Landscape Review - Home improvers

Emphasis on high-quality landscaping is giving housing developers an edge and netting a range of economic benefits, Ben Cook explains.

Nine Elms housing scheme is cited as an example of engaging with landscape architects from the earliest stage - image: St James Group
Nine Elms housing scheme is cited as an example of engaging with landscape architects from the earliest stage - image: St James Group

Developers are increasingly aware in what is currently a highly competitive housebuilding market that including high-quality landscaping in schemes can give them the edge over their competitors. The benefits they quote include helping to make developments more attractive places to live and increasing the chances of local authorities granting permission.

Evidence also suggests that the contribution made by landscape architects to a housing scheme can result in increased rental income. But does this greater appreciation of landscaping mean that it is boom time for businesses in the landscape sector?

Matthew Townend, development director at housebuilder St James Group, says while landscaping has always been an integral part of the company's developments, there has recently been a greater focus on place-making.

"We want to create places where people want to live, work and play. St James wants people who buy its homes to be making a transaction of the heart rather than the wallet," he adds.

Economic gains

There is also an economic imperative behind St James's strategy of upping its spend on landscaping in housing schemes, says Townend. He claims that it helps to set the company - a subsidiary of the Berkeley Group - apart from its rivals.

"In the last downturn, our competitors wanted to cut costs and reduce the specifications to make things cheaper, but we have increased the money we put into landscaping," he says. And Townend believes other housebuilders are beginning to adopt a similar approach, particularly in central London.

High-quality landscaping can also help to make the commercial elements of housing schemes more successful, Townend explains. "If a scheme is providing commercial space at ground-floor level, for example, and it doesn't work, it feels derelict," he says. Effective landscaping will create a place where people want to live and work and consequently "commercial spaces can plug into this vibrancy", he argues.

So how does St James work with landscape architects in practice? Townend cites the company's Riverlight scheme, which will include around 750 homes in the Nine Elms area of London, as an example of engaging with landscape architects - in this case Gillespies - from the earliest stages.

"We had conversations with Gillespies before we bought the site and it was involved in negotiations with the local authority during the planning process," says Townend.

According to the St James public consultation document on the scheme, Gillespies' involvement has meant that play is integral to the landscaping at Riverside, with the masterplan setting out to create a "play strategy that will respond to current best practice guidelines".

Townend thinks that housebuilders' increased focus on landscaping is a growing trend. "Developers are under pressure to differentiate themselves to purchasers," he says. "We're now expecting more of our landscape architects. How can they add value to developments?"

Greater importance

Landscape Institute policy director Paul Lincoln says the fact that Countryside Properties' Accordia housing scheme in Cambridge won the Royal Institute of British Architects Sterling Prize in 2008 demonstrates the greater importance being placed on good landscaping.

The judges commended the scheme, which included landscaping by Grant Associates, for its "exquisitely planted landscaping" as well as for "providing a new model for outside-inside life with interior rooftop spaces, internal courtyards and large semi-public community gardens".

Lincoln says: "There's always been close collaboration with landscape architects, but there is increasing interest in green infrastructure and investing in the landscape, as gardens and landscaping increase rents and sale values."

To illustrate this, a report - Why Invest in Landscape? - published by the Landscape Institute last year highlighted work done by landscape architects Livingston Eyre Associates (LEA) as part of the redevelopment of the Princesshay area in Exeter.

According to the report, the work done by LEA was "central to the success of the scheme", with figures from Exeter City Council showing that "zone A" rents increased following the redevelopment from £220/sq ft in 2006 to £225/sq ft in 2008.

This compared favourably with nearby towns such as Plymouth and Taunton, which experienced declining zone A rents during the same period. "There is growing confidence in the profession's ability to create good-quality housing schemes," Lincoln points out. "This creates job opportunities."

Gillespies partner Stephen Richards says developers are placing a greater emphasis on including gardens and landscapes in housing schemes. "They are keen to offer a package including amenity spaces."

This is particularly true in London where there is a "big push for higher quality," especially in relation to high-end developments, the market for which, he says, has been largely driven by overseas investment.

Richards argues that if a development has highquality landscaping, it is more likely to secure planning permission. This is why, in the case of the Riverlight scheme, there is a "lot of emphasis on public realm and making a positive contribution to the area", he says. In general, he believes that there is a bigger emphasis on features such as allotments and play areas.

Early engagement

Housebuilders are, in general, taking an holistic approach and engaging with landscape architects much sooner, says Richard. "Developers are acutely aware that markets are design-driven. For many people your dream is your house and your garden."

He adds that developers are also taking a more enlightened approach because local authorities and organisations such as Design Council Cabe have promoted the importance of good landscaping. "It used to be rare to have an emphasis on landscape (in schemes)," he says. "It was given over to the contractor, but this backfired because a lack of thought led to some grim examples."

However, Richards sounds a note of caution. "The landscape sector is doing well but is not growing," he says. "It would be overstating it to say this trend will be a lifeline for the sector." But the more this concept is developed, the more the success of schemes will be gauged by the quality of their gardens and green spaces, he adds. "People will start to benchmark against it. If it is successful, people will want to see it replicated, so I like to think that it's here to stay."

Meanwhile, Barratt Development is focusing much more on soft landscaping than it did a few years ago, according to eastern counties technical director Alison Crofton. "The recession changed the market, creating a harder selling climate and increased competition," she says.

"We realised that we spent more time on the internal designs and the hard landscaping, but left the soft landscaping until the end of the design period. But we appreciated that effective soft landscaping can have a significant impact on the street scene and create better developments, communities and homes."

Crofton says having landscape such as woodland near a scheme "does make a property more desirable". Consequently, Barratt has educated its staff about landscaping to ensure that it is implemented properly and planted well. The firm is also working closely with landscape architects and bringing them in much earlier on in the design process, she adds.

Cambourne housing offers environmental lesson

The Landscape Institute has highlighted Taylor Wimpey's scheme to build a 3,300-home settlement in Cambourne, 15km west of Cambridge, as an example of the "positive economic benefits" that can be provided by good-quality landscape architecture.

The housebuilder appointed landscape architecture practice Randall Thorp to conduct research to identify and categorise all existing features of landscape value within the project area, including trees, hedges, woodlands, ditches, ponds, grasslands and verges.

This meant that the most important features were retained, thus maintaining the character of the location. View lines through buildings and from nearby roads were planned to ensure that features such as mature trees were visible to visitors and potential house buyers.

So what was the economic impact from Randall Thorp's work? The landscape and open spaces were designed and phased to accommodate all spoil from the site. On completion, the project will have generated more than 700,000cu m of spoil. With rates for off-site disposal of spoil at about £28 per cubic metre against an on-site disposal cost of £8/cu m, this results in a saving of approximately £20/cu m - or £12m.

According to the Landscape Institute, the landscaping work has "increased the saleability" of houses at the scheme with marketing material focusing heavily on the quality, quantity and ease of access to open space as well as the rural character of the locality.

A 2006 household survey of Cambourne residents asked them what they liked most about their area - the most popular answer was "the environment".

Taylor Wimpey major projects director Neil Stebbings says the "real benefit to the community and added value that is reflected in a premium price for good property is only realised when the masterplan is supported by first-class landscape design and implementation. The combined effect of good initial planning, implementation and good long-term maintenance is reflected by consistent sales."

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