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Tuesday22 August 2017

How AHMM delivered housing with real value at Adelaide Wharf

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AHMM’s mixed-tenure housing development on the Grand Union Canal’s Adelaide Wharf in Hackney, east London, really catches the eye

The first surprise after visiting Adelaide Wharf was how spotless the place was a full year after the residents arrived. It was designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, winner of the Affordable Housing category of BD’s Architect of the Year Awards, for developer First Base. The development could hardly be described as boutique: there are 147 flats, ranging between one and four beds, and 700sq m of work space. In many urban locations, this pristine condition would be notable; in a fairly tough part of Hackney, east London, it seems extraordinary. You can’t help but wonder how it has happened.

Part of the answer is specific to the project, and clearly lies in the synergy between architect and developer. The site wasn’t without potential, with the Grand Union Canal, a popular pedestrian route to the north, and Haggerston Park, a well-tended open space, to the south. However, approaching from the west, a random collage of housing types — LCC mansion blocks, point blocks, balcony access low-rise, row housing, and dinky 1980s additions (now fading fast) — placed the project in an extremely scrappy (and very London) urban menagerie.

Inheriting a planning consent for a slightly larger housing scheme in 2004, First Base and AHMM were quick to make some strategic savings by reducing the number of vertical cores from six to three and simplifying the massing from its various kinks, curves and treatments to a simple, C-shaped perimeter block around a central courtyard. Through two openings on the street facades, the hard urban edges give on to this greener shared space. Underlying the exterior’s moments of chirpiness, the project’s calm and legible reaction to the site feels unique in this immediate context.

The bones and most of the skin of Adelaide Wharf appropriates office building technologies that allow structures in the Square Mile (only a mile away) to be thrown up with optimum efficiency. The concrete frame is wrapped in a unitised cladding system, which was craned off of the delivery trucks directly into place without the need for scaffolding — a smart move considering one facade borders the canal. By the developer’s calculation, the project’s design efficiencies saved six months of construction time, creating substantial savings in interest payments.

But what has this process led to? A project honed to the point of admirable financial rigour, but a built result that feels cynical and soulless? Luckily not; with too many of these projects around from the boom years, there’d be nothing to write home about there. Admirably, such savings have gone into the scheme’s quality rather than its bank account. This is value-engineering where the values are more than just money.

Architecturally, this has created spatial generosity in crucial places. By minimising the number of cores, carefully positioned triple-height sections of corridor have been won, and by limiting variants in cladding panels, more volume in the stairwells has been achieved. These may sound small victories, but such non-essentials to the all-important housing numbers are often first to be cut. Maintaining such “luxuries” is crucial to increasing housing quality, and the good thing is that such moves — because they are spatial — are there to stay.

The building employs the current architectural palette of bright colours and timber. In some projects, upbeat colours can jar but here, restricted to balconies and entrance portals, they maintain the clarity of the box diagram without becoming patronising or overly graphic. The envelope, while clearly mechanistic, doesn’t yell “systematised facade”; the overlapping detail of the vertical timber boards suppresses rather than expresses the panel joints; and the bands of zinc on the floor slabs thankfully emphasise the scale of the building rather than the size of the lorry that delivered its components. The timber cladding forms a panel rather than an envelope, and by avoiding window openings and fiddly details, the weathering is controlled and not streaky.

Architecture of the modern era has often found process a suitable driver for appearance. In the UK, the results of such forays into modern methods of construction are often polarised into two camps: buildings that celebrate it and buildings that deny it. Adelaide Wharf is part of a welcome shift to a more subtle expression of construction method for housing, which sidesteps what can be an uninteresting dead-end for non-architects. The building’s warehouse aesthetic sits well in its light industrial and canalside location, and unusually for this country’s apartment developments, there’s the impression it could have a future as something other than housing.

While part of this project’s success has been the coming together of talents at a specific location, another aspect is its organisation, and in this there are perhaps more lessons for other schemes. Adelaide Wharf is the first completed project in English Partnership’s London-Wide Initiative that puts forward sites for mixed-tenure housing: there are 73 flats for private market, 41 for keyworkers, and 33 social rented. There is no discernable difference: the windows are the same size, as is the internal specification. A third of the flats are three- and four-bed. Informed by a marketability assessment, the flats with canal views are mostly open-market private, but thanks to attributes on the other two wings (park and skyline views, west-facing), this doesn’t result in the cynical “squeeze the affordable housing next to the bins/road/railway” prevalent in London. Accommodation of slight differences, such as the registered social landlord’s requirement to have its properties grouped, isn’t externally readable.

