Didsbury is Manchester's version of a trendy London suburb with a village feel. As good for bistros and bars as it is for bringing up babies, it is the kind of place young professional couples have at the top of their wishlist and, tellingly, was chosen as the home for Rachel and Adam in the acclaimed television drama, Cold Feet.
So if a new development were to spring up in the area, it is not difficult to imagine the style of house - large, smart, even imposing, divided by neat driveways and shrubs with a garage wide enough to stable a fleet of cars. With that picture in mind it is no wonder that the response of those arriving to view South at Didsbury Point is often a shocked, "Oh my God, this isn't what I thought."
Instead of an executive-style redbrick exterior and grey roof, they find themselves face to face with grey rendering, galvanized steel and a building divided by a full-height glass atrium. The outside space is given over to grasses and gravel rather than paving flags and turf.
Ann Laver of Countryside Properties, the developers, relishes the challenge of getting potential buyers across the doorstep. Because it is only when they see how the interior fits together that the baffling exterior begins to make sense. "Once someone steps inside, it is a different story," she says. "They find a big hall, wide staircase and airy, open, light rooms with a lot of windows."
Laver's confidence that contemporary design can deliver traditional but flexible living space has been vindicated by the judges of this year's Building for Life awards, who have given Didsbury Point a Silver Standard in an initiative to promote design excellence and celebrate best practice within the building industry.
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) - the Government-approved design watchdog - together with the House Builders' Federation and the Civic Trust want to push developers into providing houses that inspire a sense of belonging. So it's out with the residential sprawl on the road to nowhere, and in with friendly streetscapes, safe open spaces and imaginative landscaping. The pressing need to provide new homes at ever higher levels of density in an environmentally sensitive manner has injected a new urgency into making these places work on all levels.
On the edge of Didsbury village, the 30-acre site of an old hospital has proved the ideal template for innovative suburban design. A master plan ensures against haphazard growth and as well as 270 houses and apartments, a business park with shops and restaurants has been worked into the scheme. This is an urban village in the making with a strong identity and clear neighbourhoods - important Building-for-Life criteria.
"The days when you planned a development by getting a big piece of paper and putting as many boxes on it as possible are over," says Ann Lever who is a divisional sales and marketing director. "People are tired of having to compromise on space when they buy a new home, which is why so many prefer old properties. We are giving them the space they want but in a new package, so the only compromise they may have to make is the appearance. It is ridiculous that some people spend as much £20,000 in the first two years improving on a new house because it doesn't give them what they want."
Demand for the unconventional should be satisfied by the larger houses at South, where the master bedroom in one section of the building leads on to a roof terrace in the other through the glass stairwell. The atrium strip runs from top to bottom, throwing light into the house. In all the units, from one-bedroom flats and duplexes to family houses, the storage space is exceptional. In the open-plan layouts, functional unadorned kitchen units increase the sense of space, while the clutter is catered for out of sight. Being able to control how large living areas were used was a particular plus for the Building for Life team.
Standing outside the buildings, the cohesion of design makes is difficult to distinguish the apartments from the town houses. All have generous windows with balconies and terraces and their own bit of garden and range in size from two to four storeys. Redbrick is combined with white render and cedar cladding to characterise individual elements.Best of all, the car has been all but banished from the streets to secure areas. Wayne Hemingway, chairman of the judges, regards this as a particular triumph. The founder of Red or Dead and partner in a multi-disciplinary design company, Hemingway believes the parked car has blighted many developments. "Well-rounded people don't spend all their time inside with computer games, they want to mix with their neighbours. But I don't want to talk to my car when I step outside," he says. Nor would he wish to return home to the normal housebuilders' fare. "Four-storey terrraces surrounded by Tarmac is an exercise in 'town cramming' and an easy option to make money," he says. On the other hand, he feels people would be pleased to live in South at Didsbury Point. "It is by no means perfect, but the housing developer has made a real effort."
Praise indeed. Alex Ely, Cabe's head of sustainable communities, explains that they had to meet 70 per cent of the criteria, ranging from being a place rather than just a collection of houses, to having safe public spaces.
For a gold standard, the target is 80 per cent and among those is Berkeley Homes's Brewery Square, in Clerkenwell, London. "It is unusual and imaginative with distinctive areas while still meeting the requirements of permeability. It is worth pointing out that an application for a gated community was refused," Cabe notes. "Didsbury Point would never have got through planning a few years ago," says Lever. Perhaps we will soon see awards for planners as well as developers.
Prices at South at Didsbury Point range between £150,000 to £350,000 for the first phase. Houses in the second phase start from £419,950.
Sales office: 0161 434 9953 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
BUILDING FOR LIFE AWARDS
Brewery Square, London, Berkeley Homes
Port Marine, Bristol, Crest Nicholson
Beaufort Court, Lillie Road, London, Peabody Trust
BedZed, Sutton, Surrey, Peabody Trust
Scalebor Square, Wharfedale, David Wilson Homes
Chorlton Park, Manchester, Irwell Valley Housing
Timber Wharf, Manchester, Urban Splash
Bishops Walk, Ely, Hopkins Homes
Grange View, Henlow, Bryant Homes
Tarporley, Cheshire, Bell Meadow Developments
South at Didsbury Point, Manchester