Basil Spence’s livery building is being sensitively remodelled by de Metz Forbes Knight
When the Salters’ Company was looking for an architect to build a new headquarters after being bombed out in the second world war, the livery company toyed with the idea of commissioning Mies van der Rohe before choosing Basil Spence. The eight-storey building — one of the last by Spence’s practice — is a very rare example of a post-war livery building and was completed in 1972. It has remained largely untouched ever since.
Notable for its distinctive ribbed and knapped concrete, the hall is now grade II listed and is in urgent need of attention. It is to be completely refurbished by architect de Metz Forbes Knight, which recently won planning consent for the £8.5 million project. This involves creating a new entrance pavilion, additional lettable office space, and introducing a new glazing scheme.
The challenge was to both upgrade the building’s fabric and improve the way the 4,200sq m building connects with its environs. Salters’ Hall is on Fore Street in the City of London close to the Barbican and is currently accessed via an undercroft that also leads through to Salters’ Garden, a narrow strip of public space bordered by remnants of the original London Wall.
It is adjacent to sites due for development, including St Alphage House, now owned by developer Brookfield. A Make-designed office scheme for the site includes the creation of a new ground-level thoroughfare between the two sites with ramps into the garden, which was originally designed by David Hicks who also designed the Salters’ Hall interior.
The Salters’ Company was keen to maximise income potential from the building to support its charitable works, which include science education. It also wanted to address the problematic undercroft entrance, which was gloomy and lacked impact. The solution was to increase office space by both expanding the existing offices on floors 1-4, and by converting the undercroft to create new ground-floor offices. This entails the creation of a more prominent entrance on the east side towards the end of the new pedestrian route, one that the architect feels is more fitting for such a ‘brash and strong’ building.
“While I understand the theory of buildings held up on piloti, the reality is that the [undercroft] space is miserable. It never gets any sunlight and nothing grows,” says de Metz. “I don’t think it touches the ground in a particularly human way. I’m hoping that what we’re doing makes the building much more approachable.”
In a significant change to the once flush curtain walling on the north and south elevations, the facades will be removed and the office floor plates will be pushed out 1.5m both on the Fore Street and Salters’ Garden elevations. This gives the architect the opportunity to tackle the facades, which although double-glazed are underperforming and contain asbestos. In order to bring more light into what will be deeper office floor plates, the architect proposes replacing the aluminium spandrels with glazing and is discussing bespoke powder-coated aluminium curtain wall solutions with several contractors. The fenestration pattern will otherwise be faithful to the rhythm of the original, with three bays of four windows each over the gardens and four bays over Fore Street. External concrete will be refurbished and repainted. Glazing on the top floor, which contains residential accommodation, will also be upgraded.
Raising the ceiling
Inside, the offices will be completely overhauled with the removal of the suspended ceiling and perimeter induction air conditioning units and the installation of new ceiling rafts. These will conceal new servicing while gaining slightly more floor-to-ceiling height — up to a maximum of 2.65m from the previous 2.47m.
A former caretaker’s flat on the lower ground floor will be converted to offices with archive and plant space beneath the new reception. Wine storage will be moved to the basement as part of a reorganisation of the two lower levels.
In the grand ceremonial rooms — which, unusually for livery halls, were elevated by Spence to the fifth and sixth floors — the priority will be upgrading the servicing and air-conditioning so that air is supplied at low level and extracted at high level rather than vice versa. This involves the painstaking removal of the fluted ash panels in the livery hall to access the servicing and overhaul the noisy cooling system, which detracts from the room’s otherwise excellent acoustics as it is occasionally used by chamber orchestras as a rehearsal room. The panels will then be refinished and reinstalled. LED lighting will be introduced throughout.
“Visually it’s a faithful restoration but in service terms it’ll be Breeam Excellent,” says de Metz.
De Metz Forbes Knight will commission new carpeting in the ceremonial areas to recreate Hicks’s original but now worn red and purple-patterned design and will renew the fabric wall panels, which are curiously finished at cornice level in bright red tape. Doors will be replaced and ironmongery refurbished.
“Our main priority is to capture the spirit of the original design,” says de Metz. “We want to make our mark but part of doing that is working with what is here rather than obliterating it.”
The project will increase the Salter’s Company lettable office space by 60% from 1,431 to 2,309sq m with the total proposed area of the building rising to 4,862sq m. It is scheduled to start in January 2014 regardless of the progress of the adjacent St Alphage development.
New entrance pavilion
The glazed structure pays homage to the original design.
De Metz Forbes Knight plans to remove a garage to make way for the new entrance, which will be much more visible than its undercroft predecessor.
City of London planners initially favoured a glass box to allow views of the original building through 24 roof windows in the new addition, but the architect argued that a weightier, concrete-framed yet still heavily glazed structure would be more appropriate than something so transparent. This has a glazed grid-form roof to allow views up to the building’s upper levels.
The pavilion will have bronze powder-coated, aluminium brise soleil inspired by the vertical pattern of the ash panelling in the livery hall. This motif is repeated in a fluted ash wall at the rear of the reception hiding the services. Flooring will be of honed, unfilled large-slabbed travertine in the spirit of the original design.
Client The Worshipful Company of Salters
Architect De Metz Forbes Knight
Project manager Capita Symonds Northcroft
Planning Rolfe Judd
Historic buildings consultancy Montagu Evans
Structure The Elliott Wood Partnership
Services, fire and sustainability Hoare Lea
Cost consultant Jackson Coles