A multi-phase regeneration project in Barking, east London, will see a notorious estate replaced by a highly considered development with a renewed sense of quality and space, by White Arkitekter. The firm’s Linda Thiel took James Parker through two of its phases
When its regeneration project commenced in 2017, the Gascoigne estate in Barking was a neighbourhood which periodically made the news for all the wrong reasons, including gang-related violence and drug problems. However despite its array of challenges, the multi-phase project developed by urban regeneration specialist BeFirst (which is wholly owned by Barking and Dagenham Council) hopes to reinvent the estate’s reputation, while retaining a majority of affordable homes in the mix.
White Arkitekter was appointed in 2017 to design Gascoigne East Phase 2, a 546-home scheme including a large park. Now completed, this was one of three phases of the Gascoigne East masterplan. The outline masterplan for Gascoigne West by architects Fraser Brown Mackenna (FBM) – also three phases – was approved in 2018. White Arkitekter was appointed by BeFirst in 2019 to design West Phase 1, submitting a reserved matters application and an S73 outline scheme. The project completed in 2022, and in the meantime the practice also won the competition to design the currently ongoing Phase 2. In 2020, White Arkitekter was also commissioned to produce a “placemaking framework” (titled The Big Picture) for the wider Gascoigne estate.
Phase 1 of Gascoigne West provides 201 homes (60% of which are affordable) on a 0.9-hectare site. As well as designing the scheme from RIBA Stages 1-3, White Arkitekter undertook “design guardianship” post-planning, and were responsible for landscape design throughout the project. West Phase 2, due to complete in spring 2024, provides a similar ratio of affordable homes among its total 386 units, plus a residents’ hub and playground, on a 1.33 hectare site. Again, White Arkitekter has taken care of RIBA Stages 1-3 plus design guardianship during Stages 4-5. There is also to be a West Phase 3, which Haworth Tompkins have been appointed to design.
The Gascoigne neighbourhood project is one of London’s largest estate regeneration programmes, providing tenure-blind family-friendly homes in a range of different volumes from towers to townhouses, and an “age-inclusive, climate resilient landscape,” say the architects. The finished development will have around 3000 homes, situated around a “clearly defined hierarchy of public squares, local greens, semi-private gardens and private courtyards to create a safe and welcoming environment for all ages.”
Gascoigne West, in the words of White Arkitekter, is “built upon existing amenities to create a development that contributes to its context, with improved connections to the site and surrounding areas.” It maximises White’s simple and rational Scandinavian design approach and public housing experience to bring key benefits including some of those inherent to MMC, as shown on recent major projects in Stockholm. The wide range of skills would all be required to be deployed on the east London site to successfully tackle its sensitive and complex requirements.
In Phase 1, the architects have cleverly worked with a constrained site. The design responds with articulated forms that provide good quality, efficient indoor and outdoor spaces for future residents of this resurrected estate. Similarly, Phase 2 provides the density required by the client but in a range of buildings that avoids the oppressive nature that characterised the previous Gascoigne Estate. Overall, the scheme represents a high-pressure architectural environment, with a host of factors to balance – not least time, with the client keen to deliver the apartments fast, alongside the spatial quality that the whole team is working towards.
Background & Procurement
The Gascoigne Estate was built in the early 1960s and sits between Barking and the A13, being originally composed of 17 high-rise blocks plus three-storey apartment blocks. There were a series of attempts in the early 21st century to try and improve the built environment, however it was eventually accepted that the best solution was to demolish the whole estate and start from scratch – with the Gascoigne East side being tackled first, and Phase 3 of the current West masterplan the final part.
Various architectural firms have been involved in the project, starting in 2015 when the Borough of Barking and Dagenham announced that Levitt Bernstein had been appointed for Phase 1 of the Gascoigne East development, whose design would replace towers with six lower blocks and a new street plan. White Artitekter’s Phase 2 comprises Scandinavian-style family apartments and smaller homes with communal gardens, and the HTA and Pitman Tozer-designed (and currently ongoing) Phases 3A and 3B contain a mix of mid-rise mansion blocks, traditional terraced homes and mews houses.
