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The Piper Building

The Piper Building in West London, converted into apartments by Lifschutz Davidson, offers the sort of spaces architects dream of fitting out. We feature the building and see how different architects have seized the opportunity

Not many years ago, ‘new uses for old buildings’ was a worthy cause. There was a limited stock of fine but functionally redundant old buildings which had to be ‘saved’ by conversion. The facilitators in this redeeming process were generally specialists, including distinguished practitioners like Bernard Feilden and Donald Insall. Only occasionally as, for instance, at Snape Maltings (converted into a concert hall by Arup Associates) did mainstream ‘modern’ practices get involved.

Lifschutz Davidson’s transformation of the former North Thames Gas Board (later British Gas) office and laboratory complex, close to Wandsworth Bridge, into loft-style apartments reflects a very different ethos. Developers discovered some time ago that, in certain circumstances, reusing existing buildings makes financial sense. In recent years, conversions have formed the backbone of new residential development in inner London (and, indeed, increasingly in major provincial cities). Both established developers and a new breed of entrepreneurs (of whom Crispin Kelly, Lifschutz Davidson’s client in this instance, is a shining example) have invested heavily in recycling former office, warehouse and industrial buildings as modish homes.

At the Piper Building, as the scheme to transform the ntgb has become known, Kelly’s Baylight Properties worked in partnership with Try Homes, though the initial vision was very much Kelly’s. ‘I could see the block from my office,’ says Kelly. ‘It was a hulk on the horizon.’

The site, described in the developer’s publicity material as being located in ‘one of the capital’s most vibrant and fashionable residential areas’, is actually part of a belt of industrial, warehouse and, latterly, superstore developments lining both sides of a mile-long stretch of the Thames between Chelsea Harbour and the leafy grounds of the Hurlingham Club, though it is separated by a road from the river itself. The ntgb built a 23225m2 development here in 1959-62, with engineer Brobowski & Partners as lead designer. It consisted of a T-shaped, six-storey block accompanied by a series of lower blocks intended to house heavy technical equipment. The lumpen Functionalism of the project was relieved only by the mural panels applied to the projecting conference room wing - 76 metres of them executed in fibreglass and designed by leading artist John Piper - a large and distinguished example of ‘public art’. Piper’s involvement led English Heritage to consider listing the building when it seemed it might be demolished, but it was eventually turned down. This made the developers’ task much simpler.

The case for retaining the existing structures was practical and financial rather than aesthetic: they had resource value. Crispin Kelly is a discriminating client, responsible, for example, for a distinguished ‘new and old’ development at Sloane Avenue, with Stanton Williams/yrm as architects. Lifschutz Davidson had a track record at re-using and revitalising basically ordinary old buildings, notably the Oxo building on the South Bank. ‘I was impressed by its record of combining a commercial approach with innovative design,’ says Kelly. The raw material for the Piper Building might have been ordinary, but it was certainly well-built: a precast concrete frame, without internal columns, providing 4.5m spans. Moreover, the floor to ceiling heights were exceptionally generous varying between 4 and 6 metres. The six storeys of the main block could easily have accommodated 10 normal office floors. The potential for creating really spectacular loft spaces inside was obvious.

The principle hurdle to be overcome was a planning presumption in favour of an industrial or commercial use on the site. If housing were to be permitted there, the planning guidelines stated, it should be of the low- cost, ‘social’ variety. According to Alex Lifschutz, ‘we spelt out the case clearly to Hammersmith & Fulham: here was a use for the building. What purpose would demolishing it serve? Did the planners really want another bland shed?’ Methane pollution of surrounding land, necessitating costly clean-up measures, further diminished the obvious commercial value of the site. What Crispin Kelly offered - a mixed-use scheme - proved sufficiently appealing and consent was given. The ancillary blocks and the ground floor of the main block were earmarked for B1 type (office/warehousing) use and have proved eminently lettable. (The fashion house of Joseph is one of the tenants.)

At the Oxo Building, Lifschutz Davidson applied balconies and other elements to liven up a dull, but basically sound, exterior. At the Piper Building, the existing curtainwall of the main block was both unattractive and in poor condition. It was not, in fact, a true curtainwall but merely patent glazing fronting the concrete frame and not worth repairing. The planners suggested a brick cladding, which proved unviable, while Lifschutz Davidson’s idea of metal panels was too costly. The architects therefore resorted to what Lifschutz calls ‘white stuff’: sto rendering applied on a lightweight metal frame. (Watermans, who acted as structural engineers for the project, advised that the floors, carried on pre-stressed edge beams, were not strong enough to take a solid masonry infill.) Window openings were provided in relation to the new residential spaces behind. The nature of the new cladding removed the need for expansion joints, so that a smooth and seamless finish was achieved.

