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Boxing clever in Islington

Simon Conder Associates' imaginative solution to an awkward warehouse site was to enclose all the wet services in a softwood box which 'floats' along one wall, creating a calm and uncluttered interior The most basic softwood has been used to create a beautiful but inexpensive interior, thanks to scrupulous attention to detailing by the architect, Simon Conder Associates Fitting out warehouse subdivisions can be an exciting opportunity for playing around with space, form, colour and light.

At least that is true for the architects of warehouse subdivisions who can (sometimes) contrive to make sure that they have this opportunity. For the rest it is about making do, creatively, with the mostly narrow, gutted spaces allowed by traditional warehouse plans and, of course, by the developers.

The Buschow Henley canal-side warehouse development at Shepherdess Walk in Islington, north London, is such a scheme.

Conder's client bought a second-floor corner shell that had a chamfered-off external corner, and an intrusion along a third of the party wall which took in a public staircase with a rather thick wall. Along the party wall were vertical services ducts, and the idea developed of continuing the servicing/access zone along the party wall, leaving the long, generously glazed space open for living.

It was decided to mark out a sleeping zone at one end and a study at the other, using mobile storage units. Conder then decided to put the wet services, kitchen and bathroom, in a big wooden capsule which seems to float along the length of the long party wall. Here is the building-within-abuilding which has become the entirely admirable de-rigeur minimal solution to fitting new living into old buildings.

The client had a really tight budget which sometimes, as here, brings out an architect's inventiveness. How do you create something which looks so simple that it must involve considerable sophistication? In Conder's case, it comes about by thinking meticulously about everything, and once the design basis is established, following it through rigorously.

So the shell remains as it is, with its old sanded timber floor, white-painted ceiling, the two external solid brick walls as found, the other two walls plastered and painted white, with white-painted cupboard doors to the deep recesses of the long wall. The two storage units that double as space-dividers at each end are also painted white. There are also a refrigerator and a door-height wine rack in, respectively, stainless steel and timber.

With the white background established, now comes the main feature, the services capsule. It is dramatic in the way it floats above the floor, cleverly lit from underneath and above to give you the feeling that it is as ready to take off as the mobile storage units. Yet it is curiously unassertive. This is because it is made from ordinary tongued and grooved softwood boarding from the local builders' merchant, and the new planks are about the same width as the old. So the palette consists of brick, industrial-style glazing, white paint on plaster walls, cupboard doors and ceiling, old timber, much-the-same similar-looking new timber. And that is it.

The capsule is set out from the storage wall along the long party wall by a metrewide corridor and overhangs a twostep-high raised floor, which contributes to the floating sensation. The floor is raised to accommodate services runs between the fittings in the kitchen and bathroom, and the two vertical ducts built into in the party wall.With your back to the viewing window in the entrance lobby, the sequence of activities goes thus: kitchen bench with sink and stove on the right, big fridge, wine rack and cupboards on the left. Then there is the lavatory and hand basin, then a shower, then a bath, and then you go right around the end of the capsule and down two steps to the bedroom zone of the main room. There are metre-wide doors to the first and last bathroom spaces, which close off all three spaces to the rest of the apartment. The bath cubicle has a horizontal window through which the bath taps are visible from the sleeping zone, and there is a much bigger opening to allow conversation between the kitchen and the main living area.

The timberwork also conforms to the general minimal aesthetic. It consists of 65mm-square studwork with 19mm-thick, 185mm-wide tongued and grooved boarding for everything including the doors. Soss hinges from Hafele enable the doors to go completely back on themselves to lie against the wall. Instead of handles, the doors have a slit half-a-plank wide, located one plank in from the leading edge and occupying the middle third of the door height. The drawings indicated the direction of the tongues and grooves, so that there was a tongue on the 'handle' side that could be planed down, rather than an uncomfortable groove. This scrupulous attention to detail leaves nothing to chance or the whims of the contractor.

The timber is off-the-shelf, selected on the basis of finish and the number of knots.

It was stored carefully to minimise cupping and to acclimatise it a little. Basic rules were established with the builder David Jones about how and what he selected as he built the box. It did not hurt that the practice's office is not far from Shepherdess Walk.

Jones did such a good job overall, on time and budget, that the practice has used him on other projects.

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