TOWN are the developers behind much acclaimed Cohousing project Marmalade Lane. Founders Jonny Anstead and Neil Murphy took off to deliver sustainable, design-led housing. Read here about their journey to cohousing, custom build and collaboration with a Swedish housing manufacturer.
JA: We set up TOWN in part to deliver sustainable, design-led housing that would offer an alternative to the quality and limited choice of housing delivered by the mass market. But in doing so, we wanted to build streets and neighbourhoods that would be about more than houses – reflecting our belief that people make decisions about where they live based not only on the home itself, but on the amenities and quality of the wider place.
Shortly after TOWN was formed, Cambridge City Council began seeking a development partner to work alongside K1 Cohousing to deliver what’s now called Marmalade Lane. We quickly realised that this unique project offered an opportunity for TOWN to put our mission to practice: it’s a scheme that’s very much about neighbourhood and community, but also one where quality and individual customer choice are central.
NM: There are some technical things, such as the need to rationalise custom options so you don’t end up with – for example – a different M&E layout for every house.
But the main strategic lesson is that purchasers really do value more choice than they are typically given when buying a new house, and it’s often small differences in the configuration of bedrooms, bathrooms, living spaces and storage that are most useful. That suggests to us that for custom build to scale up and go mainstream in the UK, it is likely to be less about the wide creative freedom afforded by, for example, the Almere Homeruskwartier model and more about how you offer people practical, potentially quite prosaic options within fundamentally well-designed and well-made buildings.
JA: Pretty much all community-led housing can be seen as custom build development.
Given the growing prominence of community-led housing in policy and its increasing relevance to achieving local solutions to national housing crisis, we see it as a major growth area in the custom build context. We need to get away from the idea that community-led means communities having to go it alone – the big opportunity to us seems to be around how community groups, public sector partners and developers can work together and align their interests and deliver outcomes for all. Marmalade Lane is one example of this partnership working – and this sort of structure is key to delivering community-led housing at scale.
JA: TOWN was fortunate to have a partnership arrangement in place with Trivselhus, a Swedish manufacturer of closed timber panel houses. Their role hasn’t been only about supplying the kit – they’ve been co-developer of the Marmalade Lane scheme. But what attracted us to their system was a combination of the system’s simplicity, its high level of performance (it’s based on fabric-first principles and offers close-to-Passivhaus standards), and its structural flexibility that has enabled us to offer as range of meaningful choices to our customers while working with a tried-and-tested manufacturing process.
NM: It’s definitely quicker and cleaner on site than traditional methods, and with a panellised system the value of quality control and precision that comes from a factory is evident. And although we didn’t look closely at alternative methods, if you are committed to achieving high levels of thermal performance it is quite cost-effective.
We also have a cross-laminated timber structure for the apartments; structurally that is even quicker to build, but then takes more time to finish than a panellised system.
A challenge with timber is how you get enough thermal mass into the building to limit reliance on active services. With concrete floors and a full-brick skin plus MVHR we have a good balance of active and passive at Marmalade Lane but it is something that will need careful reconsideration on every project.
NM: Terrific – it has been a genuine partnership. Trivselhus’s ‘investor-supplier’ model marks them out in a crowded field of competing systems and methods as a company ready to put their money where their product is, and of course commercially it means they can make a return on development as well a manufacturer’s margin. As a co-operatively owned company, and with a characteristically Swedish commitment to sustainability through good design, there has also been a really strong affinity with a community-led development model. We look forward to doing more with them in future.
Find out more about Custom Build.
Discover how to unlock the potential of the Right to Build.
Gain hands-on knowledge how to kick-start your Custom Build project at an upcoming Right to Build expo.
Read about the increasing success of sustainable kit homes.