Witherford Watson Mann rethinks the inner-city almshouse

The architecture, with its cascading communal areas and open walkways, encourages interaction among residents and welcomes the wider community. The design aligns perfectly with our mission to provide more than housing — we aim to create homes that serve as hubs of community, offering a mix of spaces that enable residents to choose varying levels of privacy and socialisation.

Seen from mid-distance on Southwark Park Road, Appleby Blue – a two-to-five storey building in blueish-brown brick with large oak-framed windows – looks like a well-designed, but otherwise unremarkable, block of flats. It is only upon entering it that the truly radical nature of this new project by Witherford Watson Mann (WWM) reveals itself. In place of the expected cramped entrance hall, a gentle, glazed ramp leads up to a well-staffed resident support office and community kitchen, the latter serving a bright and spacious double-height public room furnished with communal dining tables and oversized armchairs, overlooking a luscious garden courtyard replete with mature trees and a tinkling stream. What is going on?

The language of the court façade is characterised by the garden, around which it folds. A continuous rhythm of solid oak sliding screens and automatic opening windows for passive ventilation and smoke venting enclose generous walkways over five floors. The walkways give access to all of the 59 flats and extend the earthy, natural materials, textures and shadows of the garden with clay floor tiles, slatted wood and veneered panels. The façade of each flat to the garden forms their thermal, fire and acoustic envelope. Clad in oak panels and with solid timber windows and doors, each flat has a kitchen and bathroom window that looks onto the walkway. The walkways provide a generous intermediate place between the intimacy of each flat and the collective shared rooms facing the high street. A long wooden bench and planter encourage residents to personalise the exterior of their flat and to sit looking out over the Garden Court or planted rooftop.

Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% Not assessed
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5% Not assessed
On-site energy generation 12.5 kWh/m²
Heating and hot water load 103 kWh/m²/yr (estimated, common parts only)
Total energy load 234 kWh/m²/yr (estimated, common parts only)
Carbon emissions (all) 35.8 kgCO2/m² (estimated from pre-construction BRUKL and SAP, with a factor applied for operational energy)
Annual mains water consumption 45 m³/occupant (factored up from flats calculation)
Airtightness at 50Pa 4 m³/hr/m²
Embodied / whole-life carbon 176 kgCO2/m²
Predicted design life 100 years



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Architect’s view

Start on site  June 2020
Completion  July 2023
Gross internal floor area  5,800m²
Construction cost  £25.1 million
Construction cost per m²  £4,328
Architect Witherford Watson Mann
Client  United St Saviour’s Charity
Structural engineer  Price & Myers (Stages 0-3), Pringuer-James Consulting Engineers (Stages 4-5)
M&E consultant Skelly & Couch (Stages 0-3), AWA Consultants (Stages 4-5)
Quantity surveyor Thompson Cole (Stage 4)
Project manager Gardiner & Theobold (Stages 2-3), Beyond (Stage 4)
Construction manager JTRE London
Landscape architect Grant Associates
Social historian Ken Worpole
Planning consultant DP9
Fire consultant The Fire Surgery
Acoustic and thermal consultant Ramboll

Sustainability data

Above all, Appleby Blue is a building about people: those who first imagined, discussed and designed it; those who crafted, built and enabled it; those who will live in, visit, share and care for it; those who will cook, eat, laugh and cry in it – perhaps die in it; and those who will help build its broader community and hope to learn from the experience along the way.

The glazed walkways providing access to all the apartments are unheated and have double-glazed screens and automated opening vents for passive heating control. The roof areas are covered with high-performance photovoltaics, providing a 35 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions over the 2013 Building Regulations Part L target and a 20 per cent contribution to CO2 emissions reduction.

Complementing these foody facilities is a rich social programme, led by food anthropologist Sofia Craxton, whose bubbly enthusiasm has already enlisted a band of residents keen to learn how to grow their own vegetables, make chutneys and jams, bake sourdough bread and share family recipes. Sitting around a big table in the sun-filled Garden Room after a delicious pasta lunch they’ve just cooked for us, residents speak enthusiastically of a recent curry evening, during which a local youth group – also sponsored by St Saviour’s – cooked and ate with them, converting one resident to the delights of spicy food. Many such future events – including a jollof rice ‘joll-off’ – are planned, designed to bring the broader community into the building and encourage mixing between the generations.

