Practice Eldridge Smerin is aiming to update the atmosphere of the London West End private club in the City with its Shed project. Director Piers Smerin talks to Sutherland Lyall about designing a club for lawyers and financiers that will be 'a bit ironic and self-deprecating'.
Small private clubs have been a feature of London's West End since the late 1970s, when architect Tchaik Chassay started up Zanzibar in Covent Garden, and later opened the Groucho and 192. Up and downmarket versions of these are to be found mainly in Soho, and are often the converted lower two floors of terraced houses, furnished by Oxfam and stocked with inexpensive plonk and hohum food. Unlike the Pall Mall gentlemen's clubs, with their vast hide armchairs, dozing bishops and sumptuous interiors by Barry or Scott, they cater to the chattering classes and their clients. They also provide a place for small business meetings and somewhere to relax before the rigours of the evening round begin again.
The Shed is a City version of all these, tucked into the left half of the ground and basement floors of the old Bank of Havana building in Ironmonger Lane. In the basement are a bar and dining facilities, including a long communal table under an open plywood structure known as the 'dining shed'. There is an area to watch television and a small outdoor basement area. On the ground floor is a sitting room with comfortable chairs, plus four more-or-less complete versions of 'shed' modules in the square space behind.
The full version of the shed module has ceiling-height partitions arranged as a cruciform on plan, which are wrapped with curved double-skin ply that misses the ceiling by around half a metre. The four variations of the basic model, one of which is a mere vestige, include a private meeting room, two 'zzed sheds' for snoozing, a disabled bathroom, a touchdown space (for using a laptop or writing up notes), a waiter's station and the main reception desk.
Eldridge Smerin had been doing a house project for the client when the prospect emerged of a club for City lawyers, bankers and traders. Director Piers Smerin says: 'In a way it's a fusion of the new wave of members' clubs with a quiet and discreet atmosphere and high levels of service like the old-fashioned gents' club. The clients come from a City and finance background, but there was an awful lot of baggage they wanted to get rid of. They came up with the idea of Shed - a bit ironic and self-deprecating.'
CONTRACTOR DESIGN The contract chosen by the quantity surveyor, AB Associates, was a JCT Intermediate with contractor design for electrical and underground-drainage design. It appointed a specialist subcontractor, MD Enertech, for the heating and ventilation engineering in lieu of a services consultant. Smerin says: 'The M&E involved mixed natural and mechanical ventilation, and ducting was an issue. We found that talking to the MD Enertech ducting man meant it worked out quite well and was unobtrusive.
'The Intermediate form gives great clarity over who does what and who is responsible for what. You have to have this set out in the contract. With a fast retail fit-out you often find that there is a separate project manager. We said that is not our responsibility, so the client acted as the project manager. As a practice, we make a point of not getting involved in financial matters. We of course take part in cost discussions and value engineering, but once the project goes live on site there are a lot of cost discussions that we don't need to be part of: we are hot on making sure that consultants take responsibility for what they are being paid for.
'We had weekly round-table design meetings with everybody and then weekly site meetings. We tried to make sure that everyone who was appropriate attended. That short-circuited a certain amount of paperwork. Most of the cost and value engineering could be done around the table without producing revised drawings over and over again. The QS was very good, we started the project on the basis of a target budget and there was a little bit of slack, but variations had to be sanctioned by the client.
'We always knew we had to get the contractor on site early. With the QS, we drew up a list and then ran a two-stage tender with some early pricing done on indicative drawing. RBS Building Services, with whom we have worked before, won what was in effect a negotiated tender.'
DRAWING ON CAD Eldridge Smerin uses VectorWorks version 9. Smerin says: 'We have found it good for projects of this scale and it is compatible enough with AutoCAD. In any case, we tend to issue drawings as PDFs.
We will probably get MicroStation when that big job comes.
But for now there's no particular reason not to use VectorWorks.' Against received wisdom there is not, he says, a real problem about staff having to relearn new CAD programs:
'Most college students are pretty fluent with changing over.
And seasoned AutoCAD and MicroStation users seem to take around a week to sort out the differences.' Smerin points out that shopfitters like to know what an interior is intended to look like and work best from 3D drawings. 'For the dining shed, we thought of doing it in a variety of materials and structural systems. So we built a 3D model and sent it out to different specialists. William Dulcie is really excellent at doing quirky architectural stuff and we went with them.' William Dulcie had worked with the architect before and made all the bespoke timberwork, devised the details and went back to discuss the design. When everyone was happy, Dulcie produced the CAD drawing which was used by the computer numeric control (CNC) machine to cut out the elements. Smerin says: 'The whole thinking was that the CNC machine can cut ply or plastic sheets with a degree of economy.
Five years ago you couldn't have done it. William Dulcie has the technology and the intellectual ability to use computers, so it's been a seamless transition. It also helped with the timing:
William Dulcie produced the final drawings on Friday, started CNC cutting on Monday and the elements were on site three weeks later.'
ON SITE On site there were the usual problems of unsuspected drains and the odd structural complication. It was a fairly conventional early 20th-century structure, having a concrete frame with a grid of beams and columns. The ground floor was around 300mm above street level, and for DDA reasons and because there was the space for it, Smerin decided to install a long ramp - although it meant breaking through a major concrete beam across the front of the building. The design team thought hard about alternatives for the adjacent stairs down to the basement, but in the end Smerin went for poured concrete with a raked soffit.
The cantilevered glass balustrade to the ramp has a handrail on top of the 24mm-thick glass, which is cantilevered up from the well edge. Smerin says: 'We had a structural designer [Haskins Robinson Waters] which is very good at structural glass, as well as concrete and steel. The subcontractor Masterglazing is a specialist at this kind of thing.' In line with the shed theme, there is corrugated-iron wall cladding fixed with clouts and shuttering-grade ply in the downstairs WCs. The shed room walls are spray-lacquered birch ply with birch ply doors. Smerin says: 'The shopfitter did this to such a high standard that it doesn't look like shuttering. I told them to leave a few knots. When you want something done badly you can't get it done badly enough. Where you see an exposed edge, it's birch and lacquered. There is no MDF except for the cloak cupboard.'
FLOORS Smerin says: 'When we went to look at the space there were only islands of parquet left after partitions had been removed, and it looked quite knackered. So we chose a ply floor. Then we thought again and said 'let's use the parquet'. It was a case of taking all the block up and belt- sanding each one by hand on a bench, and bedding them in their herringbone pattern in bitumen.
'For the basement, we wanted a highly reflective floor like you get using resins. But we didn't have the cash for that and they call for very, very good preparation. Our floor was very uneven, with cuts for drainage and lots of different finishes.' So the solution was to use Altro two-pack epoxy over a standard levelling screed.
SANITARYWARE Ironmongery is D Line in a satin stainless-steel finish - with Modric stainless steel in the disabled bathroom and aluminium back of house. There are no lever door handles, but D Line has such a complete range, even soap dishes, that the architect resisted the lure of lookalikes. Sanitaryware is Duravit Architec, a range that includes disabled fittings so that there could be a consistency throughout the club. Smerin said he could not see why people with disabilities should not have the same quality of design. He opted for Hansgrohe Axor Steel for stainless-steel WC taps and shower fittings. He says: 'Hansgrohe has a beautiful range and Axor Steel fittings are fantastically reliable.'