Blocks of colour

aLL Design took on a residential project in Docklands to not only add colour, character and sustainability for a mix of residents, but also to solve a spatial efficiency puzzle for the client, as James Parker discovers

The practice founded by the late Will Alsop and Marcos Rosello, aLL Design, is not a familiar sighting in the residential sector. Its exuberantly colourful new apartment building in London’s Docklands is the studio’s largest residential project yet, and is a relatively modest 14 storeys, but betrays some hints of the firm’s trademark exuberance. 45 Millharbour, a mixed tenure scheme developed by Hovedean Properties, is located on the Isle of Dogs, to be precise on Millwall Inner Dock, at the north end of which sits South Quay DLR station. The high-rise cluster of Canary Wharf is to the north, across the South Dock, and the area has seen a lot of medium-rise residential and office buildings developed in the last couple of decades. However, as Lucy Atlee, project architect at aLL, told ADF, “there are a lot of proposed very tall buildings as well as completed new buildings, cheek by jowl with terraced Victorian housing. The docks provide some respite from the built-up nature of the surroundings, being large expanses of water, but it’s a region with a different sort of vitality – one far removed from its historic function as busy dockyards. aLL Design was taken on to add efficiencies and enhancements to the scheme, which had already been taken through planning by architects EPR, up to Stage C. The massing aspects and general layouts had already been agreed, and aLL was appointed to the project, post planning.


The project is composed of four blocks, including two 14 storey towers which sit at the east and west ends of the site, and include privately owned and shared ownership apartments. Both towers have dramatic views, with the eastern tower looking out over the dock, and the western back out over London’s skyline. Atlee comments: “There are spectacular views looking towards the London Eye.” The towers are connected by two central seven storey blocks containing affordable flats and duplexes for housing association Network Homes. In total there are 138 apartments, plus commercial units on the ground floor including serviced offices and a cafe, as well as an ‘A2’ class unit (potentially a bank branch or similar), which all help make the scheme more welcoming. A landscaped public space includes a new public route from Millharbour road through to the dockside, and provides amenities including a play area as well as bike racks. Lucy Atlee praises for the client for giving something back to the community: “To take part o f your private land and make a new public route and public amenity space is commendable.”

Adding efficiency

Given that the scheme had already gone through planning, the designers had to work within the existing envelope as they looked to add space efficiencies. By reconfiguring the stair cores and lobbies, aLL added 353 metres of net floor area to the apartments, which in turn added to their potential market value for the client. This took the efficiency score of the buildings from 80 per cent to 82.5 per cent, which Atlee says the client was “really happy about.” The key intervention was in the lobbies on each floor of the towers – where there was effectively a “double lobby” previously, explains Atlee, “we now have a single lobby with the lift in and the staircase off it.” She adds: “this improves the arrival at the apartments too.” The architects also created a shaft in the lift cores to use as a natural smoke vent, which meant a generator was not needed for smoke extract. This bit of design innovation to the existing scheme meant that a space that wouldn’t have otherwise been used delivered a carbon saving passive solution, and contributed to space savings. aLL also identified unused space underneath the ground floor ramp for use as bike stores. This meant the ground floor could be entirely given over to revenue-generating office space, and “would activate the ground floor,” says Atlee. The basement also contains a 42-space car park, gym, and plant rooms.

Space standards

Following aLL Design’s interventions, the apartments are now “quite spacious,” and the PRS and shared ownership apartments benefit from underfloor heating and engineered timber floors. All apartments meet London Housing Design Guide space standards, as well as Lifetime Homes. Lucy comments that the balconies “weren’t quite wide enough” for the guidance in the previously consented scheme, so these were increased. Atlee adds that achieving the extra space “was a satisfying exercise, to make it work as efficiently as possible” – the 2.5 per cent extra space from rationalising the lobbies was all added to the internal area of apartments, meaning the residents would have increased functional and aesthetic benefits across all tenures. Adding floor area to individual apartments was chosen for compliance purposes as well as resident amenity and therefore market value, as adding levels above would have reduced the floor to floor heights. They needed to be 2.6 metres to comply with GLA guidance, and in any case to achieve this the architects needed to make service voids “minimal – services are contained in a shallow ceiling void. The project was initially designed by EPR to be tenure blind, and, says Atlee, “that was the way we carried it through, as the way we felt it should be done.” She adds: “The affordable elements are executed to the same high quality as the private elements.”


