A revealing take on later life

A project in north London offers highly individualised, non-institutional retirement village design both inside and out, producing a carefully detailed brick-clad form on a challenging site. Jack Wooler reports

Belle Vue is a high-end retirement community in Hampstead, London which offers communal and neighbourhood facilities across four conjoined buildings clad in intricate brickwork.

Inspired by American and Scandinavian ‘targeted housing’ typologies, the project caters for residents of 60-80 years old, and is designed to support them both physically and emotionally, while ‘inviting the community in.’

Project architects Morris+Company and client Pegasus Group faced the challenge of a busy, compact site; a pocket of land between the Royal Free Hospital and Haverstock Hill that’s surrounded by varying typologies, a conservation area of Victorian housing, and listed buildings.

The client’s aim was to provide generous spaces including corridors at least 2 metres wide and 59 homes ranging from 54 m2 one-bed units to two-bed units of 129 m2. These would be combined with the amenities of a health spa, gym, swimming pool, library, gardens, public restaurant and cafe. The project team faced a challenge to win over Camden Council, who battled to restrict the building to a lower height than that which the footprint required to house the various elements.

The architects soon realised that their drive for a raised level of quality and function would be boosted by the need to allay any concerns of, and avoid any perceived negative impact on, the neighbours. This was achieved in part by the team designing a cluster of buildings of varying heights, facades and detailing to blend in with the surroundings, and taking many different sightlines into account. The facades offer complex brickwork detailing that “plays with light and shadow” to create depth, as well as adding to legibility from a distance, something which pleased the previously sceptical planners.

Via a series of detailed models, the council were convinced that the architects’ highly considered designs vindicated the scheme’s extending to 10 storeys. And, despite a Covid-compromised opening, the residents have reportedly expressed their appreciation for the project’s inclusive, generous spaces.

Covid complications
Though the building reached practical completion before the pandemic began, it was not long after residents began moving in that the country was plunged into lockdown. This meant that there were only around 15 residents for much of the building’s early life.

While this was of course a blow to the client, according to Miranda MacLaren, a director at Morris+Company, the threat of Covid actually served to highlight some of the project’s best attributes: “Residents at Belle Vue were some of the best placed in the country during lockdown – the array of activities available to them on site kept their social lives full, and the copious outdoor space provided proved invaluable.” In addition, all staff chose to isolate with them.

The range of onsite amenities were designed to encourage the target age group to stay active and social – and every room is connected to the outdoors, whether through windows, terraces or gardens. This was intended to allow less mobile residents to retain a sense of place and connection to nature, but MacLaren tells me that during Covid the layout and amenities “proved to more than just cater for them, but to be a priceless improvement in their experience.”

She explains further: “The residents were able to explore a building full of secret and intimate spaces, leading up to a terrace that offers perhaps even better views than from the top of Hampstead Heath.” She continues: “You get this extraordinary feeling of space that’s almost unheard of in London.”

A home, not an institution
MacLaren says that before the project’s inception, the practice wasn’t known for housing,” with a 45-home development in Brentford being “by far the biggest” they’d designed in that typology. According to the architect, however, its being relatively new to the sector was key to why the practice was brought in: “When they saw the work we’d been doing in Brentford and on smaller, one-off houses, they could see the consideration and care, and a potential that by not having done it 1000 times, that we could look at things with fresh eyes.”

This lack of preconception is part of what led to the practice to be resolute from the outset that the building would avoid “an institutional feel,” a sentiment echoed by the client.

“It was a very exciting brief process,” says the architect, “it was very iterative, and we shared many desires with the client.” They spent a long time discussing what would be appropriate for communal spaces: “Where they should be placed, if they should be gated, and the benefits of different approaches, and this really paid off.”

“One of the huge things that I’m really pleased we all agreed upon was that the public were to be invited in,” she continues, referring to the public cafe on the ground floor. “We wanted visitors, friends, family, or even passers-by to be able to come and have a coffee, and create a great atmosphere where you also see a glimpse of residents’ lives.”

“Instead of feeling like a hospital, it would be more like an extension of their living room or kitchen, but where you are welcomed in, like a member’s club.”

Once this vision was shared by all, the team next had to ascertain the viability of the density such a scheme would require on the tight site. It originally held a convent, a five-storey, T-shaped structure which the client purchased and demolished. The site is surrounded by a variety of neighbours, including a nursery, a school (which it shares a party wall with), and the hospital.

“It was quite a tricky job, as it was both a really complicated site and an expensive plot, so we needed to get a certain number of residences to make it viable.”

As the clientele would be well-heeled residents from the Hampstead area, the team decided that aiming for around 100 m2 for a two-bed flat was important, to ensure that while residents would still be downsizing, the change wasn’t “too dramatic.”