Such tactility flows directly from an environmental approach that emphasises natural orientation, passive energy and the agency of its inhabitants. By stepping down to the south, the building allows sunlight to flood into the Garden Court, Garden Room and galleries, while large sliding doors and windows allow residents to let in air as they wish, backed up by an automated system of opening vents. All the flats are dual-aspect, so residents can adjust the temperature and fresh air manually. Tucked out of sight on the roofs, meanwhile, is a vast range of photovoltaics, supplying 35 per cent of all the energy required to run the building.

Martyn Craddock, chief executive officer, United St Saviour’s Charity

This, in the end, is what is so subtly complex about Appleby Blue: it really does cater for everyone, offering a series of layered possibilities for social engagement and interaction, the acquisition of new skills (for the less food-obsessed, there is a crafts room, IT suite and library), or simply a peaceful life led in beautiful and stimulating surroundings. With 59 flats in total (including two studios for students/researchers) the building feels urban, yet intimate; the forest-like Garden Court that binds the scheme together is scaled to mimic the nearby coaching inns on Borough High Street, proven models of diverse sociability.

(Photo: Philipp Ebeling)

A roof terrace on the second floor features a productive garden with raised beds for growing herbs and vegetables. A planting mix of herbs, fruits and vegetables, plus companion planting of flowers for cutting, surrounds outdoor rooms for communal summer dining.

A slight ‘jig’ in the floor plan brings the whole building to life, lending the glazed galleries a meandering quality that invites chance encounters. A plethora of material details lends the building a cordial tactility, from the warm patina of the subtly patterned brickwork and mottled terracotta tiled floors of the galleries, to the solid oak windows that slide willingly to the touch or rounded wooden handrails that invite a human hand. Like a good host, this is a building that makes one feel welcomed and cared for.

(Photo: Philipp Ebeling)

WWM’s sensitivity to the needs of residents, coupled with its commitment to excellence from design to materials, has resulted in a building that is not only aesthetically pleasing and innovative but also deeply functional. With Appleby Blue, we’ve set a precedent for how good design, inclusive community facilities, and strategic local partnerships can come together to enrich lives. We believe quality design should be accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic status or age. Together, we’ve created a blueprint for future developments that we hope will inspire and influence the sector for years to come.

Appleby Blue is a luxurious and uplifting residential home in the heart of the city, all of which makes the fact that this is a social housing project all the more remarkable. So how was such a sense of luxury achieved on a decent, but not lavish, budget? The answer seems to be a triangular collaboration between architect, client and Southwark Council. The charity’s history in Southwark stretches back all the way to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, when a consequent charitable endowment established United St Saviour’s in the borough and granted it some real estate (notably two pubs in Borough Market) that continue to fund its charitable enterprises to this day. With the help of Southwark’s director of planning and growth, Stephen Platts, Appleby Blue benefited from an offsite Section 106 agreement, with the rest of the funding coming from St Saviour’s. The resulting budget was perhaps 15 per cent higher than one might expect for social housing, Witherford reckons, but it made all the difference.

Residents of Appleby Blue a short time after they have moved into the new building (Photo: Philipp Ebeling)

Project data

Appleby Blue happens to be a sheltered housing project, but it exudes a quality that all great buildings share: a sense of humanity that reminds us of what all architecture is ultimately about: helping people to lead good lives. All those involved in creating Appleby Blue hope that it will become an exemplar of what can be achieved when public, private and voluntary sectors come together and imagination, social awareness and design flair coincide. Having witnessed the project in its fledgling state, I can only concur.
Carolyn Steel is an architect and writer on architecture and food

The two-storey base of the building is given substantiality and weight by a rhythm of brick bay windows that run from east to west, binding it into Longley Street and Reverdy Road. This sense of solidity is enhanced by flush lime mortar joints and a pattern of projecting headers that add depth and shadow. The solid oak windows are set back a quarter-brick on a precast concrete sill. The second and third floors are in the same brick, with flush joints and a subtle bond change. The solid oak windows are set back one full brick and have precast concrete sills and lintels, giving the wall more depth. These combined treatments of the lower and upper storeys of the façade ensure that the building is monolithic and, to some degree, civic, working between the scale of the post-war housing blocks opposite and the compact intimacy of the Victorian terraces. This is supported with the regular act of residents opening a bay window and talking to friends in the street.

