A Convivial Community
Richard Robinson: Studio Manager, Metropolitan Workshop
Suburb: Forest Hill, South London
I love my street. We have lived in this three storey townhouse since 2006. We are at the top of a hill, so we have distant views over South London, looking East and into Kent. We are awoken by the sunrise with light streaming into the bedroom. There are no views to the West, as the garden backs onto a Victorian garden wall and tall, mature trees. Our home is the end terrace stepping down the hill, overlooking the mount, a small, sloping communal green space with a few trees.
The common parts of the estate are owned and managed communally by all 31 households. We pay a small monthly service charge for gardening, maintenance and repairs, and crucially there is a management committee made up of residents. The AGM, summer BBQ and bonfire night, along with the close proximity of our homes ensures that everyone knows everyone, just enough to make a strong community with some getting more involved than others. Lots of us have children of a similar age and share childcare. Many work in the creative industries and a number, but not all, share similarities in age, broad political outlook and world view. Some have lived here for thirty plus years and others’ less than one. In short there is enough of a mix to keep things interesting and we like our neighbours. Perhaps there is a type drawn to houses of this age and style?
The steep slope of the site creates a character of its own. There are two repeated housing types within the same broadly 5m x 8m footprint all arranged as terraces of between five and eight homes. There is one flat above a row of garages. The estate was built at around the same time as the Span Houses, and they follow a similar model based on solid party walls and flexible internal partitions. Ours has a separate kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, a lounge, bedroom and bathroom on the first floor and two further bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor. Some of the houses have been built, or been converted to have the larger front bedroom split into two. Others have an extra room on the ground floor used as a study. The garages for these houses are all grouped together by the entrance to the road and double stacked, making use of the change in level by being accessed from either side. The other house type is entered from the ground floor at the front with toilet and integral garage, kitchen and living space are on the first floor with level access to the garden at the rear, with two bedrooms and bathroom above.
There are several features of our house that made the decision to extend rather than move that bit easier. High ceilings, full width windows with lots of natural light, and no load bearing internal walls made it easier for us to change things around. We are an end of terrace and had a small wedge-shaped space to the side of the house that we had been using for a shed but that always seemed to offer some greater potential. Because of the way the rows of terraces relate to each other and work their way up the hill the footpath to the houses along the side of ours is 1.2m higher than the floor level, so we could hide a big volume behind a retaining wall. We kept to single storey to reduce the impact on our neighbours and to make planning easier. The wedge-shaped plan has led to an interesting folded roof form and the opportunity for extra light from a new rooflight. The extension means that our two boys now have their own room with a study/guest room on the ground floor. We also have a separate utility room for doing the washing, and a ground floor cloakroom that means my parents don’t have to tackle the stairs when they visit.
Until I wrote this article, I hadn’t really thought about what suburbia means to me. What has become apparent is that for me suburban living is about living in relatively close proximity to people that I both know and like. We have our own space but the physical openness of the houses, the layout of the terraces, the relatively small number of homes, and the shared external areas means that small, informal interactions most importantly in person, but also more recently through various forms of social media, are easy and part of every-day life. There is also something familiar with my early experiences of living in suburbia. My first home was an interwar semi-detached house with bay windows in Birmingham, where I knew every child on the street, as my children do now. At eight, we moved to a brand new housing estate, on a cul-de-sac, next to the primary school I attended. We knew everyone on the street here too. Only last year my parents downsized after nearly 40 years – and some of the original owners still live there!
Richard Robinson has worked in architecture and communication for the last twenty years. As Studio Manager, he is responsible for improving the appearance and operation of the office, organising social events and ensuring that staff are having fun! Previously he worked at MJP Architects, and Design for Homes.
Richard enjoys dinghy sailing and gardening. He designed and built a shed, to house a bicycle-powered radio station, a recycled plastic bottle greenhouse at his local primary school and helped construct two green oak timber-framed buildings at the local nature reserve.