Making spaces work for a living – 22-26 White Post Lane, London

How to create a robust mixed-use scheme that nurtures rather than neuters the special character of an area which was the catalyst for development? That was the challenge facing architect Hawkins\Brown in Hackney, north east London as James Parker reports.

Hackney Wick together with its conjoined district of Fish Island, is as the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) local plan correctly states, a “special place.”

Sandwiched between Victoria Park and the Olympic Park, over recent decades its former industrial buildings have been colonised by artists and creative and light industries keen to benefit from their generous proportions and robust design, as well as the proximity to central London and the area’s more affordable rates compared to Spitalfields or Hoxton.

The word ‘vibrant’ is thrown around a lot, but the area genuinely deserves that term: it’s undeniably a cultural quarter, with over 600 studios and workspaces, plus galleries, cafes and small shops. Hackney Wick together with its Hackney Wick and Fish Island (HWFI) is to have the densest concentration of artists’ studios in Europe, and is also home to many established companies, serving London with everything from food to printing.

The rich industrial legacy is combined with something of an island character due to the area being somewhat cut off by canals, railway lines and major roads, and many artists and commercial users demon- strate a collective approach to organising factory units. The streets are filled with small, attractive factory buildings and delin- eated by tree-lined waterways including the canalised River Lee.

However with it being such an increasingly popular and fashionable area, growth in residential development as well as regeneration and conversion of industrial spaces caused Hackney Council to point to scarcity of future commercial space to support much-needed employment and maintain the area’s character. The council’s 2008 masterplan looked to control this “incremental shift from industry to residential-led mixed use,” especially on the desirable canal-side, which it said “has made it difficult to maintain employment uses.” In addition, the LLDC local plan also wanted to create more connected and legible places, in contrast to the currently rather confusing and ad hoc pattern of development.

As part of maintaining that persuasive- sounding combination of a “lively, diverse and well-connected urban quarter on the edge of the Olympic Park” that Hackney Council sought, architect Hawkins\Brown was engaged by developer Aitch Group and Design & Build contractor Aitch Construction to create a mixed-use scheme which would put commercial units at the core and help maintain the important sense of vitality that characterises the area. Key to this was the LLDC’s vision of the area not being a “dormitory suburb characterised by blocks of flats,” but “a place of creative production and adaption rather than simply consumption.”

Site constraints & masterplan

The problem with such interesting and diverse sites is that they tend to contain irregular-shaped development plots, which can force interesting solutions but not without applying some architectural sweat and rigour. And there are other constraints too, particularly the six-storey height restriction, combined with getting the necessary density the client requires.

The historical street pattern of the site somewhat dictates its unusual shape, rather squeezed and with a ‘bullnose’ to the south west as Rothbury Road curves eastwards away from the major A12 road, cutting off what might have otherwise been a neat square corner. Hawkins\Brown’s project partner Phil Catcheside tells ADF:

“A lot of sites in HWFI are dealing with similar issues,” citing the Wickside mixed use scheme and Peabody’s Fish Island Village social housing scheme. He says that in addition to these constraints, there are “historically inter- esting buildings, most of which are listed.”

The stated goal of the LLDC (which replaced the Olympic Park Legacy Company in 2012), includes “developing a dynamic new heart for east London, creating opportunities for local people.” As Catcheside says, its planning policy, enshrined within its Local Plan for HWFI recognises the unique strengths of the area as a diverse collection of working units: “The Local Plan identified what was successful about the area at the moment, and aspired to retain the light industrial users in the area. The policy is to replace all square metreage of employment use on a quantum basis.”

Over recent years the concept of ‘live- work’ – residential units combined with workspace – has seen increasing traction. However, while many developments have been planned on this basis, they haven’t always seen a successful mix in practice. As a result, ‘live-work’ was not the driver for this development, says Catcheside, adding that the model has

“failed in many places because it’s essentially not been managed and the asset has fallen back into a residential use.”

