Architects at CODA are challenging bog-standard new-builds with their innovative Sky-House homes. Sharon Dale reports
David Cross started his architecture practice above a hairdresser’s shop in the Barnsley village of Birdwell 16 years ago but he has always dreamed big.
Now CODA Studios is a successful business with offices in Sheffield and Manchester and David’s latest ambition is to become a national housebuilder.
While many would dismiss this as a hopeless aspiration, he and his team have made a promising start.
What began as a series of small developments has led to a defined brand “Sky-House” and a separate company, the Sky-House Co.
Its USP is creating housing density and affordable homes in city centres and urban areas while using thoughtful design, quality construction and interesting architecture.
The idea came from the proliferation of city centre flats in the last property boom.
“In the beginning, city living was spacious loft conversions then the market got hotter and the flats got smaller and smaller and the joy was taken away.
“I wanted to inject some excitement back into city and urban living so I started to play around with the idea of density and affordability. It took me 10 years from that concept to getting the first house on site,” says David.
He envisaged a new generation of back-to-back terraces with roof gardens but planners were not initially keen on the concept.
“I grew up in a terraced house and I loved it. You knew your neighbours and there was a sense of community so I decided to reinvent the back-to-back but planning policy at the time was to move away from them.
“London had banned them at that point and they evoked images of slums so we had a struggle to convince the planners that our new take on them would work.”
Through a series of pre-planning applications, CODA rejigged the initial design in the spirit of compromise but rebranding the properties as “Sky-Houses” really did the trick.
“Back-to-back reminded people of the Victorian back-to-backs. Sky-House sounds better and it really sums up what we do.
“Our houses have large expanses of glazing so they are full of natural light and you can see the sky from those windows and from the roof garden. It’s all about the sky,” says David, who adds that his modern day back-to-backs are free from the issues that plagued the old ones.
Sky-Houses are built traditionally from brick and block and are clad with stone or brick but they have aluminium windows and zinc roofs, along with cavity walls filled with insulation, damp-proofing and sound insulation.
Sharing three of their four walls with neighbours makes them even more energy-efficient.
David says: “I wanted to build houses that were durable, adaptable and low tech. I didn’t want to use modern methods of construction. Banks like to lend on builds that are tried and tested plus if you use a high-tech cladding system, what happens if it is discontinued and panels need replacing?”
The layouts vary but the three-storey back-to-backs have an open plan living space on the ground floor, a bedroom on the first floor and another on the second floor plus a study area, roof garden and small front garden.
Asked why CODA designed part of the first floor as a roof garden rather than extra accommodation, David says that it enhances well-being, gives a sense of open space in a high-density, urban area and echoes terraces that are popular in European cities..
A sense of community and social interaction are helped by a shared pocket park or grassed area where children can play ball games. Cars are parked in a communal parking area that neighbours have to walk to.
“If you have driveways then people are straight out of the car and into their house without seeing anyone else, plus we only give each property one parking space because the idea is to travel more sustainably. Cars also create income poverty as people often have a loan for them and then there’s tax, insurance and maintenance, ” says David, who faced the challenge of finding land and financing developments.
Small to medium size builders struggle with funding as many mainstream banks either refuse to lend or put stringent constraints on any loans. Instead, many developers seek private equity.
Philip Prince, a developer with an interest in design, agreed to invest as did Ian Bower. Government-backed Homes England has also granted the company loans as part of a promise to help SME builders.
The biggest Sky-House project is on the Waverley development in Rotherham.
The 44 back-to-back houses are selling well and offer an alternative to the properties by volume builders who also have plots on the 740 acre site.
“The owners of the land wanted some interesting architecture.
“It took us five years to get the project to fruition but it’s been worth it because they want us to do more.
“We are now looking at five or six more sites at Waverley, which would mean a total of 350 homes,” says David, who adds that there are now six different types of Sky-House.
The latest is the Sky-Lo, a 21st century dormer bungalow which is being used on a small site in Stocksbridge, near Sheffield.
Sky-House.co. also has land in Doncaster, Lincoln, Warrington and Manchester and is in talks with the owners of an old mill in Sheffield
.“If I could wave a magic wand I’d take Sky-House national,” says David. “The market is dominated by big firms building suburban housing that isn’t very exciting and then there are city centre flats. We are the missing middle. We could be a national housebuilder renowned for wonderful architecture.”
*The eight Sky-Lo houses at Fox Valley in Stocksbridge are in a small terrace.
Architect David Cross says the properties are a 21st alternative to the 1960s dormer bungalow.
Prices start at £155,000 and are described as a cross between a bungalow and a conventional house.
Sky-Lo offers one-floor living, with two rooms and a kitchen diner space at ground level and a room above, along with a roof garden.