Property: Looking forward to the Millennium with a new way of living

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The Independent Online
The Millennium will bring not just that Dome, but also new housing that aims to be socially and environmentally aware. Andrew Mylius explains.

The contents of the Millennium Dome remain a mystery to all but Peter Mandelson and a few of his close advisers. But Londoners who like the idea of having the Dome for a neighbour could be moving into the new homes months before the Dome itself opens for business.

Millennium Village, a model housing project of 1,377 dwellings, will rise on the site of an old gasworks just south of the Millennium Dome. Anyone who wants to see what brown-field development, architectural sustainability, organic architecture, "intelligent" building, holistic design or social responsibility looks like, should watch closely: construction starts in October and the first homes should be ready for occupation by the middle of next year.

The scheme has been master planned by veteran architect Ralph Erskine, best known in this country for the innovative and socially sensitive Byker housing estate in Newcastle and the Ark, an environmentally sophisticated office beside the M4 in Hammersmith, London. He is being supported by acting architects Hunt Thompson, the Moat and Ujima housing associations, and the construction/developer groups are Countryside Properties and Taylor Woodrow. Tom Barker, consultant on product development for the scheme who is managing director of engineers DCAb, says: "There's a satellite of experts buzzing around Erskine".

At first sight there is a striking resemblance to that most English of urban phenomena, the garden-city, born 100 years ago. The completed Millennium Village will contain 20 hectares of park, gardens and allotments. Housing is clustered into sub-communities; traffic will be minimal thanks to carefully planned public transport; the scale is intimate.

Yet the new village should not suffer from Hampstead Garden Suburb's ghostliness: Erskine has designed it to create "critical density": enough people should live there to stimulate local businesses and support a whole range of shops, restaurants, cafes and studios. A quarter of the housing will be low-cost, assigned for local people, integrated with and indistinguishable from private housing - no snobbery here! And Millennium Village will have a school, health centre and community teleservices centre. Alan Cherry, chairman of Countryside Properties, says the scheme is about transplanting a piece of central London east of the city, "creating a new urbanism with a soft heart".

Buildings have a maximum height of 12 storeys to ensure their inhabitants stay in contact with the ground, even where the scheme is most dense. Green space offers opportunities for recreation and, according to engineer Chris McCarthy of Battle McCarthy, advising on environmental issues, the scheme promises to underpin the advantages afforded by the mix of urban qualities with "humanising" factors by offering high levels of security. Public areas will be monitored by CCTV, and the tight grouping of houses will encourage neighbourhood-watch schemes. Forget about embattled tower- blocks or lonely suburbs; this is intended to be experimental housing where you know the person next door.

Next to social amenity, environmental issues are important, including the rehabilitation of a heavily contaminated site, ground-breaking standards of energy efficiency and longevity. Peter Sharratt, architect with DCAb, says: "Our aim is to design out problems before they get built. At worst, architects and designers use environmental consultants or engineers to solve problems with expensive technology that should not have been there in the first place."

Rainwater is prevented from leaching into the sub-soil through the use of non-porous piles. Materials are being chosen according to their embodied energy values - that consumed in producing them - and use values. They must also be recycled or renewable (the performance of wood is hard to beat at one level; at another, a composite material developed by the Atomic Energy Agency shows promise for flooring and roofing).

The buildings themselves will be modular, allowing for buildings of different sizes and shapes to be produced, and for changes of use - as families grow, or as people set up home businesses, for instance. Tom Barker says: "You don't build the house on site using brickies; you build the pieces in a factory like a car or computer". Assembly will take about three weeks once the site has been prepared, and will enable local people to be involved in construction (and later, modification), without needing special skills.

Perhaps most impressive of all are the energy savings that the architecture will offer. About 50 per cent of all energy consumed in the UK and Europe goes into heating, cooling and lighting buildings. Through improvements in insulation, use of alternative energy, and use of materials in construction, Millennium Village aims to cut energy consumption by half across the life of a building; the new houses will offer a 30 per cent reduction in water consumption. To help residents control their living environments, each house will be linked to a local area IT network. If you've gone on holiday and forgotten to turn the boiler off, just make a telephone call.

The area network will, in the longer term, enable anyone to plug into the Net or turn the spare bedroom into an office. In the short term, residents will be able to gather local information on bus times, events, shop openings or the weather, simply using a television set.

Millennium Village will go to planning in six weeks. In that time a lot of details will become clearer. But it is already evident that this is a forward-looking project that has the potential to change the way we think about the places we live. As Bernard Hunt of Hunt Thompson says: "We're leaving behind the pessimistic idea that the best is in the past - that we're at the fag-end of history. We are seeking to do better than ever before, and we're living in an age when it's achievable."