Sunday20 August 2017

Technical study: Garden Halls, London

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TP Bennett and Maccreanor Lavington’s elegant stepped facades in the heart of Bloomsbury show how off-site methods can help student accommodation to raise its game. Amanda Birch reports

Garden Halls

Source: Tim Crocker

The façade is made of precast concrete panels faced with buff Petersen brick

Project Garden Halls, University of London
Architects Maccreanor Lavington/TP Bennett
Location London, UK

Student housing has developed a poor reputation of late. Schemes like the Caledonian Road student accommodation in Islington, which won BD’s Carbuncle Cup in 2013 is a case in point. But thankfully, universities seem to be learning from their mistakes.

The new £140 million Garden Halls redevelopment in the heart of Bloomsbury, clearly demonstrates this shift. The 1,200-room University of London student campus is an architectural tour de force. Its finely crafted, brick buildings achieve a welcome coherence that the motley collection of buildings previously on the site never did. The principle facade has been constructed using off-site manufacturing techniques which initially seems surprising given the highly crafted nature of the project.

Situated in a conservation area, this large 1.45ha site is located on the eastern edge of Cartwright Gardens. Originally conceived as a Georgian block, the site had been redeveloped and the 1930s and 1950s buildings already housed student accommodation. However, the buildings were inefficient in layout and needed upgrading and repair.

Executive architect TP Bennett and principal facade architect Maccreanor Lavington, were appointed by University Partnerships Programme to redevelop the site to provide more student rooms, better quality communal spaces, en-suite facilities and a stronger connection to its architecturally sensitive location. 

“This project offered a unique opportunity to enhance the setting of the square by creating a unified approach along the majority of its length,” says Richard Lavington, director of Maccreanor Lavington.

The proposal involved the demolition of the existing buildings with the exception of the 1960s Hughes Parry Hall, located on the corner of Cartwright Gardens and Hastings Street. It is suggested that if the 13-storey tower had been demolished, planning permission may never have been granted for a new building of similar height. In the event, the tower’s envelope was stripped back to its concrete structure and replaced with new brown brick and white banding, using traditional construction methods. “We also introduced some students’ rooms at the top together with a mansard to give it more definition,” says Nenad Manasijevic, principal director at TP Bennett.

Garden Halls

Source: Tim Crocker

The windows feature a decorative perforated aluminium screen

Maccreanor Lavington’s role as principal facade architect meant that the practice started work on the project later than TP Bennett. Therefore the massing and bulk of the proposed buildings had already been established. Yet the major challenge still to resolve was the treatment of the main building facing Cartwright Gardens and a crescent of listed Georgian townhouses. Inspiration came from the existing large-scale Victorian and Edwardian buildings that populate Bloomsbury, such as the Russell Square Hotel and Victoria House.

“Everyone was shying away from the fact that the new Cartwright Gardens building would be big and tried to break it down,” says Lavington. “So we suggested that the new building should acknowledge its size and that if we were going to do a big building we would need more depth in the facade. From this idea grew the articulation of the facade and the stepping of the brickwork, which was tricky to resolve.”

“We also wanted to introduce a clear vertical order to the building to break down its scale into legible elements such as base, middle and top,” says Gavin Finnan, associate director at Maccreanor Lavington.

Maccreanor Lavington prepared large-scale, doll’s-house-like models and drawings to enable Camden Council, English Heritage and others to appreciate the facade’s depth and intricate brickwork.

There had also been a discussions around building the facade in Portland stone. But Lavington argued that Garden Halls is a residential building and stone is often perceived as a more formal building material. To this end, a light-coloured, buff, water-struck Petersen brick was selected and the stepping and texture achieved by the material created a stronger relationship to the other buildings in the square.

Garden Halls

The precast option

Early in the design process Maccreanor Lavington suggested brick-faced, precast off-site construction be adopted for the main Cartwright Gardens facade. This approach was later employed for the other brick facades on Leigh Street and the townhouses on Sandwich Street by TP Bennett, which varied in height from five to four storeys.

