New London Architecture

Retrospective on the future

Monday 08 November 2021

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Rory Olcayto

Writer and Critic
Pollard Thomas Edwards

Recently, at Pollard Thomas Edwards, in discussions about buildings and criticism, one word has kept cropping: revisits. We’ve been thinking that the idea of looking at a building’s performance, how it has been used, how it has adapted to its place (or not), it’s people (or not), its interaction with time – weather, economics, politics – is the best way to understand good architecture today. That’s not to invalidate the good old-fashioned building study – they have their place, for sure – but for the 2020s, tonally, we need more than an ‘x out-of-ten’ review. 

The revisit, in other words, feels more useful. With this in mind, we thought of revisiting some of our key projects – each very different - completed roughly five, 10 and 15 years ago. Our first revisit was New Ground, a co-designed, co-living housing collective in Barnet completed five years ago; then Deptford Lounge, a hybrid building with multiple uses and a very public programme; and finally, 2009’s Gunpowder Mill, which was on the drawing board some 15 – or more - years ago.

The much-feted New Ground co-housing scheme in High Barnet set out to answer a simple question: where do we want to live when we get older? It turned heads when it was completed in 2016 because here was something new: a Third Age community created by its users and executed with genuine architectural intent; a building with both professional and public appeal. The proof? Countless features and inquiries, from Dezeen to the AIA and around 4000 emails after a 30-second slot on BBC news, mostly from people wanting to move in.

But what is it like to live there for the Older Women's Co-Housing residents?  “The first few months were trying,” says Jude Tisdall, who moved there in November 2016. “The builders were still on site – wandering in and out of our homes and the common areas too - while we were all still getting used to each other.”

Tisdall speaks of the dream they all had; of moving into a place you have designed, where all your energies have been focused for years – and when the day finally comes, “you realise it’s like the first year of marriage to 26 people.” The building, she says, played a role here, helping everyone learn the necessary balance between privacy and community. “We wouldn’t change a thing about the layout: it works very well the way it is designed.” Having one entrance was crucial to the ebb and flow in New Ground, ensuring everyone crossed paths with everyone else, but, as with the wider corridors throughout, it also provides enough space to allow for a degree of reserve too. “At the beginning, people thought they had to be polite and nice to each other all the time but if we continued that way, we’d have to allow for an extra half hour every time you left the building”

Some things have been adapted over time: the doors – options were limited by fire regs - were too heavy for older residents so all the ones in common areas have been automated. Toilet flushes were also a bit tricky for stiffer fingers to use and were replaced. And what with the English summer getting hotter each year, some residents have put up awnings over their garden-facing windows to deal with the heat and light captured by New Ground’s south-facing aspect. On this last point, clients today are more likely to assume climate change design details are a cost worth accruing. Retrofitting, however, especially in the housing sector, will be central to combatting global heating in the coming decades. 
Location mattered too. The high street – supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and interesting shops, the northern line (“and the South Bank!”) - is a two-minute walk away. “There are great bus links too. We’ve been very lucky with the site we chose.” 

Not everything has gone swimmingly, however. “We’re battling various building defects just now , things to do with the roof (leaks) and the underfloor heating. We’re getting there. But it’s expensive.” Every boiler had to be replaced too, which was hugely disruptive. “I got used to cold showers,” she adds. While construction quality is a perennial challenge, regardless of scale or building type, when first-timers like OWCH come up against it, this industry-wide problem is thrown into sharp relief. Yet despite the anguish ongoing wrangles with contractors and project managers have caused, Tisdall, like everyone else (New Ground is an intergenerational, older community with the youngest 55 and the oldest 93) loves living there. “It’s full of light. Every flat has its own private outdoor space. The garden has grown and now has its own nooks and crannies”, she says. And lockdown was just that little bit easier to bear. Simple things, like bulk buying, made a huge difference. “You could sit outside, have a coffee with your neighbour, no one really got lonely. Someone said if we had been living in our old places it would have been so much more difficult.”

