Viewpoint: Norwich’s striking new council homes

Councillor Gail Harris is Norwich City Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member with responsibility for social housing. Here she explains the story behind the council’s celebrated new Goldsmith Street development, the first council homes to be nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize.

Norwich City Council has a strong tradition of housebuilding and we’re delighted that new homes recently built at Goldsmith Street in Norwich have captured the imagination of so many onlookers.

We are very proud to be leading the development of homes with outstanding eco credentials, which have real benefits for both the environment and our tenants, and it’s fantastic to see Norwich emerging as a leader in this field.

As lovely as it is to receive national plaudits, seeing families and individuals settling in to the new neighbourhood they’ve created has been the highlight of this success story.

So how did we get here?

The first big decision we had to make was to provide new social housing. In an era characterised by limited funds, stock transfers and land sales, we knew we needed to find a way to fulfil our ambitions to provide high quality, sustainable social housing for the city.

But our commitment to building new homes for social rent went further than this. We had a choice: go for safe standard housing or be bold and ambitious. We chose the latter.

This meant making the unusual step to developing new properties ourselves, rather than commissioning a developer or registered provider; giving us more control over tenure and type of build.

We got started with ten new homes at our Hansard Close development, completed in 2017 – some of the first council houses built in the city since the early nineties and our first properties built to Passivhaus standards.

‘Passivhaus’ is the highest certifiable standard of energy efficiency, resulting in ultra-low energy buildings that need very little fuel for heating or cooling. Heating costs in a Passivhaus can be up to 70 per cent cheaper compared to the average UK home.

Next, we began work to build 172 new homes at our Rayne Park development, and set up the council’s wholly owned development company set up with a view to build mixed-tenure properties. Over 100 of these homes also boast Passivhaus credentials.

Features include extra thick insulation, triple glazed windows and doors, and heat provided through a mechanical vent heat recovery system. These homes are designed to stay cool in the summer, but retain heat in the winter. That energy efficiency will mean people save on their fuel bills.

And then came Goldsmith Street, completed earlier this year; almost 100 new council homes and the largest Passivhaus scheme in the country.

Designed by architects Mikhail Ritches, the development recreates the look of terraced streets in this area of the city that were removed in post-war clearance

We asked the designers to give residents their own front doors, meaning no communal corridors, and access to open space; either through gardens or balconies, which we are now seeing families embrace and enjoy. They have even managed to subtly incorporate stylish bin storage areas around the development.

As one of very few local authorities building new council homes, this scheme demonstrates that it is possible to provide high quality social housing that benefits residents and the environment alike. We are confident that our innovative and flexible approach will allow us to continue our long term commitment to delivering great homes for Norwich.

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    1. Philip Morton says:

      These look great, how did you find finance for this project. I am a GreenParty district councillor at Breckland and would like to push for a similar project

    2. I don’t know why this is called ‘social housing’ since it was certainly not cheap to build and the rent will be significantly above what the average person can pay at this time. Strangely, or significantly, this article does not mention the price of construction or the rent.

      Also no mention of how transport in the are is organised, whether there are in-community jobs and business spaces, all of which ought to be part of long-term sustainable social housing. This article sounds more like a self-congratulatory piece than a serious challenge to other councils to emulate and improve on a model that needs much more development.

    3. Catherine Gates says:

      I am so impressed with this whole project, for a start you’ve not just built houses or flats you’ve built homes. You’ve also built communities. You’ve built places where people really want to live. You might have spent a little more on building them in the first place but this has to be worth it not just for the financial benefits for tenants, but for better health because of the heating/cooling system and attention to detail. When people are proud of where they live they take care of it and by doing so maintain their community.

    4. Lesley Barrett says:

      And yet, Norwich City Council has seen fit to sanction the absolutely inappropriate development by Weston Homes at Anglia Square. If it is given the go-ahead by the government, the relatively small number of people benefiting from this scheme will be dwarfed by the number of people living in unsympathetic blocks of flats nearby.