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Engineering value: Urbanest King’s Cross by Glenn Howells

Glenn Howells Architects has maximised the number of units in this King’s Cross student residence with minimal compromise on quality, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Paul Miller

The student residence is an in-between building type, straddling housing and tertiary education. As such, some developers find it a useful stop-gap for those tricky sites where standards applicable to other uses are prohibitive. Case in point, developer Argent ran various options ranging from offices to mixed-use for a site at the northern extremity of its King’s Cross Central estate, having earmarked it as a high-rise marker point, and concluded that student digs were the most viable. Glenn Howells Architects won the competition to work up proposals for the site - part of Allies and Morrison’s masterplan - alongside student housing provider Urbanest, to a brief stipulating high-quality accommodation its occupants would take pride in.

The option which was built, in time for the start of the 2013-14 academic year, comprises a 14-storey end-of-terrace ‘shoulder’ block leased to the London School of Economics, and an adjoining 27-floor tower with units let on the private market by Urbanest. The total number of bedrooms is a whopping 669. Neatly sidestepping the Kenwood House to St Paul’s viewing corridor, the tower’s height observes practical constraints - a higher one would have required cast-iron drainpipes - and also aesthetic concerns. ‘Any lower, and it would have looked dumpy against the “shoulder”,’ says Glenn Howells Architects director Dav Bansal. With a width of only 13 metres, the tower cuts an elegant figure.

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Crucially, Glenn Howells Architects optimised the number of units by concentrating overhead services in lift lobbies to restrict the floor-to-floor height to 2.86m, which paid in two extra storeys, and by switching to a splayed C-shaped configuration maximising the length of frontage looking southwards and away from the Eurostar railway line. Splayed plan offsets improved orientation of the units, providing more solar gain, and also dodged the existing sewer runs and railway tunnel.

Glenn Howells Architects then went one step further by paring down floor areas of the bedrooms - which are not regulated by guidelines or standards - from the more typical 12.5-13.5m² to a mere 11.5, without compromising their spatial quality. Study desks run along window walls rather than perpendicular to them, which provides wide panoramic views; storage is carefully integrated and dressing areas are well thought-out.

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There’s actually a range of accommodation types, including luxury penthouse studios with self-contained kitchens and clusters of eight bedrooms in the tower, with escape-route distances measured from their shared front doors, minimising staircase and lift requirement. There’s also floor-to-ceiling glass in common areas, where solar gain is less critical. However, their wide no man’s land corridors and the proportions of their cluster units’ long, narrow kitchen, living and dining areas feel uncomfortable.

The trade-off for this tight planning is more room for communal space, in the entrance and on the top floor for example, as well as high-quality, hard-wearing and low-maintenance finishes, so the development looks remarkably like a hotel, benefiting from the expertise of Glenn Howells Architects’ interior design team. ‘These are probably the most intensively used building types, so maintenance and longevity are absolutely key,’ says Bansal.

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There’s also a rigorous fabric first logic, backed up by King’s Cross Central’s district heating system, with a range of three facade depths which respond to orientation requirements and help to balance solar heat gain reduction with high daylight penetration. The other half of the equation is the high weekly rent, which ranges from £269 to £450, albeit with complimentary folding bikes and council-tax exemption. Multiply this by 669 units and it’s hard to fault the decision of the AJ100 Value Excellence Award judges on pragmatic grounds. The chief criticism of Roger Zogolovitch, who was on the panel, is that Glenn Howells Architects should have found a way to demonstrate it was entitled to a higher fee for the value it added to the development.

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