The mix here is a more delineated one of commercial spaces with high ceilings (up to 3.7 metres) located at ground floor, with residential above as well as being located in a stand-alone five-storey commercial build- ing. Separate mixed-tenure residential floors are located as street level maisonettes and above some of the ground floor commercial units, but both residential and commercial users enjoying the vibrancy provided by the visual and social mix. The 24-26 White Post Lane development (which only forms half of the overall new urban block) is four buildings grouped around an irregularly shaped courtyard – the key to the scheme’s character. Three six-storey, brick-clad residential buildings adjacent to White Post Lane and the western perimeter of the site, Rothbury Road, provide 103 homes including maisonettes, with commercial units at ground floor apart from where those maisonettes are located.

Two of the buildings contain 85 units for private sale, and another adjacent building has 18 units for affordable rent. There is an additional five-storey commercial building to the south-west of the site, completing a rough circle. This forms an elbow-shaped stand-alone corner which will be in contrasting dark slate grey brick (the other buildings also make extensive use of brick facades). Catcheside comments:

“It’s slightly different, we had done something similar on a previous scheme and the LLDC were encouraging of it here.”

The last part of the puzzle is a new residential scheme to the south east corner of the plot along Rothbury Road. On the site of a recently demolished bagel factory will be an L-shaped medium-rise flexible mixed-use building designed by HWO Architects and separated from Hawkins\Brown’s scheme by a new street that winds its way through the urban block.

Geometry exam

Phil Catcheside comments on how the curved site challenged the designers:

“If the geometry of the curve had been slightly straighter we could perhaps have made a purer response to it – three or four build- ings that were essentially rectangular. However, we had to maximise the footprint while creating decent streetscapes, a decent yard width and buildings with a geometry that made sense.”

As he says, the architectural solution to this constrained site meant that achieving the right geometry was a “major part of the puzzle,” adding that the firm made drawings of

“many models done as a study of various geometries, trying to get them to work for all parts of the building and the streetscape.” He says that this scheme “qualifies as one of the most difficult the practice has worked on, in terms of having to deliver a certain quantum of developable area.”

Working through the geometries led to a solution, as Catcheside puts it, of the four buildings on the site “chasing themselves, in a sort of knot,” however he admits that as the designers looked at options, sometimes this would mean hitting a “crunch point” where it didn’t work so well.

Project architect Matthew Ruddy explains further:

“We rationalised the curve of Rothbury Road through a series of cranks in the buildings’ footprints. This had multiple benefits including protecting the mature trees to the west, increasing the public realm by stepping back from the site boundary, and introducing straight lines to better space plan the commercial and residential plans.” Catcheside adds: “Cranking the commercial building meant we could push it almost to the perimeter so we would have greater footprint.”

Yards & permeability

The Creative Factories research into the special character of the HWFI area published in 2013 was a big influence on the design. It states that “studio yards” (i.e. spaces between workspaces are “probably the single defining characteristic of studio life in Hackney Wick and Fish Island.” It adds: “As a shared space, the yard plays a crucial role. They are the main arteries for those coming and going, and provide an intimate point of contact between residents that encourages conviviality.” These “collec- tively negotiated” spaces are the glue that binds the community together, supporting not only work – such as deliveries – but also leisure activity and events.

Hawkins\Brown used the yard heritage as a focus of its scheme, as Catcheside explains: “On White Post Lane itself but also in the larger urban block, there are a number of non-standard yards with the commercial tenants sharing the space. It’s semi-private, can be gated or left open for more permeable ground floor use.”

The residential upper floors of the scheme overlooking the yard “visually share the sense of activity and co-location,” he says, adding that part of the attraction of living in such a development is this close and highly visible proximity of residential and commercial rubbing along together. Catcheside adds that serving this desire is not always easy in London residential developments: “It’s often not encouraged by many boroughs, one overlooking the other. Actually it’s fundamental to this area, and we think that the co-location enlivens both experiences, although it’s not for everyone.”

Gallery deck

An A-shaped building producing an irregular-shaped courtyard with a tight angle at one end not only creates issues space planning internally (with the circulation core at the apex) but also externally in the courtyard, with residents potentially overlooking each other. Hawkins\Brown addressed this using a gallery deck access concept it has applied successfully in other similar projects. Front doors therefore open to the internal courtyard and kitchen windows face into it, helping to protect residents’ privacy.