White Arkitekter was appointed to design West Phase 1 by BeFirst (from RIBA Stage 1). When Wates Residential came on board at Stage 2, the practice was novated to the contractor, and continued through to planning.
The practice subsequently also won the competition to design West Phase 2 (from RIBA Stages 1-3 and through planning), and the two phases would finally total 587 units. As Linda Thiel, project director at White Arkitekter tells ADF, the challenge of tackling this extremely demanding, complex project was mitigated by the practice having weekly client meetings and a “very relaxed, open and candid relationship” with BeFirst’s design team and its head of design, Jacob Willson.
Linda Thiel says that White applied its key principles, successfully demonstrated in projects across Scandinavia, combining a simplicity of form with “high quality in terms of balconies, windows and facade detailing. Simple, more streamlined detailing.” As she says, this approach frees them up to “spend more on the public realm, because that is what stitches a community together – that’s part of our core ethos of landscape-led urban design.”
The scheme developed for (West) Phases 1 and 2 would be delivered in a very short timeframe. As well as a straightforward approach to the detailing, another factor helping address this challenge was a conscious methodology to have as much structural repetition as possible, including simple stacking, although this was offset by the variety of forms and facades created.
In West Phase 1 a certain degree of offsite construction was implemented such as pod bathrooms and utility cupboards, and balconies. (In West Phase 2 this was taken even further to include MMC-produced precast facades.) Thiel believes that such MMC approaches could be expanded in future similar schemes.
The scheme is designed as a car free development with limited parking, to enable a “more pedestrian friendly public realm.” This meant the architects did not have to provide basement parking levels. The articulated line of the buildings in Phase 1 was chiefly influenced by the row of retained mature London plane trees along Abbey Road, which have also been used to locate small play areas with natural shelter. “It adds so much to the streetscape, and the space between the buildings” says Thiel, adding that to achieve this the designers worked “really closely with our landscape architects, and an arboriculturist.”
The smaller first phase still manages to give substantial variety in form and character, from three to 13 storeys, with three blocks with their own varieties of heights, plus a block of seven terraced townhouses. The higher levels offer great views into central London, which would, as the architects say, normally be given to private rented or private sale flats. The building form is ‘kinked’ in a way that relates to the streetscape and landscape, to create a much more amenable urban presence with a series of “strong frontages” broken up by “entrance squares.”
The aim in terms of the block design and facades was to balance unity and visual coherence for the overall development with a desire to provide a set of distinctive looks for each block. As with the larger Phase 2, this would be done in the context of preserving existing connections out of the sites, including cycle routes, as well as mature trees, and paying close reference to the nearby school in the design.
Thiel sums up the challenge of Phase 1 as “delivering 201 homes on a very tight plot, including a playground and communal gardens, whilst also relating to the existing estate,” which largely consists of three-storey blocks, some of which are close to the new scheme. “It was a puzzle, trying to manage that scale difference in terms of the massing, while delivering all of the homes that were required.”
Possibly even more important for this scheme’s lasting contribution to the community, as Thiel explains, is that across both Phases 1 and 2, “all homes are tenure-blind; there is no difference in the design of homes for market and those of affordable rent.”
The scale of the development is broken down by the higher blocks having a “stepped lower shoulder,” says Thiel, to reduce the overall impact and relate to the scale of the surrounding buildings. The resulting volumes are six and 11 storeys for Block A, eight and five storeys for the skinnier Block B (which has a low block of townhouses sitting in front of it), and six and 13 storeys in the case of Block C. Its six-level portion, which is allocated to affordable housing, has a roof garden, located adjacent to the townhouses.
Blocks A and C have significant kinks in their form at the junction between the different heights, helping to add activity and variety to the overall composition. However the architects were pleased to discover in consultation with Wates that this “did not add too much to the costs,” says Thiel. “As we had linear blocks, and the ratio efficiencies, it doesn’t matter whether it’s like a straight linear block, or whether you have a kink. As long as you don’t have any cut corners or bay windows or other things; the facades are straight. They had no problem with the kinks, which was refreshing.”
The massing is as a result, “layered,” says Thiel – different elements that are actually within the same block look like separate buildings depending on where they’re viewed from. The architects “bookended” the north and south ends of the site with the two taller elements to establish Phase 1 as a landmark at the edge of the development.