At this size of property, however, it was estimated that just under 60 homes were necessary to strike an acceptable profit. With the footprint available, meeting the brief necessitated that the buildings would have to rise to 10 storeys in places.

Perceived impact
In order to resolve this conflict with the best outcome possible, the architects worked closely with Camden planning officers throughout the design, to ensure that the building was “of more benefit to the area than any perceived negative impact from its height.” The practice had to work especially hard on the taller elements of the four buildings, with each facade being individually treated to blend with its respected neighbour.

“With so many different typologies and designs around us, we had to ask ourselves ‘what we were,’” says MacLaren. “We couldn’t really just be one thing, and so we fell upon the realisation that the only way forward was to design a cluster of buildings that shift and undulate according to window distances, views, impacts and heights next door.”

As such, the tallest building was drawn into the northeastern corner of the site, with volumes shifting down to four storeys at the lowest. MacLaren admits a design dilemma of sorts: “We weren’t sure at the start as to whether we should be echoing the local conservation area’s qualities, or we should be looking for a more prefabricated look to match the hospital behind us.” She adds: “In the end we decided that, because the residents were coming from the local area , we wanted to reflect the area and give the residents a sense of familiarity as well as excitement.”

One key way in which Camden council were brought along with this complex design were the practice’s detailed models, including plaster casts of brick lintels, speckled white paint and minute details that “presented exactly what we thought it should look like,” says the architect.

“Through that modelling process, Camden began to feel confident that the quality would be there,” MacLaren adds. “When it was finally agreed, the client didn’t change a thing – everything remained exactly as we had drawn it.”

Light & shadow
In a modern interpretation of the local vernacular, the practice chose brickwork for the building’s envelope – paying tribute to the nearby, well-loved Victorian buildings. “There was so much care and thought that went into these buildings, how they meet the ground, the detailing around their bases, decoration around windows,” says MacLaren.

The team decided that instead of pastiche, they would instead focus on maximising the play of light and shadow with highly detailed brick facades, but “following the same rules of craft.” As such, the facade was constructed largely of intricate brickwork with deep reveals and jutting elements that add depth and interest, such as precast concrete string courses around the edges (which also deal with practical issues like waterproofing), or splayed lintels.

The architects were particularly focused on the ground and top levels of the buildings being legible. One way in which this was achieved was 15 mm splayed brick at the base, and another is in the taller buildings, which widen as they ascend. In addition, the brick work changes to tumbled bricks at higher levels, the mortar changes shade, and the lintels have a different, slightly grey colour.

“One of my favourite aspects of the facades was how different we made each one – we asked the bricklayers to bash the bricks around, and get more or less slurry on each so they would sparkle, while not looking brand new,” explains MacLaren. “While they were sceptical at the start, they’re extremely proud of the way it looks now – and so are we.”

Interior spaces
Moving inside, while another team created much of the internal finishings, Morris+Company were responsible for the “principles of the interior spaces,” and their being closely tailored to the users’ needs.

MacLaren explains: “We were more involved with the spatial quality and relationships. We focused on generosity and wayfinding, the importance of being safe and secure at the same time as always being able to see where you’re going, as well as always having a relationship to an outdoor space so you can get fresh air when you need to.”

Designing these spaces however proved one of the major challenges in this project, according to MacLaren, as “there just weren’t any examples to visit in this country.”

“We reviewed buildings that had been designed elsewhere, alongside comments and papers on such projects, but I think Pegasus were pushing us to follow our intuition and take the typology in new directions,” she says.

As such, following their instinct on the exterior designs, inside these blocks the architects went to great lengths to individualise each interior space, from subtle details like carpet changes around the entrance, to recessed doors that residents can make their own. Instead of “long institutional corridors,” they provided spaces that felt like home for residents – “Their space, their block, their floor; it’s quite unique in that way.”

She continues: “It was extremely important to us that we found the perfect balance between the building feeling like a home, not a hotel, but while also having that sense of pride and community in some of it being publicly accessible.”

Proof of concept
MacLaren of Morris+Company hopes that the Belle Vue will inspire future designers of targeted retirement housing in the UK, and be seen as an exemplar in its field, inspiring future UK projects to adopt lessons from across the globe.

She says: “Regardless of whether it’s more or less expensive, the spatial understandings and relationships transcend its cost; allowing older residents to increase their happiness and sense of community, as well as safety and security.”

MacLaren tells me she is “extremely proud” of the way the residents have settled in and used the building, and that this “truly achieves proof of concept.”

At the time of interview, Pegasus Life had only been recently able to market the project and bring new residents in. However, the architect had just toured the project with the client, and reported that the residents were delighted. She concludes: “If others are only to look, Belle Vue is a great indicator of the benefit of this type of accommodation.”