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71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

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This conversion of a former warehouse in Bayswater, west London, creates a grand two-level apartment plus office space for its developer Baylight, writes Mary Duggan

PROJECT DATA • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • LIGHTING DESIGNER’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • PLANS • SECTION • DETAIL

I suspect Robin Lee did not secure this commission off the back of a boys’ club invitation, but rather through the client’s respect for his calm and committed approach to architecture, and his ability to collaborate. The commissioner is Crispin Kelly, director of Baylight Properties, a 30-years-established developer with a portfolio of commercial and mixed-use schemes, and more recently a residential offshoot company called Groundplan. Notable architects working across both programmes include Sergison Bates, Tony Fretton and Peter Salter.

Meeting Lee and Kelly together to discuss their collaboration was unexpected; without egos and without suits, similar in character, modest, very well mannered and seemingly unaffected by success. Both are clearly driven by how their work is placed and how it is moving on architectural discourse, the thinking behind the urban condition, and the consequences of architecture, which Kelly describes as the morality of practice. Certainly commercial factors exist; the success of the business is evidence of that. But I did not get the sense that the architectural brief for this project was constructed on an Excel spreadsheet with a net-let target.

The scheme is a refurbishment of a deep-plan Victorian warehouse, roughly 800m2; a hidden chunk of building fabric tucked in behind Queensway, wedged between retail and commercial space fronting on to, but set back from, the high street. Residential housing encloses the rear exposed elevation, so it is pretty much landlocked.

Baylight purchased the building a number of years ago to develop it into something – ‘something’ being the key word here; an unfamiliar lucid turn of phrase for a developer. There was not a specific programme in mind. This project would explore many issues: the ongoing discourse surrounding found conditions within such historic structures, a relatively over-used term to describe actually doing nothing; how to procure good quality spaces within our urban fabric on complex sites; and how to curate something new programmatically and narratively without defaulting to roll-out specification or the need for construction speed.

While various economic factors existed at the time of the design development, such as local-authority use status allowing B1 offices to convert to residential, this was not a driving factor. The project started out with an agenda to make the best use of the building envelope. Of course it would generate a revenue stream, but what functions could best exploit it? The decisions as to what to do with the building were going to be influenced by the building itself. The process described is one of discovery, an idea to see what the building revealed through unravelling the various layers and observing the conditions therein.

By Lee’s account, the Victorian structure was quite unremarkable in its found state, with very typical historic features, beam and block floor plates, knackered brickwork and poorly run services. The strip-out works unveiled a layer cake of finishes and poorly judged historic decisions. It wasn’t the fabric itself that was the challenge, but rather the spatial qualities, the deep plan, the dark second floor crying out for one blast of light to relieve the density.

The common design strategy deployed on such refurbishment projects is to ensure all new interventions are legible, to offset against the old, complementing, but contrasting, clear delineation, neat junctions, coloured and signalled structures pointing out the diagram. Boring. In this project, while a decision has been made to expose the existing features, this is not deployed so desperately. In fact the found condition is simply reapplied. The concrete staircase is extended laterally to fill a void; no frills or brass junctures to express the connection. It is executed necessarily. There is a boot imprint in the extended section. Exposed precast soffits are lightly painted to enhance the texture. There is a complacency about the decisions, which leaves very blurry lines between new and old.

The dark second floor was crying out for a blast of light

The design and procurement process was also unconventional. This was not a project early laboured and de-risked by exploratory works and cost models, but rather a slow journey to experience the space as it unfolded; to observe the light conditions and to make design decisions in real time – a 1:1 model, rather like a live work, and in many ways an experiment to address and question how we develop and procure architecture.

The challenge with this space was the depth of the plan, particularly at second-floor level with the long section predominantly enclosed. The exploration programme exposed a few areas of the party walls that were discovered to be externalised, so planning applications were lodged to introduce fenestration. The spatial dynamics were also assessed, to see the exposed structure and understand through this experience how the spaces could be articulated, what could be enhanced and what to simply expose.

The final agreed programme was a single dwelling arranged across the two upper floors while an additional floor of the building was converted to offices.

Living. We are obsessed with the subject from community and place to accommodation and detail. We swarm around the Barbican programme and apartment typologies like honey bees. We continue to search for the best house that will influence the way we adopt new living patterns, to structure our social interactions at family and community level. What precisely do we need to inhabit our homes fluidly, flexibly and happily? We yearn for a different programme, which can facilitate extreme socialising and extreme anti-socialising.

The constraints of the deep plan dictated to some extent the functional split across both floors; generally speaking, night-time spaces at the lower level and daytime living at the upper level, with each floor having extremely different characteristics – very light and open at the upper floor and very dark and enclosed at entrance level.

On entering the apartment, the feeling is grand. The dark timber lined walls draw a line around an internalised free-flowing space surrounded by rooms. The plan breathes in and out.

