the residents to
physically contribute to the creation of
their own homes would encourage a
sense of pride, independence and
community. But the process was
difficult. Of the original 12 people who
agreed to help build the scheme, only
four managed to complete the project.
Several fell by the wayside, due to the
realisation that, in order to end up
with their own new flat, a great deal of
hard work was needed not only in the
relative comfort of a college classroom,
but also in the much more
uncomfortable conditions of a building
site in winter. Others left the scheme
because they had found full-time

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employment or, in one or two cases,


because they were sent to prison.
Although this was the first plot that
Sergison Bates was asked to look at, two
further plots within the estate were
brought on board. Though in the end
these were developed by other agencies,
at the outset they helped form the
strategic thinking of the Sergison Bates
scheme. The inclusion of more
buildings, and the fact that there was to
be a large element of unskilled labour
(the new residents), dictated the
construction technology for the site.
The choice of prefabricated panels
within a frame structure was greatly
influenced by the increased number of
buildings, creating an economy of scale
particularly suited to an assisted selfbuild project. The size of the plot was
such that, in order to maximise its
potential, two levels of small units
would be provided with a courtyard
space for the tenants to inhabit and
develop. Although the existing buildings
surrounding the site are of very little
architectural merit, the planning
requirements of the local authority
meant the existing height and building
lines had to be replicated in the new
building, it effectively becoming the
termination of an existing terrace.
While the planners had imposed
constraints on height and so on, the
choice of a timber-framed structure
allowed the architects to engage with
the materials that would define the
nature of the building. It is one of the
practices primary philosophical goals to
handle materials with clarity and rigour
alongside well thought out construction
processes. The orientation of the westfacing site, along with the interest in
materials, defined the site layout, the
new building lying on the eastern edge
in order to leave space for the
courtyard. The basic structure of the
new building is a stiff box, slightly
raised from ground level, with piles
rather than traditional foundations due
to the very marshy nature of the area.
The western face of the building was
then formed from a wood-clad veranda
that shelters the entrances to the
individual flats, with the vertical

The new block on Adelaide Road has been shoehorned into a small space
overlooking one of the unloved public green spaces that are scattered
throughout the estate. The echoes of Adelaide Court are clear, but care in the
site planning is missing, with the stairs to the upper level abutting a harsh
metal fence.

circulation attached to the front of it.


The overhanging roof provides some
weather screening. The remaining three
sides of the building were then clad in
an unfinished cement weatherboard.
This was originally left untreated to
provide a strong identity for the new
intervention a positive visual
reminder that change can be for the
better. The slight differences in colour
and how the board would weather were
also intended to add to this identity.

While the new blocks, which were taken to planning approval stage by
Sergison Bates but then handed over to other agencies, have traces of the
original seen in the background they lack its detailing and attention to
materials. Lights and television aerials are rather thoughtlessly tacked on.

The fact that the two extra plots were


not in the end part of Sergison Bates
project drastically reduced the viability
of having a completely prefabricated
system, and partially prefabricated
panels that had then to be finished on
site were used instead. This shift from
the original plan had several knock-on
effects, adding to the cost of the
building and reducing its thermal
integrity. And changes due to the
differing perspectives of the housing

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association client and the designers also


altered the internal layout of the units.
Initially, Sergison Bates had wanted to
leave the internal space free of
partitioning to create a loft-like space
that the new residents could adapt and
use according to their individual needs.
However, the client disagreed on the
grounds that since the tenure of the
units was to be 100 per cent rental, it
was likely that the original occupants
would move on, and thus a more
traditional plan layout with separate
kitchen and bedroom spaces was
preferred a pity, as the opportunity for
young people to experiment with
domestic space has been lost to the
pragmatics of what a landlord thinks is
easiest for itself.
It was hoped that the creation of the
courtyard would enable the young
residents to take ownership of the
external element of the site and,
through doing so, create a small
community. Unfortunately, this has not
been as successful as hoped for, due in
part to the lack of money to plant the
space in such a way as to encourage its
use. In addition, the insertion of the
new housing block, which is gated to
prevent casual passers-by using what is
to all intents and purposes a private
courtyard space, has meant the removal
of a short cut through the site, from the

The original finish to the building was unpainted grey cement board, with
individual variations that would have become more explicit with weathering.
The housing association has taken the unfortunate decision to paint over this
boarding, not only adding to the maintenance costs of the building, but actually
making it stand out from its neighbours more than was previously the case.

estate to the nearby mainline railway


station. Many of the residents have
taken exception to this and vandalised
the gates and fences.
And in another move, which could
almost be an act of vandalism also, the
landlords have painted over the exposed
cement weatherboarding that clad the
back and sides of the building,
removing the individuality of the
project and leaving an anonymous
magnolia block, while also adding to the

The assisted self-build scheme of 2003 was to help young people into their
first homes. The scheme was 100 per cent rental with no equity for the
residents. Having gained planning approval for the remaining sites, the enduser base has changed, along with the quality. These units are now being
presented as a shared-ownership scheme by the housing association.

maintenance costs for the building.


Nevertheless, Adelaide Court is a
very attractive and well-designed
project that has tried to engage with
how architecture and construction can
help to mend fractured communities.
Had Sergison Bates developed the other
two plots alongside it, the benefit for
the estate would have been much more
apparent. Though these sites were
investigated by the architects and
taken to planning approval stage, they

were given to other agencies to develop


and are currently being completed.
Almost three years after the
completion of the initial project, in
2003, it is sad to say that, while the
original building by Sergison Bates has
been used as a template for the new
infill buildings, they are very poor
imitations. Whilst Adelaide Court dealt
with ideas of densification and the
sensitive handling of materials, the
new dwellings have been poorly
detailed and their positioning on the
sites available to them is awkward to
say the least. The increased availability
of affordable housing is, of course,
something to be welcomed, especially
in run-down and neglected areas such
as the Broadway Estate, but it is a great
shame that such a good model should
be undermined by a lack of sensitivity.
Here, the ideas explored by Sergison
Bates have been misinterpreted at best,
and ignored at worst. 4
Bruce Stewart is currently researching and writing
The Architects Navigation Guide to New Housing,
to be published in early 2007 by Wiley-Academy.
He trained as an architect and is currently a
college teacher at the Bartlett School of
Architecture, UCL London.

Text 2006 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


Images Jonny Muirhead

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