The Echoes is a new social housing scheme by Bell Phillips Architects located in Grays Essex.
Comprising 53 new homes across three buildings, the development places a strong emphasis on high quality design, construction and sustainability, serving as an illustration of what can be achieved in Thurrock and raising the benchmark for social housing elsewhere. The development aims to reinforce a sense of social identity and civic pride amongst residents, within an area currently characterised by uncomfortable and outdated post-war units.
The scheme has been designed as three separate buildings, rising to a height of six storeys and arranged to complement the surrounding context. Clad in London weathered yellow brick, the new buildings create a strong, active frontage to two urban streets. The street is now animated with entrances and windows from both sides, improving personal safety and security in the area. A playful articulation of the roof unifies the development and ensures that adequate daylight levels reach surrounding houses while reflecting pitched roofs found in the immediate vicinity. Cantilevering triangular balconies, formed of galvanised steel with a perforated metal cladding give the development a unique identity that is specific to the site context.
Part of Thurrock Council’s goal to provide 1,000 new homes within five years, The Echoes’ site was identified early as a location of great potential for growth. They former garage site is close to the town centre and associated amenities, while it is bordered to one side by a train line, allowing the development to rise to six storeys without having a negative impact on surrounding residences. Within easy walking distance to Grays town centre and Railway Station, the project is sustainable in terms of transport. The development has also added further commercial viability to the town centre shops by increasing the number of town centre residents.
Brick has been used as the primary material for the development to provide a robust, high quality building with a real sense of permanence. The brick has been simply but carefully detailed so as not to detract from the striking sculptural form of the three buildings, while respecting neighbouring properties clad in red and brown brick. Deep reveals to window openings with brick soffits to windows, doors and recessed entrances emphasizes the mass of the brick, while the use of blind recessed openings at high levels gives relief to large expanses of brick at high level.
Neighbourly interaction is prioritised in the design, where a range of shared space has sought to enhance a community feel. A tapered entranceway leads residents into an internal courtyard, where people can socialise, relax and play amongst a variety of hard and soft landscaping, seating areas and a number of specimen deciduous trees. The development’s three separate buildings surround the courtyard and help define the space, while the northern border is open to increase levels of natural light and enhance the perceived size of the space. Each building is orientated toward this courtyard, including a series of entranceways that increase foot traffic in the space and a number of windows that create excellent levels of passive surveillance beneath.
A number of existing trees were retained in the development, including a large London plane which now serves as the focal point of the main entrance to the site. New trees have also been planted throughout, including around the perimeter of the site to introduce a feeling of nature in the surrounding area.
An emphasis on outdoor space is continued elsewhere, where private space has been allocated to each unit in the form of balconies on the upper floors and private terraces on the ground floor. While the internal spaces have been designed to be as efficient as possible, each unit is double or triple orientated, offering a variety of external views. Several flats on the upper floors feature views over existing residential developments to the Thames beyond.
Also incorporated into the design is a two-storey community centre, replacing a dated and underused facility previously on the site. Though the design and brick clad lower levels of the community centre can be read as one with the residential units, the building is physically separated to appear a part of the wider region. The community centre fronts a key route into the town, where large levels of glazing create a highly active and visible façade. The community centre brings the new residents together with the wider community, offering space for meetings, functions and parties. The community hub has ensured that The Echoes leaves a long lasting legacy within the community, helping to make Thurrock a better place to live.
Thurrock Council have reversed a decades-old trend by investing heavily and unashamedly in new council housing. They have created a new house building vehicle – Gloriana – to create a substantial amount of new homes in the area by 2021. Theirs is a proactive and progressive response to the UK housing crisis. Thurrock’s forward thinking and willingness to invest in high quality architecture has provided a model for other councils across the South East and the UK to follow.
Bell Phillips Architects’ scheme aims to evoke a sense of pride within the community: something rarely seen in other public housing schemes. The development makes the most of an underused plot and unmistakably makes for a positive addition to the surrounding context. On a more local scale, The Echoes can act as a catalyst for future development of nearby housing. Its relationship to the urban fabric allows for future flexibility throughout the wider estate, prompting discussions about the renovation or over-cladding of existing buildings to match The Echoes and create a more comfortable environment.