New England... born again in old England

The Shaker movement principles of community and simplicity have inspired a new development in Surrey. Penny Jackson reports
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A bit of New England has landed at the end of a suburban Surrey road. Walk past the mix of post-war homes and, almost at the end, you are stopped in your tracks by the sight of large, weather-boarded buildings painted in warm colours and surrounded by white picket fences. And this is no small-scale development, but 480 homes on a piece of land the size of St James's Park in London.

A bit of New England has landed at the end of a suburban Surrey road. Walk past the mix of post-war homes and, almost at the end, you are stopped in your tracks by the sight of large, weather-boarded buildings painted in warm colours and surrounded by white picket fences. And this is no small-scale development, but 480 homes on a piece of land the size of St James's Park in London.

The old sewage-treatments works in Worcester Park, not far from Sutton and a 20-minute train journey from Waterloo, may not quite ring the right bell in terms of name, but when it comes to raw potential, these 60 acres are about as blank a canvas as any developer could wish for. In this case it is St James Homes, and they have come up with a scheme for The Hamptons, as the site is now known, that will deliver not only housing but, on 30 acres of the land, a new park for public use.

It was this dual-use challenge that led John Thompson, the architect, to draw on the lifestyle of the American Shaker communities for inspiration. The religious purity of these first Christian settlers from 18th-century Manchester found its way into the practical world: their graceful but functional furniture was designed for shared use and their houses for communal families of maybe 100 members. He wondered whether borrowing some of their architectural principles might be the way to both provide a large number of homes and create a neighbourhood where people could feel they belonged.

The immediate impression of The Hamptons development is the regularity of the apartment buildings and houses. Although their almost barn-like shapes are similar, their features differ to include gable fronts, imposing three-storey columns with inset balconies, canopied porches and five-foot-wide verandas. Most unusual is that the buildings sit in grass, mirroring the Shakers' closeness to the land they farmed. We are not used to seeing green run up to front doors without being interrupted by beds, bushes and flower beds, and the effect is striking.

"The integration of the buildings into the landscape and the way they relate to each other is crucial. They wouldn't work without the parkland," says Thompson. "We have also made sure that cars have no visible role, which allows the buildings to be much grander." By that, he means the place will not be cluttered with parked cars. Residents will either have spots at the rear or under buildings, or in garages.

Homely New England touches of covered verandahs and balconies have been added, augmenting the Shaker-style austerity (Charles Dickens on a visit to a New York community derided the buildings for being no more sightly than English factories and barns), and even if they do suggest rocking chairs and wicker tables, they are likely to prove extremely sensible in the English climate. The houses and flats will be laid out in clusters, around squares, courtyards and gardens intended to create a feeling of both intimacy and space. The horseshoe pattern will allow an unobstructed view over the parkland.

An artist's impression in the style of a Shaker plan hangs on the wall of the marketing suite, showing names such as Vermont Hall, Pleasant Hill Road and Prospect Drive. In New England Place, the first of the five neighbourhoods, the reds, greys and blues chosen for specific village sites by the Shakers have been used on the houses and apartments.

Inside, the rooms have generous ceiling heights and windows with fine details - Thompson fought long and hard for the width of the glazing bars. The apartments have either dual aspect or open onto a terrace or balcony. The colours are muted and buyers will be able to choose from a wide palette that fits the overall theme. The interiors are appropriately unfussy with simple panel doors, dresser units and washstands. All the bathrooms have underfloor heating.

The symmetry of the exterior, with its well-proportioned windows running in perfect lines, is deceptively simple. The overall feeling is restful, surprisingly so for what is in effect high-density living.

"Unlike those modern buildings that appear impenetrable and people look at in awe, one can stand in front of these buildings and imagine them being built by hand, even imagine the trees being cut down for timber," says Thompson. In fact, the "timber" weatherboarding is fibrous cement and the windows UPVC. Brick chimney stacks conceal all the services, so there are no ugly ducts sticking through walls.

"The concept had to be carried through to the end. If the developers had stopped short of putting in porches or using different colours on the buildings it would not have worked, says Thompson, a founder member of Prince Charles's urban villages forum. He even took a party from St James Homes on a tour of the preserved Shaker villages on the east coast of America so they could see what he was proposing.

He is chairman not only of John Thompson & Partners, but of a new group at the Royal Institute of Architects on urbanism and planning. "We have to create a sense of place with our new developments."

At The Hamptons, there will be a community hall at the heart of the scheme. It was inspired by the town hall at Litchfield, Connecticut - and it provided a "eureka!" moment for the architects when they saw the simple, white, church-like building. Wayne Stutchbury, regional managing director of St James Homes, expects this to become a focal point for the residents. It will have a business suite, creche and gym, and concierge and car-hire services will be run from there.

The wider community is also being catered for in the park. Its centrepiece will be a land-art sculpture, one of the first of its kind in the UK, which will consist of a three-acre, 39-metre-high terraced amphitheatre, which will be used for summer concerts and art exhibitions. In addition, the park will showcase sculptures, on a permanent and temporary basis.

Beyond this, the landscape will become more informal. There is a huge 30-acre park, comprising grassland, woodland, nature reserves, trails and lakes. One of those will take the form of a reflecting pool, echoing those of a grand country estate, while another will be an eco-friendly endeavour, lined with bulrushes.

As a final flourish, there are plans to import the famous New England fall as well as architecture, with the planting of charateristic trees of the region, such as sugar maple, quaking aspen and silver birch trees. Four massive red oaks will be planted in the entrance square against the white community hall.

Does this add up to clever marketing with a Disneyland twist? It is by no means a first for New England design, but on this scale and in the detail of its architecture, layout and landscaping, it is new. The utopian ideals of the Shakers may have disappeared with their communities but what they built is still widely admired. We love copies of their furniture, so why not copies of their village communities?

Perhaps it might be worth investing in a rocking chair after all.

Prices at The Hamptons start from £305,000 for an apartment and £380,000 for a four-bedroom house; 020-8337 3425,