Traditional Construction and Eco Towns: Upton Exemplar Project

UptonUptonThe Prince's Foundation organised this event in Upton as part of their ongoing Poundbury seminar series. It was held on site in Upton on 4th September and featured speakers from The Prince's Foundation, English Partnerships, Alan Baxter Associates, Pell Frischman, Quartet Design and Cornhill Estates. The event also involved extensive walkabouts of the site and visits to some of the newly completed eco homes.

The Regional Spatial Strategy for the East Midlands identified Northampton as a town suitable for major population and employment growth. Upton is part of the south-west district of Northampton and is a strategic extension to the town wedged between the existing edge of the town and the M1 motorway. Originally farmland, it was acquired by the local Development Corporation and was eventually passed on to English Partnerships, the Government's national regeneration agency. In 1997 outline planning permission was granted for a 'traditional' town extension consisting of 1,020 homes, 700 sq m of retailing, a primary school and other local facilities. The scheme was due to go ahead when English Partnerships decided that the original scheme for which outline planning permission had already been granted was simply not good enough. Since they had already been working with The Prince's Foundation on a new approach to planning new developments called Enquiry by Design, they decided to try it out in Upton.

The process involved a week long event comprising two days of workshops with local stakeholders and professionals to develop the concept for the new development, two days for the technical team to work up outline designs, and a final day to seek feedback from the original participants. This led to a number of changes to the original master plan that eventually included 1,200 energy efficient homes (i.e., more than in the original planning permission), together with a primary school, neighbourhood shops, a country park, playing fields, an interpretation centre and a local centre. Some 22 percent of affordable housing was pepper-potted throughout the site. The key principles guiding the re-design were creating a mix of uses, using adaptable building forms, introducing sustainable drainage and promoting energy efficiency. These principles were written into a series of design guides. Since the entire site was owned by English Partnerships, they were able to insist that all developers followed these design guides and also made section 106 contributions towards the affordable housing, sustainable drainage, public transport, the primary school and other public realm enhancements. The Upton design code is available by going to www.northampton.gov.uk and putting Upton Design Code in the search box.

The final stage in the process involved marketing the site to potential developers. They used a fairly standard two-stage bidding process. Bidders submitted their proposed designs in stage one and, once they had qualified, this was then followed by their financial bid. A Steering Group set the overall policy and direction for the evolving development, while a Working Group handled all ongoing queries. An open dialogue emerged with developers at all stages of the implementation process and continued through until detailed planning permission had been given. By mid-2004 six of the eight sites had been granted detailed planning permission and the local public transport service was in place. So far, 228 housing units have been completed, including 47 affordable units.

Several innovative aspects of the Upton scheme were noted at the meeting. First, the sustainable drainage scheme was impressive. Instead of burying the drainage in pipes, it is carried in swales (wide channels with sloping sides) which have been carefully landscaped. They operate like village streams which capture the surplus water, encourage evaporation and discharge the surplus into the river Nene. The swales encourage wildlife and wild plants which permeate from the river nature reserve into the development. The formal treatment of runoff is supplemented by permeable paving both the base and the paving allows water to permeate through into the underlying strata. Second, the layout encourages walking and places most community facilities within easy walking distance. Another innovation was to make the road in front of the primary school into a private road so that it could be closed to traffic during school hours to enable children to safely use the town square on the other side of the road. Third, many houses have solar water heating, photovoltaic cells on the roof to generate electricity, rainwater harvesting (for toilets, washing machines and gardens), heat recovery ventilation and grey water recycling. Finally, at least one developer had installed clothes lines. Why? Because research had shown that, if you installed them, 70% of homeowners would use them whilst, if you did not, only 30% would install and use them -- a further way of saving energy.

How successful has the Upton experiment been? There were obviously many lessons to be learned, but my own view is that the jury is still out on some of the key features of the development. English Partnerships were a bit ambivalent about how well the present scheme compared in financial terms to the original outline planning permission. They argued that they might have lost some money on the early development sites, but hoped to make up for this on the later ones. The developers likewise argued that the design standards were pushing the affordability limit. They would have chosen smaller houses (1,600 sq ft instead of 2,000 sq ft) and higher densities to make them more affordable. Indeed, they argued that the design standards were too inflexible and sometimes discouraged innovation. Everyone liked the sustainable drainage, but the permeable paving was questionable. The pores soon clog up and then it no longer works. The grey water recycling was also problematical. The water had soap in it and the system soon broke down. Grey water recycling needs a special technology. Finally, the restrictions on parking one car per household were a good idea, but difficult to live with.

Overall, this was an excellent event and everyone who attended went away filled with inspiring ideas that might be applied in their own home-town.