Lessons

  • Early engagement and co-design leads to end-user friendly layouts
  • Site location for Third Age buildings is as important as the architectural design
  • Co-living for older people provides a resilient model for lockdown living
  • Good Third Age sector buildings can be easily adapted to the specific needs of residents once living patterns are established

Deptford Lounge (nine years old)

As we imagine how town and city centres can be revived, post-pandemic, one building in PTE’s portfolio stands out, given its prescient community-focused programme: Deptford Lounge. It combines a primary academy, district library, community centre and artists’ studios with affordable homes (It also made possible the adjacent Market Yard – a restored Victorian carriage ramp incorporating 14 commercial spaces). We think it offers a model for the Building Back Better plan that will define the 2020s - but how has it fared during the lockdown? 

Our revisit coincides with a Bangkok-style downpour that caused hospitals to shut down and underground stations fill up like kettles. In this respect, the mixed-use marvel has come off lightly. Yes, one of the studios has flooded – but general manager Annette Butler is on the case: when we speak contractors are busy peeling back a two-metre section of the surface of the rooftop ball court. “I’m always learning on the job,” she says, explaining that while she may have forged her career in theatre, “we know how to get things done. There’s a reason we say, ‘the show must go on.’”

Butler has been managing this complex building (for the Albany Theatre) since 2012, after initially taking on a three-month contract to run pop-up theatre shows, rent-out spaces and, in her words, “kickstart the Deptford Lounge”. Nearly nine years later, she’s still there, having taken on more and more responsibility, including, three years ago, the FM contract. “It’s the best thing we’ve done” she explains, because in a building with so many functions and stakeholders, maintenance “can be an issue”. 

Together with the school (Tidemill Academy), Albany Theatre asked the council to include FM in the operations’ re-tender, bagged the job once again, and consequently inherited a seven-year-old building that wasn’t compliant . “The truth is, it hadn’t been looked after very well,” she says. “It’s taken me two years to unpick – there was no service record handed over, no paperwork - but we’ve for more than a year now, we’ve had a solid audit trail in place.” 

There are still problems – leaks from gutters in the adjoining flats are affecting classrooms (“the housing association can’t gain access to the private sale flats in the complex to resolve this issue,” says Butler) – but the bottom line is the Deptford Lounge is now being cared for by an organisation genuinely invested in its future. “We don’t inflate our FM costs” she states bluntly. 

The key, she says, is personal relationships. “Know your contractors and colleagues. Speak to them, learn from them. Make them feel the building is theirs too.” It’s this approach that saw Butler arrive on a Monday morning to a bottle of wine and box of chocolates from the Tidemill teachers, because she let them party on the ball court on the last day of term. “Usually, we’d charge the school to stay open late, but on this occasion we didn’t. On the other hand, their fire officer has been sorting a jammed door for us… we’ve built up a culture of trust here.”

That culture of trust extends to relationships with the library service (“we check in with each other all the time, support each other, help each other with activities”); the public (“we run ‘pay what you think’ performances so anyone can afford them”); and artists too, who are given free use of facilities in lieu of payment if they run community workshops. 

The success of Deptford Lounge rests with ability this to connect with local people. From partying schoolteachers who more than deserve a Friday night booze up, to the always hired-out rooms (“churches on Sundays and an Arabic school on Saturdays”), it has proved to be essential to local civic life. It recently provided a new home for a volunteer-run local cinema in its main hall (recent showings: Queen and Slim, Blues Brothers and Little Women) and continues to host activities for kids throughout the summer (coming up: an ‘I love my bike’ workshop for children aged five to ten, with cycling lessons on the ball court). The library too, is busy once again post-Lockdown. All in all, pre-Covid, around 1000 people a day used the building and Annette thinks it will hit those heights in time once again. 
The architecture – its human-scale, its friendly aesthetics, it’s mix of uses – makes all of this happen in a seemingly natural, unforced way. Outside, the market square provides another space to engage with public life, with acrobatics and dance performances, even if it persists in being a hotspot for street drinkers. “This has been a problem for years. Deptford has always had a drunken culture. Marlowe was stabbed here!” she says, describing the town as Greenwich’s poor relation. But then there will always be limits to what architectural intent can achieve. 

