Thursday, 5 May 2016

Celebrating the Progress Estate

Context 88: March 2005 (Institute of Historic Building Conservation -  IHBC)

Original article:

The Progress Estate, 1915 garden suburb that was greatly admired and become an inspiration for much inter-war housing design, has been a conservation area since 1971

By Graham Tite and Steve Crow

Houses on Well Hall road in the early days of the estate (left) and today (right).  
The estate was built rapidly in the First World War I house munitions workers
The Well Hall area of Eltham in the London Borough of Greenwich contains a key example of the development of mass housing in Britain during its first heroic era.  Much of the initial idealism of the creators of the Progress Estate can still be felt here, despite the numerous problems of recent decades.

Now its recently re-founded residents association points to plans for revival.  The estate was constructed in a rapid campaign that started in 1915.  The residents are using the 90th anniversary in 2005 to launch a series of publicity events. 

Originally built to house World War I munitions employees at the nearby Woolwich Arsenal arms factory, the scheme was commissioned by the Office of Works.  The drawings were prepared at Westminster under the direction of Sir Frank Baines.  The style of the small houses and their planning layout owed a great deal to the precepts of Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928).  He had founded the Garden City Association in 1899 and began building to model settlements in Hertfordshire: Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1919).  Other developments of model dwellings in the same genre for works had been attempted by even earlier pioneers at Burnsville (1879) and Port Sunlight (1888)

The Progress Estate brought the garden city movement to the outskirts of the the capital in a spectacular manner.  It produced results more picturesque than Letchworth’s.  A short time after the end of the Great War, the London County Council (LCC) itself took up the contrition of more extensive cottage estates (such as the St Helier Estate near Sutton by chief architect G.Topham Forrest, 1828-36).  The LCC mass housing had a great effect on the topography and architectural character of large tracts of outer London.

A visit to St Helier, for example, will immediately reveal the close resemblance such developments bear to their important predecessor at Eltham.

The significance of the site was recognised as early in 1971 when it was designated one of the borough’s earliest conservation areas (another being Eltham Palace and its surroundings, further up the hill at Eltham). Fortunately, there had been no demolitions prior to 1971, other than those necessitated by wartime damage, so the entire estate of houses and its planned open spaces was transferred virtually intact into conservation area status.

During the same years, portions of the estate were in the early stages of being sold off to individual owner occupiers.  as this sales process accelerated, an Article 4 direction was applied in 1973 to all 1,300 houses.  Again, the measure was well in advance of such restrictions being applied to the development rights of owners in historic areas elsewhere.  In 1976 a photographic record of every property on the Progress Estate was made in order to provide visual evidence of the status quo that these controls were intended to maintain.

Today the estate’s plan is 100 per cent intact.  Two thirds of it are to the east of Well Hall Road and are bisected by Rochester Way.  The remaining third is west of Well Hall Road.  In all three sub-areas most roads wind and rise up gentle slips to crate picturesque rural-looking scenes with triangular open greens placed at virtually every corner end.

The Progress Estate is adjoined on all sides by conventional housing developments, originating from both before and after 1915.  The banality of their layouts stands in striking contract to the interesting scenes within the conservation area.

Further refinements in the plan include the incorporation of two village-like open spaces: Lovelace Green (East sections) and the smaller Sandby Green (West section).  The estate is well provided with trees that, in some cases, survive from before the houses were built.  Every property has some type of garden, and numerous houses have gardens much larger than the norm for mass housing.  Even so, there are many types of plot, with many properties having small front gardens, or no front gardens at all.

Of the 1,300 examples of two-storey small houses, the surviving plans show design types lettered from A to K and OO, and the accommodation of the various designs graded 1,2, or 3.  All had a scullery and WC, but class 3 houses had only a single living room, three bedrooms and a bath in the scullery.  A parlour and separate bathroom were added for class 2, and class 1 also had an additional, fourth bedroom.

Exceptions of space and comfort have led to numerous applications for kitchen extensions and additional bathrooms in the past two decades.  Usually these have been permitted at the rear or sometimes, where space permits, at the side. 

Permutating the design types and the three grades accounts for some, but not all, of the architectural variations.  Plans can be semi-detached, in small groups or terraced.  The upper floor was sometimes constructed within the roof slope (created a precedent of the occasional permitting of dormer roof extensions, providing they are confined to the rear elevation).

The builders in 1915 made free use of a range of facing materials.  Slate and even some examples of half-timbering were added to the usual brick and tile.  Many houses were built with rendered walls.  A rearguard action has been fought against stone-dash and the Portofino effects with which some householders have lately sought to beautify their property.  the notable use of brick chimneystacks were a feature of the original designs, and these have been successfully preserved.

A terrace of houses on Congreve Road in the early years (left) and today (right).  
The occasional metal gate and inappropriate replacement windows makes a jarring view, 
but generally the estate has survived well.
Although the impact of car ownership with the consequent building of garages and car ports has done much to change the modern appearance of the estate in ways that are beyond the scope of the article 4 direction, the perennial matter of replacements windows and front doors remains a bread-and-butter issues for planners and agents.

The estate was built with two window types: casements with glazing bars in a neo-Georgian style, and metal windows with a more vernacular style of leaded lights.  UPVC replacements are now permitted in deference to the all-conquering plastic window industry, but design guidelines have been published to discourage householders from continuing to install the bizarre variety of new windows and frames that unfortunately disfigure much of the estate.  In some cases, where the windows have already reached a state that a second replacement is needed, the Article 4 direction can be cited by planners to seek correction of mistakes of the past.

The battle over windows is matched to a lesser extent by skirmishes about fences and walls.  Fortunately, sufficient examples survive of the original and unaltered features, and a few householders present their buildings and gardens immaculately to demonstrate the ideal condition of these architectural gems.  New developments on empty sites are resisted, and the estate ought to approach its 2015 centenary with some degree of optimism.

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