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Mae uses long life, loose fit principles to push the boundaries of multi-generational living

Mae Architects has packed a lot in to Block SO1 of the Aylesbury Estate redevelopment area. There is the Harriet Hardy Extra Care Centre, with 54 wheelchair-accessible, care-ready flats, and ground-floor lounge, kitchen and dining areas. There is a multi-use community centre, facing out onto a new park and capable of seating 100 people. And there are 65 general-needs homes, ranging from studios to four-bedroom maisonettes. Of the total 119 units, 95 are for social rent, 22 for intermediate rent and two are for private sale.

With so much going on within this 11,295m2 building, it’s no wonder that life seems to spill out of it. This is no enclosed box: the deeply articulated facade includes brick colonnades ushering people in, and balconies with curving concrete soffits drawing residents outside, while the larger homes have front doors to the street, animating the wider public realm. Shaped like a horseshoe, the building wraps around a south-facing courtyard of mature trees, raised beds and garden sheds, with wide galleries providing access to the extra-care flats, as well as space to sit out and chat to neighbours. Mae stresses that the aim was to make the building truly multi-generational, with extra care a seamless part of wider housing provision. 

Underpinning these myriad uses and their various complex needs is a reinforced-concrete structure, with 50% GGBS used throughout to reduce embodied carbon. “The beauty of a reinforced concrete frame is that it is very long life, loose fit and flexible to different possibilities,” says Alex Ely, founder of Mae. Although the extra-care flats are fairly repeatable and essentially stack on top of one another, the other aspects of the programme were more involved, with a variety of housing types arranged within the taller seven- and 10-storey blocks at either end of the horseshoe. 

As much as possible, this complexity is addressed through internal partitions rather than the superstructure. Ely points out that this allows homes to be adapted as their residents’ needs change. The grid is typically 5.5m x 6m, with some variations, and features one row of internal columns. Slabs are mainly 250mm deep and transfer structures have been kept to a minimum. 

This structural system was optimised using structural engineer Price & Myers’ parametric tool, Panda, to make it as efficient as possible. Developed with the University of Cambridge and based on IStructE carbon data, this allows the engineers to assess different options based on inputs such as grid spacing, materials and floor depth. Following this process, the embodied carbon of the frame and substructure was reduced to 209kgCO2e/m2. 

One of the perceived failings of the original 2,700-home Aylesbury estate was the anonymity of the slab blocks, which Mae has sought to redress by using rich detailing to imbue a more civic character. The balconies take their cue from local landmarks: the curving soffits and precast lintels on the inner facades borrow from John Soane’s St Peter’s Church, while the rhythm of the facades is inspired by the bay windows and stonework of the Liverpool Estate conservation area.

The balconies of the general-needs housing were initially intended to be precast, but at 5m x 2.5m and up to 700mm deep, the units would have been too awkward to crane into position. “The contractor put forward a proposal to build them in situ, and we said, OK, as long as you can prove that you can achieve the quality that we’re after,” says Ely. Several mock-ups were carried out to work out the best way of casting the complex forms and to ensure that the finish had the same Portland stone effect as the building’s other precast elements. Glass-reinforced plastic formwork was used and the surface was lightly sandblasted to leave a subtly textured surface.

The balconies have a half-projecting, half-inset design: “You can step forward and get long views up and down the street and across the square in front,” says Ely. “But equally, there’s a sense of enclosure and protection.” This idea of “progressive privacy” also informs the Harriet Hardy Centre facades overlooking the courtyard. The access decks are also part of the “social infrastructure”, he adds – up to 3.1m wide, with space for tables and chairs. But front doors are set back slightly, establishing a more secluded threshold to the private space within. Internally, open-plan layouts allow wheelchairs to move easily, while the single-loaded external corridors enable all flats to draw in light and ventilation from two sides.

Block S01 shows how the right balance of privacy and independence, sanctuary and sociability, can help multigenerational communities to prosper – all within a single structure. 

Project Team


Structural engineer

Price & Myers

Main contractor

Hill Partnership


Tim Crocker