The answer is that Appleby Blue is a visionary reimagining of a medieval form of sheltered social housing, the almshouse. Founded and maintained by charitable institutions, including the church, since the 10th century, almshouses traditionally provided sheltered accommodation for the poor, sick and elderly of the parish. Typically taking the form of a row of low, cottage-like dwellings arranged around a C-shaped garden or courtyard, distancing them from the street, almshouses housed residents in peaceful seclusion, with an implied duty to sustain them until death. It was this somewhat doleful aspect of the almshouse that WWM and the client, United St Saviour’s Charity, sought to overturn at Appleby Blue, through the simple expedient of ‘flipping’ the typical plan so that, instead of forming a retreat from the life of the city, the scheme embraces it.

Food is in many ways the key to understanding Appleby Blue. Much that food embodies – nature, seasonality, health, conviviality, friendship, love, the passing of time – is woven into the building’s fabric and programme. Once one realises this, the unusual move of placing the (enviably well-equipped) community kitchen at the heart of the project makes perfect sense; as does the way in which the building’s top three storeys ‘flip’ above the second floor to create another, nature-themed ‘C’ facing the residential gardens to the south.

The fourth floor, made of structural timber, is set back behind a brick parapet. A projecting precast concrete coping lends weight to the head of the brick wall. The timber structure is clad in a rhythm of standing seam zinc and solid oak ribbon windows. These form a lighter-weight, shallower façade that echoes the rhythm of bay windows below, with a series of 45° corners stepping back from the parapet. The long façade to the high street has a concave inflection as the street sweeps out in a convex curve. This creates enough room to push out a stepping two-storey entrance porch and bay window made in continuous solid oak glazed screens, which reflect the language of the interior court.

Stephen Witherford, co-founder, Witherford Watson Mann

By working with Witherford Watson Mann, United St Saviour’s Charity has been able to pioneer a new breed of almshouse for modern, inner-city living. This project reflects our shared vision for the future of social housing. Appleby Blue represents not just architectural innovation, but a shift in the way we conceive of living spaces for the older generation.

Its 59 flats are all dual-aspect, with highly insulated and airtight construction. This has enabled windows to be more generous and daylight to be maximised. Low-temperature heating is provided to all apartments and it is expected that lower temperatures at night will not only save energy but also improve the sleep and health of residents.

It has become increasingly common practice to relocate over-60s away from urban centres, pushing or incentivising them to go to the city edge or the coast. From private retirement communities to sheltered housing, retirement villages or historic almshouses, each model is a type of retreat, an enclave distanced from the life of the wider community. Fundamentally, in terms of human and economic considerations, Appleby Blue allows people to remain in their community and continue to be an active part of it through the integration of the design with a programme of activities to improve wellbeing and nutrition, mitigating isolation.

Sun-filled glazed galleries serving the flats on the three street-facing sides of the building overlook a second-floor roof garden on the fourth side, where zig-zagging, timber-embossed concrete walls create a series of waist-high allotments perfect for stiff-backed gardeners, interspersed with intimate outdoor dining spaces. Already lavishly planted with bushy herbs and espaliered fruit trees, the roof garden forms a sort of living tableau that awaits its cast of growers, potterers and diners to make it blossom and mature with time.

