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Embracing gentle density: OB Architecture on enhancing south London’s urban landscape

OB Architecture, an award-winning practice with offices in London, Winchester and Chamonix, has been instrumental in a transformation across the boroughs of south London, working on a number of highly regarded multi-unit residential schemes in the area. As their latest project, Foxley Lane, approaches completion, Founder Olly Bray and his team give their thoughts on the innovative ways architects and designers can meet the demand for new housing and infrastructure whilst preserving London’s unique character.

A key tenet of the OB Architecture approach is the concept of ‘gentle density’, which places the focus on designing buildings that contribute to the sustainable development and revitalisation of south London’s urban landscape.

‘Vibrant and diverse, Croydon amongst other surrounding boroughs is renowned for its rich cultural and architectural heritage, characterised by beautiful period homes and historical landmarks. However, in previous years, the area has been at risk of being exploited by hard and fast development, with over-intensified and unsympathetic schemes crammed into residential areas. We wanted to focus instead on the concept of gentle density’ says Olly.

‘The gentle density approach offers an opportunity to preserve and enhance the unique character of an area by incorporating new developments that respect and complement the existing built environment, benefitting the landscape from a visual perspective, but also the lives of the people who live here. By way of an example, our projects on St Peter’s Road, Blunt Road and Foxley Lane, a 100% affordable housing development set to complete later this year, we wanted to showcase how considered, contemporary design can generate successful development in our suburbs.’

Unlike high-rise towers that dominate the skyline, the planning philosophy of gentle density emphasises the creation and thoughtful integration of human-scale and mixed-use communities that seamlessly blend with the surrounding environment. By maximising underutilised spaces and reimagining existing structures, the approach offers an alternative to urban sprawl and promotes sustainable growth.

Enhancing neighbourhood connectivity is another benefit of this architectural approach, comments Toby Wincer, Partner at OB Architecture. ‘By introducing medium-density developments, such as townhouses, low-rise apartment buildings, or courtyard-style housing, south London can create a better sense of community. Well-designed streetscapes, pedestrian-friendly pathways and public spaces can foster social interactions, create safer environments, and encourage walkability. Thoughtful design and attention to detail can ensure that new buildings reflect the local architectural styles, materials, and scale, creating a harmonious blend of old and new.’

Examples of ‘gentle density’ projects in and around south London boroughs by OB Architecture

Foxley Lane

126 Foxley Lane is a 100% affordable/social rented scheme of 41 apartments in Purley. The development replaces two detached houses within a leafy suburban area of Croydon. The thoughtful and high-specification design solution of undulating roofs enabled a soft transition from the neighbouring two-storey properties, reaching five storeys on the corner of the prominent site. The simple, efficient floor plan allowed the concept to be successfully realised for a Registered Housing Provider without compromising the generous window openings and large private terraces.

Preserving and enhancing green spaces is another vital aspect of gentle density. Here, the landscaping plans (by Strata Design) provide a route through the development, linking the two adjacent roads with a woodland glade of ferns, grasses and groundcover plants creating a blanket of planting under the surrounding mature trees. The integration of the landscaping with the surrounding area helps to draw people through the site, improving their access to nature.

Greyfort House

Shortlisted for the RIBA London Regional Awards 2020 and awarded Apartment Development of the Year at the British Homes Awards 2020, whilst being shortlisted for multiple other awards, Greyfort House is a high-quality development of flats in a prominent corner position between elegant Victorian villas. The sculpted building form allows an intensification of the footprint by acknowledging and respecting the position and outlook of the neighbouring properties. The light yellow brick, proportions of the building and building façades reference the surrounding Victorian architecture and allow the intensification of this site to feel comfortable and unobtrusive.

St Peter’s

Here, the OB Architecture team lead by Grant Freeman replaced a single-storey house with a four-storey development of eight contemporary apartments further curated. The design carefully reimagined the familiar gabled form of the neighbouring properties to generate a gentle intensification of the site. String course detailing, deep openings and contrasting soft, light brickwork with darker brick create a richly textured façade.

Top-floor apartments set within the roof offer a city skyline outlook to the north and treetop suburban views to the south.

Having seen such success with gentle density projects in and around Croydon, OB Architecture has been applying this approach to its work across many other London boroughs and beyond, having recently completed a standout project on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.

Strawberry Close

Set on a steeply sloping site in a sensitive suburban location amongst large Victorian and Georgian villas, this scheme created a striking, multi-unit building on what was thought to be an undevelopable plot of land. The steep topography made any conventional architectural approach unviable, so through a curved and tiered building form, the site was unlocked, providing an architecturally unique building within walking distance of major transport hubs.

Gentle density presents an exciting opportunity for architects to work in collaboration with an actively engaged local community of residents, businesses and organisations to shape the future of their surroundings in a sustainable and inclusive manner. By embracing this concept, suburban areas such as Croydon can accommodate sustainable population growth, preserve architectural heritage, enhance neighbourhood connectivity, and promote affordability while maintaining distinct character.

‘As our suburbs continue to evolve, maintaining diverse and inclusive neighbourhoods becomes crucial. Gentle density provides an avenue for creating a mix of housing types, including affordable options, ensuring that individuals from various socio-economic backgrounds can call the area home.’ comments Bray.

The OB Architecture team has a number of residential development projects currently under construction or in the planning process in south London and across the UK in Winchester, Southampton and Haywards Heath, West Sussex.