Special attention was paid to the landscape and public realm, with a “strong focus on providing spaces for all to enjoy,” says White Arkitekter. The three buildings have been located in a way that “facilitates active use of the outdoor communal space” and the landscape design strategy “helps to develop the character of the different areas within the site, enhancing legibility, and strengthening identity,” contributing to the overall welcoming feeling the architects were striving to realise.
A framework of facade types has been developed for each block, lending a sense of variety to the project, whilst defining the buildings as separate entities. They do however adhere to the same overarching design principles which makes them clearly identifiable as parts of the same development. The general principles set out a series of criteria, such as window sizes, balcony sizes, types of balustrades and copings, which then vary in colour and appearance between each block. The result is a series of “well defined, pared-back facades that offer a generous sense of depth and articulation.”
The various buildings in Phase 1 all have reinforced concrete frames but a mix of facades, however the majority have a brick rainscreen to tie in with the local vernacular. A light colour brick mix was chosen for Phase 1, which catches the sun well and provides a less forbidding presence along Abbey Road.
While all the elevations are in the same brick, there is a darker hue on the ground floor, and the elevations either side of the ‘kinks’ have subtle differences, simply brought by altering the mortar colour, and that of balconies and windows, to break down the facades visually within an overall coherent unity.
There are five towers in the ongoing Phase 2, ranging between nine and 20 storeys, plus four low rise blocks of townhouses, with the towers being clad in precast concrete unlike Phase 1. White sought to achieve a “landscape-led development” on this tight, long site hemmed in by a major road, which would “prioritise walking and shared amenities, while reinforcing existing pedestrian routes.” The development is a gateway to the neighbourhood located at a point where routes through and around the old estate converge, and thereby had a key role in directly connecting residents to Barking Town centre.
To optimise the potential of the site and provide the required density of housing, a combination of tower buildings and townhouses are arranged around courtyards to create three main blocks. There’s a mix of one, two and three-bed homes across this phase, and 10% of the units are wheelchair accessible.
Within the city block structure, the towers are rotated at different angles, creating new and interesting views, improving visual connections within and without the site and enhancing the legibility of streetscape. The tallest of the towers overlooks a public square with “active street frontages,” which functions as a landmark and a welcoming entrance to the neighbourhood. A small community ‘hub’ occupies a prominent position at the heart of the development.
This phase also delivers a new children’s play park, which is a “shared space for all forms of community and social activity.” As in Phase 1, formal places to play and pocket parks have also been incorporated in other parts of the public realm, and the streets prioritise pedestrians over vehicles and create a safe zone close to the homes. Over 4,500 m2 of play and public space is being provided in Phase 2.
Public realm & resident safety
Central to the placemaking strategy was ensuring a greater level of safety for residents while providing a wide range of external spaces to enjoy and connectivity across the site. The most striking example of this is White Arkitekter’s research project, ‘Places for Girls’ which centred on the design for Phase 1 and 2, and consulted teenage girls on their views on using public space on the estate.
The architects ran a series of workshops with Greatfields School, which is on the estate, informing them about the project’s intentions and asking them what they wanted from their neighbourhood. “That has also informed some of the informal routes and pocket parks across the project,” says Thiel.
She gives the example of one pocket park which was overlooked by ground floor flats, and which gave girls “what they wanted the most – places to hang out that weren’t necessarily on the edge of something like a sports area.” She adds: “They really wanted to have their own space within their neighbourhood.” It’s a well-connected space, with pedestrian and cycle routes through the estate to and from the school.
London Borough of Barking & Dagenham has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. Gascoigne West has driven this forward in a way that both provides amenity to residents as well as ongoing efficiency benefits to the client. Phase 1 embodies “Scandinavian urban design principles of social wellbeing” says White Arkitekter, which have been embedded within the design that focus on providing community activities for children and seniors.
In terms of the buildings in Phase 1 themselves, an optimised microclimate, generous sunlight/ daylight penetration and wind mitigation improve outdoor comfort. This enables greater social and community activities outdoors, leading to a higher degree of social inclusion, and healthier, more active lifestyles. Gardens and playgrounds unite the new residents with old to encourage a sense of belonging.