Lessons

  • Mixed-use buildings need next-level maintenance regimes to navigate a variety of uses and ownership issues
  • Facilities Management in public buildings should prioritise the public good over stakeholder profit 
  • The successful operation of mixed-use buildings thrives on interpersonal relationships 
  • User-friendly mixed-use public buildings can empower local communities


Gunpowder Mill (12 years old)

When Hill moved into Waltham Abbey-based headquarters in 2009, the firm’s headcount was 150. Today, that number is more like 700. “Perhaps more,” says chief executive Andy Hill. He explains that the impressive wetlands setting and imposing architecture of the complex - two converted early 20th century buildings and a three-storey glazed new build – has played as key role in making that growth possible. Not only has it allowed Hill to take on more staff and make room for them in the vast premises - “We only occupied about half the building when we first moved in, now it’s more like 85 per cent” – it has helped the company remake its image. “The building has changed attitudes. When people come here for the first time it absolutely blows them away. If we were a contractor-developer when we first moved in, now, we’re very much a housebuilder.” Work is underway now, in fact, to bolster this image, with a general interior rebrand ongoing.

For PTE, Gunpowder Mill built upon the design nous we applied to our own HQ at Diespeker Wharf, which also blends old with new, albeit on a smaller scale. As a regular visitor, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Hill was inspired by how we wrought something functional and enticing from derelict industrial architecture. This closeness in thinking was reflected too in how Gunpowder Mill’s rebirth was imagined. It was, in essence, co-designed with Hill, with its extensive experience brought bear early in the process. 

Still, all the things Hill loves about the older buildings – their spaciousness and how this allowed for breakout spaces, a more informal approach to the business setting that workers and visitors seem to love – also came to highlight what was missing too. “We realised we didn’t have enough private areas,” he explains, with partitions in the older buildings, well shy of the ceiling, leading to acoustic spill. “You have to live in a building for a while to really understand how to get the most out of it,” he says. 

Older buildings of course, have baggage. They can be more difficult to prepare – “You don’t know what you’ve got. We had to de-water the basement, for example”. And they can be costly to maintain. “Lantern glazing on every type of hip throughout all of the roofs, keeping those clean…” says Hill, his voice tailing off.

As the company expanded, meeting rooms in the new build were added – “its spec is more suitable: ceilings, partitions, sound-proofing, air-con ”; toilets were upgraded (the original ones were “a bit cheap” but “a tightly organised core made this an easy adaptation”); and desk spaces have leapt from 103 in 2009 to 240 today. “Desks are smaller now too – because of the greater number of people obviously but also because we over-specified originally: they were too lavish, far too big really.”

It also took time to realise to fully appreciate all of the spaces PTE fashioned for Hill. The lower ground floor in the new build for example, with its black stone floor was considered rather austere. “Everyone wanted to be on the top floor, with views across the wetlands,” says Hill. “But, well, you know, heat rises…and the lower ground floor keeps very cool, so these days, everyone’s very happy down there!”

Yet the overall vision, the blend of old and new, that “mixes blank open spaces and blends historic brick walls, dry-lined walls, exposed services - it’s what people look for now,” says Hill. He also cites the CHP and photovoltaics installed from the start as ahead of its time, even if he regrets that “we couldn’t get a wind turbine”. In the end however, PTE’s design has served as a kind of mirror, one that has allowed Hill to see itself differently, as its business has grown over the years. As he confirms: “More than anything, Gunpowder Mill has really helped us to develop our brand.”

Lessons

  • How a building feels is as important as how it looks – especially in the climate change era
  • It takes time to fully understand how a building is best used and how performs year-round
  • Well-organised cores are essential to the success of flexible, future-proofed buildings
  • Well designed and well cared-for buildings are the ultimate form of PR

Conclusion

What did we learn from our recent revisits? We’ve summarised the key findings under each case study and while some may seem obvious - early engagement makes for better user experiences; personal relationships make mixed-use buildings thrive; well-designed and well-used buildings are great PR – gleaning this insight from the ground, from the people who use these buildings day in, day out makes each point matter that little bit more. At New Ground we got a sense of the future, of older people living how and where they want to. At Deptford we learned that public buildings can strengthen local cultures, and at Gunpowder Mill we were reminded that it takes time to fully appreciate all a building offers. But most of all? If they’re well cared-for, buildings improve as they grow older.

Subscribe to NLQ here

Rory Olcayto

Writer and Critic
Pollard Thomas Edwards



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