Written by Eleanor Young, RIBA Journal May 2023
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ADAM Architecture's Nansledan housing outside Newquay builds an intimate Cornish feel with texture, colour and variety - and some strong local materials.
Nansledan's road names are carved into slate: Bownder Agravayn, Stret Goryan, Garth Iger. This is Cornish housing drawing on its roots. Seeking directions through the gently curving streets I am told to follow the road round by the double blue houses then cut through by the Cornish house, 'Yellow and black, you know?' There are few housing developments where you could navigate by the houses, most are too similar. But everywhere you look in this extension to surf town Newquay there is a new delight. The curve of a lead-lined porch, a tiny unexpected window, a granite sill, pretty coloured terrace, a bay window, pair of dormers, slate hung porch. Someone has enjoyed designing Nansledan and that joy translates into the streetscape, little roads you want to explore with tall houses, and little set backs. Even the parking courts are fun with timber and tin sheds on garages - in fact they are so good we will come back to them.
There at around 640 houses at Nansledan, with another 100 under way; the plan is for 4000, split into neighbourhoods or quarters. It is all on Duchy of Cornwall land, long held by King Charles and now passed on to Prince William. Project design started with a sketch by Leon Krier. ADAM Architecture took over with an Enquiry by Design engagement process in 2005. Encouraged by chief planning officer Phil Mason, the process was widened to encompass the whole of Newquay and its 50 year future. What was needed to make a better town, less reliant on high volume, low spending tourists? The answers that came back were affordable homes, family houses, employment opportunities, new railway, school and medical centre. That set the background and helped crystallise ambitions for a mixed development at Nansledan and the subsequent planning applications for 200, then 300 homes and their build-out.
Two significant administrative tools have made a huge difference to the continued growth and quality of Nansledan . The first is a Local Development Order, one of the regulatory incentives the government hopes will open up Investment Areas, as announced in the March budget. It is worth seeing how it was done in Nansledan and the freedom it has brought since 2021. 'It was a big upfront cost,' says ADAM Architecture project director Hugh Petter. 'A lot of documents including parameter plans with uses and densities, equal to super outline consent.' There are periodic checks from the council but so long as plans remain within the agreed parameters development can go ahead with no planning risk to either house builders or commercial organisations which might want a base there. And it has a flexibility that detailed consent does not.
In place from the start was the second bedrock of development, a specially drawn up Common Aspiration contract with a 10-year review between the Duchy and the three housebuilders it works with on the site. All sit on the executive board, along with architect Petter and the Duchy's estates director Peter James. The housebuilders each take on tranches of land with the mix of road hierarchies and house typologies established, their standard layouts fit into these. But this is not joint control, it builds in the marking-up of working drawings at 1:20, with a focus on the public elevations, with potential reworking of 'ugly' or incorrect classical detail and for Petter and team to give direction on colour and highlights. This policing extends onto site, so when housebuilders fixed problems with ground conditions by breaking up the roofline of a paired villa; there was a quick intervention. The resolution was pragmatic but even that would have been unachievable without the control of the Common Aspiration contract.
The rules that are being policed are drawn from the Design Manual and its companions on landscape and streets. James was with a contractor before joining the Duchy to work on Poundbury and he is quite brutal about what is being built here: 'They're simple buildings with a few gob-ons, they're not difficult.' He is right, to some extent, these are box buildings on the whole and the lovely details that catch the eye don't alter the fundamental buildability.
Can it be true that it is gob-ons that give the houses elegance and imbue them with the warmth of recognition? Not quite. Some houses are more complex, like the stately arts and crafts building on the corner by the town square - one of the occasional special houses, whose build cost is absorbed by the more standard terraces and villas. And more significantly, the houses have got the proportions of fundamentals like the windows 'right', including the distinction of where eaves should sit between grander homes and small houses on back streets. Walls and railings rather than shonky fences mark boundaries with the public realm. Outlawed from front elevations are expansion joints, utility meters and vents. The streets too are designed to avoid clutter - thus those slate street names on houses and street lamps where possible - and make walking or cycling more pleasant via nudges to reduce speed with corners, curbs and different surfaces.
The smaller, more intimate spaces work the best. The green lanes following the line of old farm tracks with stone walls, the narrow streets and - oddly - the parking courts. These are pleasantly higgledy piggledy with a little building on a corner, some garages pushing out into the space, a few timbered work spaces and flats above - and, even better, you can cut through them to see the backs of the houses and get glimpses of gardens. These spaces in the centre of urban blocks work really hard. Services are routed through here (no meters at the front remember, fewer manholes too) and they hold soakaways. They feel like places where you'd bump into your neighbours and talk.
The larger open spaces need more people and bigger trees to settle them in. It will take time. The main street, which will lead to a market street due to break ground in 2024, felt exposed and oversized on a cool spring Tuesday. The town square is rather rough grass inside its patchy pittosporum hedge; the houses set beyond roads and not quite high enough at two or three storeys. Petter laughs when asked about the scale of the square. 'It was a farmer's dump, we didn't want to touch it,' he explains. And trees don't thrive in this salty air without protection - so had to go in after the buildings, thus the distinctly diminutive holm oaks and Monterey pines.
A step up in scale for commercial buildings alongside a busier road is marked architecturally with forays into arts and crafts and art deco. A primary school designed by Francis Robert Architects, at the outer end of the development area, serves Nansledan and its neighbouring village. It sits marooned in fields but with an aspect softened by its red tiles, arts and crafts details and natural ventilation chimneys. A nursery in the midst of the development has a similar charm, its gable end facing the street with a little campanile and a date stone; it fits the feel of the houses. ADAM Architecture's art deco shops (and a flat block), paired with roundabouts and tarmac currently, lack sufficient decoration to give them a lift, they have the symmetry but not the hint of curvaceous voluptuousness and look like cheap anywhere blocks. However, they do create spaces for jobs in Nansledan, from web optimisers in the new office hub to a bespoke hat maker, and a Cornish food outlet and café that picks up the pastels of the houses in its crockery.
That is one sort of sustainability ticked off. There is no disguising that building 4000 houses has a massive carbon cost - even if the spoil is being shifted to what will be a community orchard just the other side of the site, running into meadows being cultivated on old farmland. But the buildings already exceed targets for the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge. The team puts it down to high quality construction, including air tightness, mass sourcing of local materials with long term relationships with local stone and slate quarries, and blocks using recycled china clay, another Cornish source. The housebuilders aim to reach LET! recommended levels and use Passivhaus principles, with one switching to timber structures to help.
As Nansledan progresses, at a rate of 100 houses a year or so, the character of the eight quarters will emerge - as already outlined in the Design Manual. And there will be more nearby places to walk to through these walkable neighbourhoods. Can it be a truly local place or will it end up as a giant holiday village? Short term whole-house lets are not allowed, but it is harder to stop second homes. I spotted a typical touristy sign of 'gone surfing' through a window. And a new road to Newquay Airport will supply a faster route to London for commuters and holiday makers. But the team hopes to keep delivering houses for local people and so far 70% of the buyers have had a Cornish postcode, with three of the foreman and site managers among them.
It is all a royal fantasy? James argues not. There is still a profit requirement. This scheme is more about longer term ambition and the ability to invest in enduring quality urban space and landscape. Petter stresses the importance of doing things differently and not just selling land to house builders for the highest price. If it is a dream it certainly feels more grounded than Poundbury. Take a trip, perhaps stay over, get in some surfing too....