Phil Catcheside:

“When designed well, it can be an attractive and popular arrange- ment.” It can be used for “incidental” social interaction, although as he says there will be specifically designed landscaped terrace areas with furniture to provide more extended social space for residents. This is in addition to the winter gardens being created to the western edge to protect users against the barrage of A12 traffic.

But as Catcheside says, the courtyard “is where neighbourhoods come together – you start to get to know people, seeing them every day.”

Victorian secrets

It emerged that a Victorian sewer ran under the site. However, it was actually snaking rather than running straight across, which created a challenge. The main issue was that Thames Water placed a ‘no building zone’ planning restriction on it.

Hawkins\Brown turned this obstacle into a benefit, seeing an opportunity to intro- duce a second covered route through the site, cantilevered over the sewer, allowing views of the working yard and streets beyond. Made possible by the cranking of the commercial building, this also enables double-height entrances further round the street into the commercial yard, “giving more permeability” as Catcheside puts it.

Instead of the initial design idea to create a new public route through the site following the sewer, a separate street has been created from White Post Lane to Rothbury Road, bisecting the block in dog-leg fashion and crossing a new public square between Hawkins\Brown and HWO’s buildings. This created amenity but also views across the site. Catcheside notes:

“Once that was unlocked, it was much easier to conceive this new public space as doing the primary place-making and streetscape job.”

After much hard work to flex around the constraints, the scheme has a strong logic to it, insists Catcheside: “I think after coming through a certain number of iterations we got to a point where we had a design logic which freed us to embrace one or two things in terms of where the cores go, and how the buildings relate to each other.”

Brick details

The elevations make use of the potential of brick to provide interesting details, while also tying in with the vernacular of many of the old warehouse buildings in the area. Phil Catcheside explains:

“A lot of the local buildings of merit are essentially brick warehouses, and the irony is that commer- cial buildings of the past have been repurposed into what is now many people’s ideal – loft living.”

He adds that there are also “good architectural reasons” for working with brick, “it’s a good material, and we can have fun with it – we can have small, medium and large scale motifs in the
same material – it remains a rich source of architectural expression.”

Catcheside describes how using brick helps to give each building a distinct identity, tying in with warehouses of the past:

“We’ve taken on a well-used warehouse type of idiom but have tried to think of things which are genuinely novel in some of our fluted detailing.” He adds: “Many of the area’s buildings were almost out of a pattern book, functionally driven with doors and windows of a certain size, but each time you find a little detail which is different from surrounding buildings.”

Matthew Ruddy explains how the detailing challenged the contractor and bricklayers:

“The detailing included dogtooth brickwork columns and staggered ‘soldier course’ banding above windows, which were originally envisioned as being precast elements. We worked with the contractor and bricklayer to recreate the same design through traditional masonry.”

A rich mix The future should be bright for this attractively robust development, now under construction, with a range of possible occupiers wishing to snap up units – from microbreweries to architects. The distinctive benefit of sharing commercial yards to the rear of their homes would be a key benefit for all, according to the architects. Phil Catcheside comments that

“residents attracted to the area understand that they might be part of the blend and the balance,” and they are “self-selecting.”

He admits there is “a delicate balance to strike” between light industrial and residential space, but when it comes to commercial areas, there’s a clear driver.

“Architects and creative collectives tend to need large floor to ceiling heights, more robust finishes and more flexible units.”

At the end of the day, this development is for people who want this particular, lively mix: “Modern craft-based companies attracted to the area and to the spaces, because it already has a sort of gravity about it. It has attracted people already and will continue to.” He admits however that with architects being one key target market, “the temptation is always to imagine yourself here; you have to force yourself out of that mindset sometimes.”

PROJECT FACTFILE

Location: Hackney Wick
Client: Aitch Group
Contractor: Aitch Construction
Architect: Hawkins\Brown
Value: £26m
Units: 110
Tenure: Private, shared ownership, social rent
Granted planning permission: December 2016
Contract type: Design & Build