In its final version, the scheme provided for 77 flats (totalling 9754m2), ranging considerably in scale (seven top-floor flats were acquired for one vast apartment) but all generous in size by any conventional standard. ‘The whole development is about volume,’ says Paul Sandilands of Lifschutz Davidson. ‘We are talking in terms of cubic, rather than square, feet.’

Although Crispin Kelly’s first instinct was to complete all apartments to shell stage only, it was eventually agreed that the development would contain a mix of fitted-out flats and of large shells (concentrated at the north-east corner of the main block) where buyers would commission fit-outs from architects or designers of their choice. The latter provision has produced some interesting commissions - John Pawson, Seth Stein and Ron Arad, for example. Buyers at the Piper Building have warmed to its huge spaces and seem undeterred by the offbeat location - most seem to be highly mobile, as well as highly affluent, and more likely to pop up the road to the River Cafe for supper than warm up a Sainsbury’s chicken tikka masala. Easy access to Heathrow is another advantage over Docklands or EC1.

Lifschutz Davidson were commissioned to fit out all the remaining flats, with an approach that is ‘straightforward and not at all James Bond’ according to Paul Sandilands. Two basic plan forms were applied. The first (the so-called ‘Philip Johnson egg’, taking its cue from the layout of the New Canaan Glass House) places services in a central island core, with a mezzanine above. The alternative layout features a double-height living space, with an upper level mezzanine gallery over the kitchen. Lifschutz Davidson’s interiors are cool, mainstream modern in feel - they are delighted that ‘there is now a market for modern spaces, properly designed.’

The lofty interior of the Piper Building gave the architects plenty of space for services, notably the plenum areas necessary to meet smoke control requirements for the central corridors. (The latter are brought down to human scale by the use of simple fabric coverings at 2m height.) The corridors remain slightly oppressive in feel, but other public areas, including the entrance foyer, where original terrazzo flooring has been carefully restored, are spacious and light. The Piper murals too have been restored, simply by washing with a detergent solution, and appear to be in excellent condition.

The exterior of the main block, covered in ‘white stuff’, is, unfortunately, blander than ever, though the architects have relieved the monotony by using big pull-down blinds, bright yellow in hue, to give shade and privacy to the balconies which have been added. Lifschutz Davidson learned from the Oxo project that ‘people love a bit of outside space’. The roof of the large single-storey block along Carnwath Road, close to the river, has been laid out as a communal garden. It would make a marvellous summertime restaurant. This block has been rendered in a rich yellow, a memory of the Mediterranean set alongside the Thames.

Twenty years ago, few would have cared whether or not the Piper Building was ‘saved’. Yet the quality of new development in the immediate vicinity - under-scaled and meanly detailed - underlines the rationale of re-using sound existing building stock. The project has ensured the survival, in situ, of a significant work of art - the John Piper murals - which would have been very difficult to relocate. It has also given a new use to a group of buildings with potential for continued use. In the end, however, the Piper Building is an exercise in lifestyle: it provides a haven for a varied cast of residents who clearly demand extraordinary surroundings. The success of the project in architectural terms is a reflection of Lifschutz Davidson’s ability to restrain their instincts to intervene and remodel in favour of a more permissive approach. They have created not so much a landmark as a marker of social change.

CREDITS

CONTRACT TYPE jct 81

START DATE January 1997

COMPLETION DATE March 1998

TOTAL FLOOR AREA 30,000 m2

CLIENT Piper Building

ARCHITECT Lifschutz Davidson: Mike Barrie, Silvano Cranchi, Geoff Crowther, Ian Davidson, Vanessa Dickson, Sarah Griffiths, Ben Knight, Alex Lifschutz, Katherine McNeil, Charles Olsen, Chris Pollard, Tony Pollintine, Paul Sandilands, David Tucker

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Smith Turner Associates

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Waterman Partnership

SERVICES ENGINEER Waterman Partnership

MAIN CONTRACTOR Try Construction

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS

external cladding sto (Telling Group), windows and doors Kawner, Vista Brunswick, lifts Cable Lifts, timber floors Junckers, balconies Littlehampton Welding, dry lining British Gypsum, blinds and fabric ceilings Louvre Blinds, M&E NG Bailey, roofing system Euroroof, fencing and steelwork STL, steelwork Winvic Engineers, reception desk Lester & Lester, terrace bespoke rooflights and automatic doors Columbus, external and internal lighting Erco, external lighting Thorn, hot-rolled asphalt with chippings Ayton Asphalte, paving slabs Camas, ecc, carpets Joseph Hamilton & Seaton, rubber flooring Freudenberg, vehicular gates Singer & James, signage Display Signs Group, block paving Marshalls,

Fit out: dry lining Vladar, M&E CJ Bartley, metalwork Hubbard, kitchens Abita, slate tiling and counter tops Burlington, mosaic tiling Downs, towel radiators Zehnder, joinery and bathroom units Brown & Carrol, ironmongery fsb (Allgood), cooker hoods stg, spiral stairs Crescent

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