Goldsmith Street in Norwich, which last week was awarded RIBA’s 2019 Stirling Prize for the UK’s best new building, deserves all its plaudits. We might start with the fact that, unusually for contemporary local authority schemes, it’s council housing pure and simple – 105 homes built by Norwich City Council, all at social rent. Secondly, it looks and feels good, not just to architectural cognoscenti but, more importantly, to its residents. Thirdly, in these days of climate crisis, it is very environmentally friendly.
The scheme, designed by the London-based architectural practice Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, comprises seven terraces of two-storey houses flanked by three-storey flats, in creamy brick with striking black pantiled roofs. Conservative commentators have leapt on this apparent revival of traditional streetscape but the streets themselves are narrower than usual – the houses are 14 metres apart, rather than 21 as is the modern norm – and the presence of traffic less intrusive, more controlled.
More importantly, fully one-quarter of the site is communal space: a small landscaped space in the centre of the terraces and ‘ginnels’, semi-private alleyways to the rear of back gardens, which, in the words of architect Annalie Riches, are a way for residents to ‘meet neighbours, for their kids to get to know each other, making friends’. The whole is a nod to the Victorian and Edwardian terraces nearby, but something richer and more communal.
So far, so good. The Goldsmith Street scheme reminds us, as Riches says, that:
‘Some of the most forethinking and innovative housing solutions […] have come from councils. We have seen that the private sector can’t deliver sufficient homes that are affordable to people and I think it’s great to see more councils developing.’
However, just two days after the Stirling Prize award, the Government announced that it was hiking interest rates from the Public Works Loan Board by one percent, presenting, according to the Local Government Association, ‘a real risk that capital schemes, including vital council housebuilding projects, will cease to be affordable and may have to be cancelled as a result’.
In the heyday of council housebuilding, before the reliance on market-driven provision and funding that became the norm after 1979, the central government Public Loans Work Board was local authorities’ go-to source for cheap capital. In current straitened times, that one percent can make all the difference. Goldsmith Street itself represents a partial return to that past model, funded not – as is currently the norm – by public-private partnerships privileging the building of homes for sale or private rental, but by direct borrowing, Right to Buy receipts (from the sale of existing council homes to tenants) and council reserves.
Back in 2008, when Mikhail Riches won the original commission, the Council had intended to develop the scheme in partnership with local housing associations, which enjoyed greater access to loan support. Those plans evolved in 2012 when Treasury rules were finally modified to allow local authorities to finance housing construction from their own resources, albeit on a small scale. Three years later, Norwich set up its own housing enterprise, the Norwich Regeneration Company – one of a number of such stand-alone but wholly-owned businesses set up by local councils across the country to undertake housebuilding. The Council plans to expand its operations. If Goldsmith Street’s funding model takes us – in modified form at least – back to the future, nor is its insistence on sustainability wholly new. There were earlier attempts to build more energy efficient homes in Norwich in the small-scale experiment sponsored by the Ministry of Fuel and Power in the 1950s on the city’s West Earlham Estate. The specifications and ambitions of the later scheme’s Passivhaus standards are far more exacting – a level of insulation and thermal efficiency that will reduce household energy bills by 70 percent.
Those reduced costs are, of course, welcome – although the ‘ring binder of instructions’ and the ban on wall screws can be off-putting to some residents. For all that, in contrast to some earlier Passivhaus schemes, which sacrificed looks to technical necessity, energy efficiency has been very attractively engineered into the design at Goldsmith Street – even down to the letter boxes provided in an external porch to avoid draughts through front doors. The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. The private sector is unwilling or unable to build decent affordable housing on the scale required. There is increased acceptance that social housing must form part of any solution to that crisis. The Stirling Prize comes then at a significant moment – both as a vindication of public housing as such and a testimony that it can provide beautiful homes to meet challenging times.
Main image: Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley, Goldsmith Street, Norwich, 2019. Courtesy: Mikhail Riches, London; photograph: Tim Crocker