“One of the reasons for choosing off-site was because of the amount of stepping in the elevation. The stepped soffits would not be easy to make on site and would be very time-consuming and craftsmanship-orientated. Off-site also allows a degree of control over the complex, brick detailing,” says Lavington.

“There was also a time pressure,” says Manasijevic. “If built conventionally, the programme would take much longer, would be less precise, more expensive and would need scaffolding. I don’t think the quality achieved with off-site manufacture would be easily replicated if built in-situ.”

Maccreanor Lavington had considerable experience in using brick-faced precast for other projects – its first foray into this method of construction was the Lux Building on Hoxton Square back in 1997. “What is interesting about the off-site method is how the techniques and refinement of the technology has allowed us to do something quite crafted, such as the steps and reveals, in what is actually a monolithic way,” says Finnan. “All the brick elements are load-bearing to the ground and there aren’t massive joints in between, which gives the brick an almost stone-like, carved appearance.”

There was a further benefit to specifying the Petersen brick. During the precasting process bricks are cut in half, and generally, bricks only have a good face on one side. However, Petersen produces bricks with a good face on both sides, so both halves could be used, making it more cost-effective.

Garden Halls

Source: MLA

Cut bricks being laid in precast formwork

Mansard roof

A seven-storey building was proposed for Cartwright Gardens, with the additional two-storey roof expressed as a mansard set behind a parapet. The ground and first floors are grouped to form a single base to the building with brickwork piers rusticated by recessing every fifth course. The upper five storeys read as a series of stepped brick piers and frames over window openings that are grouped together to form a vertical order over the facade.

The mansard uses glazed terracotta cast onto the face of concrete panels, while the projecting dormers are formed of reconstituted stone. The windows employ a very thin profile section and have a decorative, perforated aluminium screen to the side. This uses an insulated panel that can be opened from the inside for ventilation. The lower level screens are bronze-coloured anodised aluminium, while the upper screens are powder-coated. The generous sized window sills are also made from reconstituted stone.

The different precast elements of the facade were made by Thorp Precast in Staffordshire and transported to the site and craned into place. The facade was built in three zones beginning with the north end of the building and moving to the south. In each zone, the lower three-storey piers were erected first, then the spandrels and sills slotted in. This process was repeated up the building with the three-storey T-sections followed by the two-storey T-sections. Finally, the mansard sections were lifted into place together with the two-storey dormer windows.

Garden Halls

Source: THORPE

A crane raises one of the precast piers into position

According to Finnan, the piers and T-sections bear all the weight back to the ground. These elements were stacked on top of each other and restrained back to the buildings’ reinforced-concrete frame at the top of each section. The spandrels and sills were bolted to the piers on either side. “This meant that the reinforced concrete frame only takes the horizontal loads from the facade, so it’s a lot thinner than it would have been if it had to also support the weight of the precast panels,” says Finnan. “The only element supported by the reinforced-concrete frame is the two-storey mansard.”

Maccreanor Lavington also had to resolve the treatment of the building at the south end of Cartwright Gardens. Taking its cue from the existing context of Leigh Street, the new building is lower scale and employs a darker water-struck Petersen brick.

“We wanted to reflect the language of the dark, sooty brick on the surrounding buildings,” says Lavington. “The dark brick wouldn’t have been appropriate for the main building because it would be too intense and we wanted Garden Halls with its central main entrance to read as the principal, formal building in the square.”

The result is a substantial, quality building that cleverly avoids any oppressiveness due its crafted, meticulous detailing and richness in form. Garden Halls has significantly raised the standard of student accommodation in London.

Project team

Client University Partnerships Programme acting on behalf of University of London
Executive architect TP Bennett
Principal facade architect Maccreanor Lavington
Planning, structural and services engineer Cundall
Cost consultant McBains Cooper
Main contractor Brookfield Multiplex
Specialist precast subcontractor Thorp Precast


Readers' comments (1)

  • Getafix

    Wonderful facade. Excellent work by Maccreanor Lavington.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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