Where have you come from?
Neil Murphy: I began my career at HM Treasury, went on secondment to Newcastle City Council and got interested in cities and the built environment there. Jonny started in destination consulting, similarly focused on how you make places better. We started working together over a decade ago at Beyond Green, where we moved from sustainability consultancy into strategic land promotion, focused on planning mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods in places where car-dependent estates are the norm.
Why did you decide to start TOWN?
Jonny Anstead: We wanted to apply some of what we’d learned in large-scale, strategic land projects to developments that we could build ourselves – and in a shorter timeframe. Specifically, we wanted to show that street-based design, good architecture and a people-focused approach might make for better, more sustainable places.
What are your ambitions as a company?
NM: Our mission is to provide people with good homes in proper streets and neighbourhoods. It’s early days, but we’d like to be recognised in a few years for having shown that you can do good domestic urbanism profitably; that people (yes, even outside London) will absolutely go for sustainable new-build dwellings in dense, walkable places.
It would be nice if we could help nudge the PLCs in a more progressive direction
We don’t necessarily want to become volume builders ourselves but it would be nice if we could help nudge the PLCs in a more progressive direction.
What differentiates you from other developers?
JA: We’re a bit more purpose-driven and like to challenge some of the assumptions of the housing sector especially. We don’t believe people to be wedded inextricably to their cars, we don’t think people are put off by modern methods of construction, and we think of the public realm as an investment, not a sunk cost. Also, in an industry where customers tend to have very limited options, we try and put them at the centre of a process that provides meaningful user choice over the housing we deliver for them.
How do you go about finding architects?
JA: We try to read up on them and – where we can – visit projects that we can learn from. And we spend a fair amount of time meeting architects we haven’t worked with yet to understand what makes them tick and how we might work with them in the future as opportunities arise.
What do you want from architects?
JA: People who understand and share our purpose. We like working with architects who marry strong convictions with a collaborative spirit and method, with attention to detail and a feel for materials. We tend to think of buildings first and foremost as bits of town, so architects who empathise with that way of thinking and can realise dwellings with really good individual qualities within it – that’s the essence of the job. And, since we can’t defy gravity, the ability to make the build budget go a long way …
What don’t you want?
NM: Sometimes – not on our projects, I hasten to add – you see designs for housing-led schemes that are straining for originality.
It’s OK just to copy sometimes
There should always be room for the brilliant one-off, and we are firm believers in giving people more control over the design of their home, but you don’t have to be a slavish Classicist to think there are ways of laying out places and buildings that it’s OK just to copy sometimes. Also, no zany coloured plastic cladding. Ever.
Are you currently looking for architects for forthcoming schemes?
NM: We like meeting new architects, particularly those where we feel like working with them on a given scheme would represent a sort of growth moment for both sides. We hope to be hiring in the coming months for at least one new project; hopefully two. I just wish we had enough projects to share among the practices we’d like to work with.
What would you like the government to do for you?
JA: We support the government’s aims to diversify and improve the quality of the UK’s housing supply by encouraging SMEs and community groups to take on a greater role. One practical way it could do that would be to require disposals of public land to consider the wider social and environmental outcomes as well as land price.
Mole and TOWNhus proposals for plot K1 at Orchard Park, currently owned by Cambridge City Council
Do you intend to do any post-occupancy evaluation of your projects?
NM: You have to be interested in whether your projects work as they’re meant to. Our Marmalade Lane co-housing project is going to be rigorously monitored and evaluated, both technically and in the experience of end-users.
You have to be interested in whether your projects work as they’re meant to
It should produce a lot of data we can use to see both if the building method works as intended and how performance varies between different types and sizes of dwelling built by the same method.
What scheme by another developer inspires you?
JA: It’s no accident that a lot of the best new housing is being done by, or in partnership with, local authorities. The new wave of council-owned developers like Brick By Brick are harnessing Greater London land values to produce really good mixed-tenure housing. Mikhail Riches has done a fantastic brick Passivhaus scheme with Norwich City Council at Goldsmith Street. And we’re big fans of the Malings, by Igloo with Ash Sakula on Newcastle City Council-owned land, which has ignored the normal rules on overlooking distances and created a great new high-density housing typology.
Who is your favourite architect and why?
NM: In our main field of housing it’s hard to hold a candle to Peter Barber – beautiful, innovative and socially purposeful work. And the project that appears on practically every TOWN reference image board is Molenplein in Den Helder by Tony Fretton and Geurst and Schulze.
Inspiration: Tony Fretton’s Molenplein scheme
TOWN is working with regeneration specialist U+I plc on major new communities at Cambridge Fringe North East and Beeston Park, Norwich. TOWN’s first built scheme is Marmalade Lane co-housing in Cambridge, with Swedish housebuilder Trivselhus and Mole Architects. wearetown.co.uk