The ‘climate resilience’ theory integral to the Phase 1 design is based on resilience and strategic water and energy use, through incorporation of “ecosystem services,” SuDS strategies and reducing heat loads through green roofs and gardens. The required target carbon reduction of 40.2% beyond Building Regulations has “strongly influenced the architectural design,” says White Arkitekter, which includes high performance fabric, and PV arrays.
Phase 2 similarly brings sustainability to the fore. The buildings are designed to plug into a wider energy and district heating network for Barking Town Centre and to achieve a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to Building Regulations for energy efficiency alone. The buildings’ energy consumption has been minimised using their geometry and orientation, and the towers have green roofs plus solar PV arrays.
The scheme provides secure indoor cycle parking for all residents, as well as spaces for visitors to lock up their bikes, and an underground refuse system. Flexible cycle storage units are placed on main routes with access onto the street – to allow them to be used for small business and residents’ activities in the interim, until they are in full use for approximately 1,000 bicycles. Along with promoting urban nature and biodiversity, the landscape is designed for resilience and integration into the green infrastructure.
A new future
This is an incredibly important scheme for demonstrating how good quality affordable housing can be quickly delivered in one of the most deprived and challenged estates in the UK. White Arkitekter deserves huge congratulation for simply delivering it, notwithstanding the subtle qualities the design has brought to a formal composition of high density blocks. These have not been seen in this scheme previously, or many others which could benefit from such a carefully considered approach.
Thiel admits the project was “hard work,” and at times “a bit of a struggle,” including to identify where UK and Scandinavian housing design principles could merge. However, she says that there was “already a very good working relationship” with the BeFirst team, and it was a case of building up that same relationship of trust with Wates.
She pays tribute to the contractor’s high levels of workmanship, exemplified by the air-tightness levels measured in the finished buildings: “They had a super dedicated team, they’ve really set their stall out with this scheme.”
Phase 1 is now occupied with a diverse range of tenants and buyers from different strands of society, living together in a tenure-blind, tree-enhanced setting that contains all the elements you’d hope would foster community cohesion. The scheme shows the power of architecture to deliver a no-nonsense, efficient but ultimately empathetic contribution to society.
- Client: London Borough of Barking and Dagenham/ BeFirst Regeneration & Wates Residential
- Number of homes: Phase 1 – 201 (60% affordable), Phase 2 – 386 (60% affordable)
- Site area: 0.9 ha (Phase 1) 1.33 ha (Phase 2)
- Phase 1 GEA: 19,300 m2
- Phase 2 GIA: 37,180 m2
- Architect and landscape architect: White Arkitekter
- Contractor: Wates Residential
- Structural and civil engineer: Mason Navarro Pledge
- M&E/sustainability engineer: AECOM
- Planning consultant: Be First Regeneration
- Delivery architect (Phase 1): TP Bennett
- Delivery landscape architect: White Arkitekter + Camlins
West Phase 1
- Storey heights: 3-13
- RIBA Stages: 1-3 plus design guardianship post-planning to RIBA Stage 6
- Project start: February 2019
- Planning approved: November 2019
- Construction start: January 2020
- Construction end: March 2022
- Housing tenures: 40% affordable rent, 39% market rent, 13% target rent, 8% LAR
West Phase 2
- Storey heights: 9-20
- RIBA Stages: 1-3 planning & design guardianship during Stages 4-5
- Project start: January 2020
- Planning approved: March 2021
- Construction start: July 2021
- Construction end: Spring 2024
Sustainability indicators (Phase 1)
- Target form factor (heat loss area/usable internal floor area): 0.8 – 1.5
- Target operational energy use intensity: 35-60 kWh/m2 GIA/yr
- Target space heating demand: <15 kWh/m2 GIA/yr)
- Onsite % carbon reduction (compared to Part L 2013): 40%
- Percentage of roof covered by solar panels/PVs: 20%
- Target ‘upfront’ embodied carbon: <500 kg CO2 e/m2 GIA) (Modules A1-A5)
- Water use: 125 l/person/day
- Cycle parking spaces: 373
- Urban greening (UGF): 0.26
- Target biodiversity net gain: > 10%