This is a principle that Lee developed at Wexford County Council Headquarters and, although very different in scale and function, the two projects explore fundamentally similar themes. The arrangement allows for spaces to be encountered, discovered and populated in a loose and non-prescriptive way.

The overall impression is of a well-curated antique shop

The pace and sequence of the entrance hallway is well managed. This level is purposefully designed with darkness in mind. It’s not a bad thing. The temptation to make it brighter is avoided and the materials are selected to deliberately enhance the darkness; to consciously internalise the space.

The walls are lined with macassar ebony, in book match veneers, so you trace and look at the patterns somehow caught between a wallpaper pattern and a more substantial material. The floor is treacled with a dark brown resin throughout. The sheen on the satin surface catches and softens the light coming in through the various windows. It has a familiar feeling of a large entrance hallway or a vestibule. A flash of London roofs through one of the punched windows is a reminder of where you are.

The plan at this level includes cloakroom and guest bathroom, bedrooms, lazing banquettes, master bedroom and en-suite, a media area and the main ascending staircase. It is a continuous space with minimal doors. Outside of the hallway, the circulation and inhabitation is managed through compressions in the plan. Bathrooms are open into the bedrooms, but again positioned with careful consideration of spatial sequences and modesty.

Each room contains bespoke furniture. It is not built-in furniture, but rather individual pieces designed with a very specific attitude using many materials: hallway bespoke lights of Italian white onyx with frames in black oxide-treated bright steel; a bathroom vanity unit of Brazilian fusion blue marble counters and shelves with frames in unlacquered brass angle sections; bedroom storage of Brazilian Rio rosewood doors and panels with frames in black oxide-treated bright steel and lined internally in natural wool felt. Exposed brass plumbing is juxtaposed with expensive brass Vola spouts, not to be ironic, but to achieve an impression that is eclectic and functional – warehouse meets luxury.  

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

The overall impression is of a well-curated antique shop. The exploitation of material is a nod to Loos, but a ‘loose’ Loos with luscious moments.

The decision to locate a large double-wing stair in the centre of the entrance level ensured light was brought into the centre of the plan from the upper floor. The proportion of the structural opening was mocked up on site partly to assess the right amount of light to introduce into the space, and to gauge to what degree the upper level is revealed upon entering the apartment – not too much too soon and not too much to spoil the mood.

Ascending the stair, the opposite character appears. A luminous space. A strangely familiar feeling of climbing into an attic, but a very bright one. And it is full of furniture. Transitioning from the darkness of the entrance level to the bright upper level is managed exquisitely. A repeated hexagonal, but not quite tessellated pattern travels with vertical emphasis from bottom to top. It allows your eye to adjust, and conceals the upper level to a degree until you fully engage with the floor.

The entire top floor is open plan, the staircase void size and position at this level secures specific proportions to the functional areas of kitchen, lounging, dining and studying.

As with the lower levels, the extensions to the existing structure are very casual; we barely discuss them. The A-frame roof structure is extended on one side to enlarge the living area; an external area is cut out on the opposite side creating a roof terrace. The same steels are used to mimic the old. It’s almost impossible to tell what is new.

The project ignores many sector-driven conventions. In terms of the residential typology question, this probably isn’t one per se, but it has strong ideas about prioritising occupation over function and experience over use; about how to create opportunities to pause, to delight, to be casual, to be unintimidated. This is a methodology that can operate across many buildings and is not limited to ideas about living, but buildings across many scales.

For Robin Lee Architecture, this is refreshingly not a house style, but rather an emerging attitude about our environment. This project is about creating a specific atmosphere rather than specific appearance. A grand hallway meets an attic room, two spaces of collection, dramatically different.

In terms of interfacing with existing historic fabric this is a brave approach, which engages with and is not fearful of the unknown. Through this agenda, a new life has been found for a once-was-warehouse structure; a mixed-use programme has been introduced seamlessly and coherently in a way that only an architect team with a very good eye could curate.

Mary Duggan is a director of Duggan Morris Architects

First floor plan

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

Second floor plan

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

Section

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

Detail

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

A large void and stair occupy the middle of the apartment, articulating the link between the floors and giving both daylight and weight to the heart of the interior. The stair is formed in cold-oxide-treated mild steel plates, in both 12mm and 20mm thicknesses. These are water-cut to a series of geometric profiles and patterns creating a structure both industrial and crafted, massive and filigree.

Perforated balustrades surround the opening and form edges to the open treaded steel stair. Exposed stringers are formed in 20mm steel plate water-cut to a stepped profile, while balustrades are formed in large sheets of 12mm steel plate with hexagonal apertures. All profiles and patterns were formed with water-cutting technology using industrial 4m cutting beds. A cold oxide treatment was applied to blacken the steel plate and seal against corrosion, with the ensemble completed with open treads formed in steel angles with simple plywood inserts and shaped timber handrails.