The model essentially uses the leverage of both private sector money and public sector subsidies to make a place that benefits both.

It seems a win-win situation for families and singles. Although, of course, there are compromises — single-aspect flats are not ideal — Adelaide Wharf really does feel like something that has been long desired but rarely achieved: a mixed community.

And it looks hopeful that this might continue. The service charge on the building pays for a six-day a week concierge, a tried and tested means of natural surveillance that, combined with carefully controlled but discreet security measures and the owner-occupier’s natural sense of pride, makes the project feel safe and friendly.

What is particularly innovative is that the developer is tied into the longevity of the project. First Base has sold a shared equity product where it maintains a portion of the profit occupiers may make should they sell their flats. This way, they hopefully project their profits forward; it takes perhaps some nerve now, but it seems a pretty good punt for five years’ time.

Crucially, this breaks the cycle of the developer making a product with only an ephemeral sheen, desperately keeping turf green until the place is sold. So it’s in everyone’s interest that design decisions made along the way not only make a sellable product but also a place with sufficient quality to remain so.

It all seems too simple. Housing really does come down to “it’s the management, stupid”.

In the current economic situation, using a mechanism where public money leverages private sector investment — aimed at long-term benefits for both profits and place — seems apt.

Though I’m the last one to overeulogise Europe’s supposed superior cities, standing in Adelaide Wharf’s central courtyard I couldn’t help but pay the compliment to the client and the architect: “This feels so European.” They agreed. And why not?

It makes you realise how hollow our vision of city living has sometimes been over the past decade. Though the architectural language may not be to everyone’s taste, the scheme is undeniably humane and efficient.

At this year’s British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which drew comparisons between the UK and European housing scenes, John Callcutt, former boss of English Partnerships, told architects that if they want to become involved in the UK’s housing industry, they need to “get real”. This is what AHMM has done at Adelaide Wharf. Through lateral thinking and good teamwork, the practice has reached design solutions that draw maximum value from every penny spent, demonstrating how architects can be central to housing production. Here we have the best of European and British qualities in housing and procurement.

AHMM’s top five housing references

Bevin Court
Berthold Lubetkin
Percy Circus, London N1, 1953-54

Bevin Court

At Bevin Court, the stair is at the hub of the plan, with access to the flats radiating out from it. Staggering the flights and landings so that they are offset rather than stacked above each other creates a double- or triple-height void above each flight, enhancing the sense of volume. The stair at Adelaide Wharf is also the hub of the plan. It is made to feel as generous a space as possible by staggering the flights to play with the perception of the volume, and allowing in daylight from top and sides.

Koldom small flat competition
Joseph Havlicek & Karel Honzik,
Prague, Collective House, 1930

Koldom small flat competition

These concept flats for minimal living reduced circulation space to maximise usable space. Sliding partitions allowed the flat to be opened up or compartmentalised. At Adelaide Wharf, this translated into double doors between living room and bedroom in one-bedroom flats. With doors open, the view to the next room gives the impression of occupying a larger space by opening up the length of the window wall. The flexibility allows residents to evoke an open-plan layout and also adjust for privacy.

Parisian urban block
France, 19th century

Parisian urban block

Paris offers a model for communal space that provides a transition between public and private spheres: the covered entrance court. A gate from the street opens into a sheltered external area, controlled by concierge. At Adelaide Wharf, this developed into entrance courts lined with glossy vitreous enamel. These multifunctional spaces define the entrance; give a pause off the street; frame views into communal courtyards; and control access points to private areas.

Furnished windows
Gio Ponti, 1950s, Italy

Furnished windows

Ponti regarded the facade as the communicator in architecture: the interior becomes exterior, with the windows revealing the life inside.His “furnished windows” concept elaborated on these ideas of transparency and inhabitation, of surface and skin rather than solid and void. The surface depth becomes about its layers of occupation, inside and out. Our interest in Ponti’s work is reflected in the depth of the larch skin of the facade and the inhabitation of the facade itself through the balconies.

