Affordable Housing: Minimal in style - and cost, too

Key workers can now live in Modernist classics - thanks to the work of one visionary housing group. Nick Lloyd Jones reports
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If your idea of affordable urban housing is ugly tower blocks and identical two-up-two-downs, then think again. Notting Hill Home Ownership (NHHO), which is part of the Notting Hill Housing Group, has pioneering a new scheme to bring back style into social housing. "We didn't want to get involved with bland developments," says NHHO's director, James MacPherson. "We prefer our projects to be funky, modern, and attractive."

So it has teamed up with leading architects for a series of daring new-build projects in London and is renovating dilapidated but distinguished buildings. The earliest project was eight years ago when the Grade II-listed Rootes car factory in north Kensington was redeveloped.

Then, four years ago, on the western fringes of the same borough, it collaborated with Avanti Architects on the new-build Helix Court estate. The works took four years to complete and comprised two linked blocks containing 17 units, ranging in size from one to three bedrooms. Eleven were sold off on a shared ownership basis, while the others were rented out at affordable rates.

Those eligible to buy were key worker groups - teachers, nurses, social workers and the like - as well as those on local authority and housing association waiting lists.

However, by far the biggest NHHO project to date has been the redevelopment of the Isokon estate in Camden, north London.

The Isokon was one of the first Modernist buildings in this country, designed by Wells Coates for the developer Jack Pritchard in 1934. It became a mecca for the Modernist movement and was colonised by various key figures. Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, was an early resident, as was fellow German architect Marcel Breuer. The crime writer Agatha Christie also lived there.

NHHO, again in association with Avanti architects, won the contract from Camden local authority to restore the Isokon in 2001. It was a challenging task because the building was run-down and Grade I listed.

Avanti, a multi-award-winning practice that has more than 20 years' experience of working on Modernist buildings, proved the perfect partner for the job.

Its director, John Allan, relished working on the project. "The Isokon was originally designed as an exercise in minimal living," he says. "The guiding ethos had been to provide a place to live for hard-up people near the city centre. Our project continued in the same spirit. Well-designed, affordable housing was a cutting-edge idea back in 1934 and it is equally cutting-edge today. We breathed new life into the Isokon and made it modern and relevant once again."

The project took four years to complete and comprised 36 units - mainly studios but also a few one- and two-bedroom flats. Twenty-five of these were made available to key workers, who were also given the option of buying into them, while the other 11 were sold off on the open market to help subsidise the scheme.

Judith Watson, a nurse at University College London Hospital, bought a share in her ground-floor studio flat there two years ago. It was valued at £150,000 and she bought a 50 per cent share in it. She now has a mortgage of £72,000 and pays rent of £244 a month on the balance. She can buy further equity in her home later.

"I feel privileged to live in such a wonderful building. If it hadn't been for the shared ownership option, I wouldn't have been able to afford anything here."

There are other exciting NHHO projects in the pipeline as well, notably the redevelopment of the listed Art Deco ABC cinema on Streatham High Street in Lambeth. This is being done in association with Hart Associates architects and is due for completion shortly. Three units will become available under the shared ownership scheme, with full asking prices starting from around £215,000 for a one-bedroom flat.

Meanwhile, another new-build development, this time in collaboration with CZWG architects, is also under way in East India Dock. It is scheduled to open in three years.

Notting Hill Home Ownership can be contacted on 020- 8357 4444 or via its website at

Avanti Architects can be contacted on 020-7278 3060 or or via its website at