Central to the landscape concept is the idea of time and seasonality. The garden frames the living environment, bringing changing colours, textures, sounds and light of the seasons into the residents’ everyday experience. The Garden Court is conceived as an abstract woodland glade with a raised and gently cascading linear water feature running between a grove of gingko trees and an understorey of seasonal woodland flora. It offers a space for residents and visitors to socialise or relax in peace and quiet. The acoustics of the space, coupled with the sound of the water feature, combine to create a relaxing, sanctuary-like space.

 

Landscape architect’s view

The building is constructed from long-lasting materials – precast concrete, brick and solid oak windows and screens. Careful detailing includes terne-coated stainless steel sheeting to protect the continuous walkway glazing sills. Stooled precast concrete sills and thresholds ensure that the oak windows and doors do not sit in water.

Both gardens will be managed by a local gardening group and St Saviour’s is working alongside research partners at Bournemouth University to explore how multigenerational, socially inclusive activities can be co-created with older people around food cultivation, cooking and meal sharing to improve their health, wellbeing and social connectedness.

This kind of public-private engagement is precisely what WWM’s co-founder and project director, Stephen Witherford, hoped would happen. Building a community, he is eager to stress, is Appleby Blue’s core mission. Warmly acknowledging his close collaboration with United St Saviour’s and their CEO, Martyn Craddock, Witherford describes a rare meeting of minds when the two began discussing how sheltered housing might be made more active and socially engaged in an era when octogenarians are as likely to run marathons as they are to sit and knit. The result was a project brief that evolved over  time, eventually coalescing around a passion that both men happened to share: food.

We visited United St Saviour’s Charity’s existing almshouse community at Hopton’s Almshouses and talked with residents, who explained the importance of the garden for them. From the outset the landscape and architectural design was developed to create a close fit between the building uses and external spaces, with a distinctive and seasonal landscape at its heart and an emphasis on views of the garden spaces. The landscape was never considered a cosmetic addition, but an integral part of the design, use, and wellbeing of the community.

Stephen Witherford, co-founder, Witherford Watson Mann

Keith French, director, Grant Associates

Client’s view

Money doesn’t necessarily buy you a good building, of course, and it is here that the architects’ ingenuity in squeezing every last pip out of the site and budget is most evident. The glazed galleries, for example, resulted from a ‘space swap’, after residents pointed out that nobody ever sat on a tiny private balcony facing the street. The resulting spaces are reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s Town Hall at Säynätsalo; a public building where, one imagines, no expense was spared. To have used a kind of design thriftiness to create such a sense of public luxury in a social housing project is WWM’s singular achievement.

Named to honour our historical benefactor, Dorothy Appleby, and rooted in Bermondsey, Appleby Blue exemplifies a harmonious blend of tradition and modernity. Witherford Watson Mann has masterfully captured this essence, creating a design that facilitates community and counters the isolation often associated with later life.

 

Working detail

Two conditions – the Victorian high street and the interior Garden Court – characterise Appleby Blue’s language and materiality. The exterior of the almshouse extends the grain of brick Victorian terraces that surround it on three sides.

What is it like living here, I ask. ‘Brilliant!’, ‘lovely’, ‘a different gear’ come the instant replies. This group of residents, at least – several of whom lived together on another estate before moving here – have fully embraced the social programme on offer, telling me conspiratorially about the cosy ‘Midnight Lounge’ on the first floor where they gather for evening drinks. Not everyone is as naturally sociable, they admit, but that isn’t a problem; if people just want to live quietly in their flats (which are spacious and well-appointed enough to have already won a housing award against private competition), that is absolutely fine. If they want a bit of company, there are always the wooden benches on the sun-soaked galleries, where they can sit just outside their flat, slide the windows to adjust the breeze and watch the world – or weather – go by. For more retiring gardeners, there are also large planters to enjoy, conveniently below their kitchen windows.

Facing directly onto the street, the double-height Garden Room is both a showcase for the fact that 65 is the new 45 (the former being the age at which people can move in here) and an open invitation for local residents to come and share in this new community facility. Although its floor is raised 1m above street level to afford a discreet buffer, the fully glazed, oak-lined space is nevertheless overtly theatrical: during keep-fit classes, residents have taken to waving at passengers in buses halted at the stop outside, many of whom wave back.