Cranes and lifting beams on warehouses
Local context, 19th century

Cranes and lifting beams on warehouses

Suspended elements next to a canal is reminiscent of the hoists and pulleys on the 19th century warehouses alongside canals. These lifting beams were originally for loading freight from barges to wharves, often alongside double doors with drop-down platforms. Balconies at Adelaide Wharf have drawn on those references in the articulation of the balconies’ joints and supports hanging off the roof, and the expression of their structural strategy.

Adams Kara Taylor’s Adam Redgrove on engineering Adelaide Wharf

Our first visit to the site in London’s East End, was not for the faint-hearted: buildings had recently been used for an illegal party, and the canal was storing supermarket trolleys.

It was a relief when the site investigation encountered nothing more sinister below the surface than river terrace gravels, providing the ideal strata for a system of shallow piles.

During these early stages, we reviewed the first principles for residential structure with the team and specialist suppliers. The project had evolved as part of a wider study led by AHMM on rethinking housing. We were keen to identify the most appropriate solution for Adelaide Wharf and provide a catalogue of structural systems for future projects.

The architectural layout provided a rhythm which we were generally able to reflect in the structural grid; the apartment mix, however, coupled with the site footprint, reduced the extent to which structural prefabrication systems could be used. A frame system using in-situ flat slabs with blade columns in party wall lines was chosen as the optimum solution.

To encourage fast turnaround of floor slabs on site, we adopted Bamtec, designing and scheduling reinforcement in-house using a program based on our finite element analysis software. This enabled us to control adjustments to Bamtec layouts, which were required during the design development by parties interfacing with the structural frame.

We worked tightly with associated trades, none more so than with the cladding supplier with whom we developed a structural system enabling the external steel balconies to be supported by the cladding panels, avoiding thermal break details at the slab junction.

Adam Redgrove, Adams Kara Taylor

Adelaide Wharf specification

Vitreous enamel
The vitreous enamelled cladding panels to the main entrances were manufactured in Germany by Omeras and give a reflective interior to the covered entrance courts. The material was chosen for its durability, graffiti-resistance, rich colours and long-term colour fastness.

Timber cladding
This was developed with Trada to unify variation in weathering of the Siberian larch cladding boards between different facades. The rough-sawn boards are arranged vertically with a double board-on-board rhythm, and framed within cill and jamb sections to create a vertically textured panel.

Bathrooms
The steel-shelled bathroom pods were manufactured and fitted out in Poland by OEP Raterad and wheeled into position before the cladding was installed. The 18mm floor build-up minimised making up of levels on site. Services were connected to the centralised heating and hot water system through openings left
in the corridor walls.

Art
The main entrance lobby and stairwell are lined with 16m-high fire-rated MDF, printed using traditional wood blocks with a graphic wood pattern by local artist Richard Woods.

Unitised cladding
The Schuco curtain walling system was unitised into 3.5 x 2.89m bays in Prague by Sipral UK, and installed without scaffold to the concrete frame on site. The timber and zinc finishes articulate the staggered window arrangement of the facade, mask the panel joints, and require no maintenance.

Balconies
There are two sizes for suspended balconies, 4sq m and 9.5sq m. Free draining with perforated steel cladding panels zinc flame-sprayed to prevent warping and then coated with Leighs Resistex paint, giving a 15-years-to-recoat life. The balconies are bracketed off a CHS within the unitised cladding panel. Their outside edges are suspended by hangers from cantilevered steel beams at roof level.

Brown roof
The roof to the canalside block is finished with an inverted Brown roof system by Radmat Building Products. A hot applied reinforced bitumen waterproofing system was used. The Brown roof finish was made from a mix of local aggregate, stone, lying timber, recycled building materials and end products to create a habitat that encourages local invertebrate and bird species.

Kitchens
Kitchens were manufactured by A&H Kitchens in Essex which adapted its standard units to the recessed handle design, with matt vinyl wrapped doors.

Carpet
Ege Carpets’ asymmetrical design and large repeating pattern help visually break up the length of the corridors and have enough small-scale variation to mask wear and staining. Digital printing of the pattern allowed relatively small and affordable runs in bespoke colours and widths.

Adelaide Wharf working details

The balconies are suspended from roof level, allowing them to protrude further from the building than if cantilevered from the slab edge. This also avoids the need for a weathered and thermally broken structural penetration through the cladding by bracketing the internal edge of the balconies off a pin-jointed CHS beam, spanning from the unitised curtain walling support brackets within the panel itself.

See graphic attached below for illustration and more working detail.

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