The project had high standards in terms of sustainability, with the apartments having been designed to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4, and the shell and core for the offices being to BREEAM Excellent Offices standard. In addition, when the offices come to be fitted out, it will be done to a Green Lease (an ‘eco’-based commercial lease). As well as being project architect, Atlee is also a BREEAM Accredited Professional (AP). In addition to bringing her high degree of knowledge on the assessment process, and focus on sustainability, simply having her on board as part of the design team gained the project BREEAM credits. All the apartments have low water consuming sanitaryware, taps with adjustable flow rates, and low energy appliances. The building is connected to a district heating system (a condition of planning), and rainwater is collected in underground tanks to be used for irrigation. PV panels on the two towers’ roofs are combined with an area of brown roof to support biodiversity, and there’s also some rare Jersey Cudweed, a plant with just two surviving UK populations. It was discovered during early site surveys, and later bagged up and moved to the roof. Swift and bat boxes have been ensconced within the building’s brick elevations. There was a further sustainability challenge in terms of logistics posed by Tower Hamlets planners – the project team had to organise barge deliveries of some materials in order to reduce the scheme’s impact in terms of carbon emissions and pollution from lorries. It was easier said than done, says Atlee: “They came into the dock, and getting permission to close it off was challenging.” She adds: “I’m a sustainability person, that’s my background, and I support the environmental benefits of the logistics requirement – and while it was difficult to implement, it’s good to have done it.” With “excellent levels of insulation and air tightness,” all apartments are supplied with fresh air thanks to MVHR units. Atlee comments: “It was a squeeze getting the plant into the service voids while maintaining 2.6 metre clear floor to ceiling heights” – the project’s 3D BIM model was instrumental to ensuring this was done as painlessly as possible. As well as being a rare mainstream residential project for the studio, this is also the first built project that aLL has applied Revit on; “We do everything with Revit now,” says Atlee, adding that the structural engineer and MEP were also using the same model.

Primary colours

The external design of the scheme was revamped by aLL, with an eye-catching combination of grey brick mix, and balconies – plus solid aluminium Velfac facade panels – picked out in bright primary colours. One tower has bright yellow accents, the other has a vibrant orange. Atlee explains the decision to go for bold colours: “We extended the use of colour so the project stands out in the sea of new resi towers in Canary Wharf and Millharbour.” The sharply detailed exterior is finished by window frames precision-matched to the brickwork. Atlee is right in saying the patches of bright colour on the dark facades make “a dramatic impact.” The balconies, which have been transformed from grey in the original scheme, are “distinctive in long range views such as from Greenwich Park as well as locally,” their vertical PPC fin railings running around exposed concrete slabs. The architects needed to take a pragmatic, performance-based approach to materials specification for the facades, although the project was specified pre-Grenfell, but it was also one which realised aesthetic goals. Atlee explains: “When we took on the project there were elements of the elevations that were not suitable for use over 18 metres. So we changed to a U-profiled glass from Reglit, and changed the panels to Velfac. These high-gloss panels also had the benefit of “a much cleaner detail, much higher finish and better longevity.’’ The brick specification for the facades was meticulous, and required a determined search for the right variety. “In the planning application, the brick mix was a light grey and a darker grey,” says Atlee, “and we found it quite hard to find.” They finally arrived at a Hagemeister mix of a dark grey and an iridescent, which would give the effect of a lighter grey overall. As the resulting mix reflects light it also makes the facades’ appearance alter through the course of the day. Atlee adds: “It was difficult to find a grey without brown or purple tones. Because we were using bright colours we felt it had to be something monochrome.” She says supplier Modular Clay Products “were really helpful in finding what we were looking for.” Atlee says she is very happy with the result, and that the design team chose full brick rather than brick slip alternatives for this project. She says: “There was an early proposal to use a render-applied brick tile, however after visiting another site and viewing samples the architects “resisted it, as it really didn’t look good.” She adds: “Swift, the brickwork subcontractor were excellent, and as the building is all about the brick as well as the colour, it wouldn’t be the same building without it.” On the PRS/shared ownership towers, the top floor of apartments is clad in a cornice of yellow/orange Trespa panels, to match the Velfac panels and PPC balconies below. The late Will Alsop had originally drawn some “playful elements” to be added at high level, adding a floor to each of the towers, says Atlee. However this wasn’t possible in the end, as the scheme’s Community Infrastructure Levy calculation would have had to be redone. “CIL was just about to come in, and it would have cost more money to add something to the top, it didn’t make any financial sense.”


The colours of the exteriors of the towers are continued through to the inside, assisting wayfinding and orientation for users, including on stair cores, bike and bin stores. The reception areas for each tower are as dramatic as the exterior with their bright floors, solid surface desks and letter boxes, contrasting dark walls, and bespoke, characterful, terracotta pendant lights. “We had initially wanted to have back-painted glass in the receptions, but that was value engineered out,” says Atlee, “so we changed walls to charcoal grey and used the back-painted glass in the lifts. It’s a relatively small area but still has a big impact.” The colour-matched resin floors from Flowcrete survived value engineering, says Atlee, “because it’s a small area and has long-term maintenance benefits as it’s quite hardwearing.” In the affordable housing cores, they are vinyl.


The scheme is now fully occupied, and the architects “plan to go back and do a post-occupancy evaluation,” says Atlee, to “check everything is working as intended.” While this scheme may not be quite as playful as some of Alsop’s previous, often flamboyantly eccentric buildings, it shows that the practice can provide elements of fun and design flair in a ‘real world’ scheme, and achieve financially robust as well as aesthetically valid results for clients and users. Lucy Atlee concludes: “It was a worthwhile exercise to solve the puzzle and make the building more efficient to the benefit of the client and occupants, as well as making it more sustainable within the confines of the existing building.” It may be a signal of a respected practice moving further into the mainstream, to bring the legacy of a great architect to a wider group of clients and projects. However it’s not leaving the more rarefied schemes behind, says Atlee: “We’re not ruling out doing more esoteric projects – but we want to build.”


  • Windows: Velfac
  • Brick: Hagemeister (supplied by Modular Clay Products)
  • Resin floors: Flowcrete
  • Lobby lights: Hand & Eye
  • Studio Lifts: Orona
  • Sanitaryware: Duravit