Social housing gets stylish: Anglo-American architects Munkenbeck and Marshall redefine London living.

How on earth does anyone get on the housing ladder in London these days – particularly the people we need to have living among us such as doctors, nurses, teachers? You can find one very elegant answer to this conundrum near Old Street on the City/Hoxton fringes. There, the highly-regarded Peabody Trust has built an exemplary apartment complex aimed at – well, everyone, really.

At first glance Nile Street, as it is known, looks like a super-luxury development. It aims high. It is clad in copper and timber, and set around a Zen-like courtyard with a sculptural trickling water feature. It has a big, exhilarating communal roof terrace which is going to be just great for parties. Many of the flats have spacious balconies – rectangular along one side of the building, spikily triangular on another. Taking its cue from the name of its street, there is a running motif of Egyptian hieroglyphs to be found, either etched into the glass of the entrance foyers or laser-cut out of stainless-steel railings. Oh yes, it’s all very upmarket. But the clever thing is, it is actually designed for all markets.

The architects for Nile Street are the Anglo-American practice Munkenbeck and Marshall. In Britain they are known for their glamorous private houses and developments such as the Gainsborough Studios apartments in Hackney, East London, or a cluster of residential towers at the huge Paddington redevelopment out west. In the States they were responsible for the initial competition-winning design for the forthcoming Grand Rapids art museum, now in the hands of others.

At Nile Street, sculptor Tony Donaldson was also much involved. Here, though, they had a different challenge: to work for a famous social landlord. Peabody Trust was set up over a century ago to provide charitable housing for Victorian artisans and clerks in London. It’s big: today it runs some 20,000 homes for 50,000 people. In recent years it has had a new lease of life as an innovator in new affordable housing. Nile Street is, for a while, the last of these bold experiments as the Trust turns instead to refurbishing its existing stock. But it has set a real example for others to follow.

It’s all in the mix. Nile Street contains 175 homes, of which 128 count as “affordable”. There are three kinds of those: rented “key worker” studios and flats, with weekly rentals starting at £70, aimed at the medics from the nearby Moorfields Eye hospital; bigger “affordable rent” flats for Peabody’s own tenants which range from £62 for a two-person one-bedroom flat to £86 a week for a three-bedroom family flat; and a tranche of shared-ownership one-bedroom flats where you take out a mortgage for some of the value and pay a subsidised rent on the rest.

At Nile Street it works like this. You buy a 35 per cent share of a flat valued at £193,000. Your mortgage payment on that portion is £430 a month, while your rent and service charge on the remaining 65 per cent is £360: so total monthly outgoings are £790. Usually a couple buys into a flat in this way, dividing the costs between them. The bottom line is that – if you have no savings – a couple needs a joint income of £35,600 in order to buy into a shared ownership flat of this kind. If property values rise you are free to sell out your share and take the profit, but you have to give first refusal to someone approved by Peabody who also needs to get on the housing ladder.

It might not seem cheap, but this is London: Peabody had to fight off conventional developers and spend £4.4m just buying the land, before spending another £17.1 million on building. Not surprisingly, it is a high-density scheme, but one that is much more attractive and intelligently thought-through than most developers’ offerings. There was a youth club on the site, for instance, which is now part of the scheme, complete with ball court and toddler’s playground. But you wouldn’t necessarily even know it was there unless someone pointed it out. It’s just been effortlessly absorbed.

You don’t get private gardens but you don’t notice the lack of them. The ground level courtyard is a quiet, contemplative space, for looking at rather than traipsing through. Architect Steve Marshall explains how they have designed a way of living in the sky instead. “If you want to get out into the fresh air, go up to the top,” he says. There you find congenial timber benches and planters. Or you could use the balconies hung out over the pavements, which are big enough to be useful as outdoor rooms. The triangular ones are particularly good because they allow more daylight into the flats below them.

The bad news is that all the rented and shared ownership flats at Nile Street were snapped up long ago by people on waiting lists. The good news, for those who have the money, is that Peabody has also become a private developer in order to cross-subsidise them. Part of the mix is a set of private-sale apartments, one and two-bedroom, costing between £235,000 and £490,000. There are a few of the costlier two-bedroom ones still available. True to its principles, Peabody has politely turned away bulk-buy investors seeking discounts. It doesn’t forbid individual buy-to-let purchasers, but it makes no secret of the fact that it doesn’t fancy them much.

“We prefer owner occupiers to those who buy to let – for the simple reason that it tends to make the development easier to manage,” says Peabody spokeswoman Nicola Martin. “Residents who are owner occupiers and aware of the service charges they are paying are likely to be more aware of their environment. Those who are renting from the owner and not directly from Peabody may be less conscientious as it is not their property.

“We do ask that buy-to-let investors let us know who their tenants are and show us any tenancy agreements being signed to make sure it is in line with our own.”

Well, I’d want to live here, whether I was a nurse at the hospital or a banker in the City or a Hoxton media type – in all cases you can walk to work from Nile Street. Or cycle, since there is a built-in secure cycle park. The most impressive thing about the place is that – unlike many other schemes where developers have been obliged to include social housing – there is no aesthetic difference between the different types of tenure. It’s all one kind of architecture, in one cohesive scheme. There is no class divide. Instead, it just oozes class.

This ought to represent a viable future for housing in the capital. The trouble is that, though shared ownership schemes have been around for a long time, usually offered by housing associations, there is not nearly enough of them. We need scores of new developments like Nile Street which offer all kinds of ways to get a home, regards no one form of tenure as being superior to another, and do so with real conviction and style. There is a real irony in the fact that it has taken a go-ahead Victorian institution to show how it can be done in the 21st century.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos © Morley von Sternberg, First published in The Sunday Times, London, March 12 2006, as “The way ahead”.

Munkenbeck and Marshall, architects:
Morley von Sternberg, photographer:
Peabody Trust: