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Rail-side homes: the challenges and potential

Large tracks of land next to railways remain under-developed but full of potential. Unlocking these sites has the opportunity to create many thousands of new homes and help ease the housing crisis. So, how do we address the main development challenges involved to create enduring places of value and well-lit, peaceful homes that residents enjoy?

Challenge 1: Viability

Rail-side sites are generally costly to redevelop - partly as they often come with significant constraints such as level changes or complex utilities infrastructure on-site or nearby. Approvals processes from stakeholders such as Network Rail and other operators can be lengthy and also add further complexity

Plaistow Hub - new generous public realm and active uses outside Plaistow station

Developing at higher density:

The cost of land on these undeveloped sites is often relatively low but offset by a comparatively high cost of development due to complex site conditions. This means that high-density and high-efficiency is often required to overcome the viability threshold.

From a Planning perspective, building at higher density adjacent to transport infrastructure, especially stations, is often appropriate in townscape terms given generally improved PTAL ratings. Coupled with lower provision of car-parking, this should be well-received by local planning authorities. High density development, however, needs to be advocated and justified through high-quality place-making and bring a clear benefit to the wider public (e.g. public spaces and active ground floor uses such as retail and leisure).

Plaistow Hub - new generous public realm and active uses outside Plaistow station

Improving viability through good design:

The creation of high-quality homes through good design is key to transforming low-value brownfield land into high-value, beautiful and pleasant homes.

Our experience at Mint Street in Bethnal Green is that the quality of the homes and their financial value is evident once the homes have been completed, but harder to appreciate off-plan. What’s the noise going to be like? What will it be like living so close to a railway line? These factors are harder to appreciate in the abstract and become another impediment to the viability of such schemes when compared with other brownfield land.

The creation of places of enduring quality will enable long-term appreciation of rental and capital values. The benefits of transforming such places are accrued over the longer term, and therefore more suited for long-term ownership and stewardship. Rental and capital values will follow and tend to improve once the evidence of a successful and lasting place has been proven.

Challenge 2: Overcoming environmental constraints

Often encumbered by significant environmental constraints such as noise and poor air quality, many rail-side sites have long been seen as ‘unbuildable’. Addressing these issues is a key challenge that needs to strike a balance between other factors such as daylight and ventilation.

Mint Street – delivery of high-quality homes adjacent to a railway viaduct

New building technology:

Over recent years, technical innovations have enabled the creation of peaceful and pleasant homes on these sites. The improvements to air tightness in building fabric - primarily in order to help meet sustainability targets - and coupled with improved acoustic glazing and MVHR systems, have enabled the possibility of creating quiet homes, even on the noisiest sites. At Mint Street, fresh air was drawn from the quiet side (away from the railway) and distributed with in-house MVHR in a controlled manner.

Winter-gardens:

Winter-gardens create the opportunity to can provide acoustic and visual separation from the noise of passing trains, creating internal balcony spaces for residents. Where outdoor space is a premium, these spaces are versatile and adaptable to suit the individual needs of residents. At Mint Street, living spaces and bedrooms are located behind winter-gardens to further buffer noise from the adjacent railway line.

Mint Street - winter-gardens create acoustic buffering and provide private amenity for residents

Construction & early contractor input:

Safety and avoiding any potential impacts on adjacent railway infrastructure are clearly paramount to the successful delivery of rail-side developments. Setting-out a clear construction method statement at the outset and working with a contractor to rigorously develop, and ultimately implement, approved asset protection agreements are key. Off-site construction methodologies may be appropriate and have the potential to minimise site deliveries and reduce construction time on site.

Conclusion

When railways were first introduced into cities in the nineteenth century, they often cut swathes through existing urban fabric and cut-off one side of the tracks from the other. Little consideration was given to the resultant leftover places, except at the termini.

Looking to the future, housing development adjacent to railways has the potential to repair the urban fabric of the city and make great new places, utilising land that has lain under-developed for generations. Led first and foremost by good design, it is possible to deliver great homes in high-quality places of enduring social and economic value next to railways.

Mint Street - creation of new public realm and pedestrian street