All connections were bolted for ease of installation and in order to express the process of assembly within the final piece. 

Architect’s view

The project was seen as an opportunity to develop the principles of adaptation and conversion of existing buildings for residential use. Central to the approach was a process of uncovering and discovery to understand the essential logic of the building. This enabled judgments as to how new structures, elements and finishes could be incorporated to create a sense of continuity with the existing building, to allow the new residential interior to be imbued with qualities and atmospheres both appropriate to and inherent within the existing building.

Removal of interior finishes revealed an existing structure comprised of a loadbearing steel frame set within and detached from a rectangular outer shell of masonry from an earlier period, which attested to the building’s historical transformation. This suggested a strategy of articulating new elements as hierarchically distinct from the existing structure. However it was important that the building was understood as a single composition, a continuous series of unfolding spaces and experiences rather than a mannered arrangement of new elements set against old.

Bounded on the flanking elevations by existing buildings with narrow lightwells, the opportunity for daylighting was limited to a small number of windows at each end of the building. The challenge was further compounded by the location of the main access stair at the eastern extremity of the property, which further curtailed access to daylight. These limitations led to qualitative judgments about the atmospheres that could be created within parts of the interior.

At the lower floor of the apartment this led to a purposefully introverted environment dedicated principally to bedrooms. These are conceived of as fluid, enfilade suites with sleeping, dressing and bathroom areas laid out as open, unfolding arrangements of space giving continuity and benefit from the limited daylight and views.

Spatial continuity was accentuated by a single-floor treatment in poured industrial resin, while the existing floor of beam-and-block construction was exposed to create a raw, articulated counterpoint to the smooth and seamless flooring. Outer brick walls were exposed, giving a strong sense of enclosure and orientation, while new inner walls were finished in natural clay plaster to give material continuity with the clay bricks. A natural chalk colour and fine texture provide subtle contrast with the red hue and coarseness of the existing brickwork.

In the centre of the plan is an internalised free-flowing and informal space surrounded by rooms. The arrangement allows for spaces to be populated and encountered in a loose and non-prescriptive way. Connecting through the plan from east to west, the space is lined entirely in full-height panels of macassar ebony timber. Modulated in width through the centre of the plan, the space acts as a series of social places containing small niches of individual space and larger collective spaces for gathering. At the heart of this space, a generous staircase folds down from both eastern and western living areas through a large opening formed within the upper floorplate. The opening introduces daylight and spatial volume to the lower floor while the timber wall panels enveloping the space ensure a unified experience and atmosphere throughout. Limited views outward from the spaces ensure the consistency of the spatial enclosure and the intensity of the experience is maintained throughout. 

In counterpoint to the lower floor’s introverted character, the upper floor was opened volumetrically by removal of steel cross-bracing to the pitched roof and by the addition of an extruded linear extension with a continuous facade of full-height steel windows giving the living areas an open panoramic aspect to the north. 

Roof structure and finishes were raised to allow the primary steel structure to be exposed as an inner armature against a uniform backdrop of clay plaster. Peculiarities inherent in the existing steel frame were exposed, with new steel elements connected in a manner consistent with original jointing and junctions. The approach was to extend the logic of the existing structure to create continuity rather than distinction between the original and new elements. In this way, layers of building are apparent but cumulatively they create one coherent interior rather than a new interior within an existing one. The upper floor is sheathed in European birch in a pale neutral tone to match the clay plaster walls and ceilings, creating a homogenous interior environment.

Robin Lee, Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

Client’s view

Most of our time as developers is spent maximising saleable floor area. This apartment was large, so the view taken was to be bold in making it special. We therefore cut a large hole in the top floor to make room for a dramatic staircase and double-height space, also allowing light down to the lower floor. Our next move in the same vein was to cut a portion out of the top floor to make a decent garden terrace. Both these moves lost floor area, but have proved to be key in giving the flat its boldness.

We like to work closely with our chosen architects on all our projects, but this conversion provided us with the opportunity to work exceptionally closely with Robin Lee Architecture as we worked from the same office. Robin, with inexhaustible patience, produced drawings, which we reviewed and repeatedly revised together – for stainless-steel kitchen units, onyx light fittings, balustrading, bathroom and vanity unit fittings, and wardrobes. Subcontractors joined us to simplify and refine the designs further, though sometimes I felt the process would have no end.

For me, the success of the project has depended on the success of these efforts, making a contrast between the extraordinary 24-hour hubbub of Queensway, with its everflowing tourists, and the tranquillity of the flat once you have made the journey away from the street, down a narrow yard and up an industrial concrete and brick stair. Arrival in the calm of the apartment’s hall, with its dark but intricately patterned walls, and its slightly yielding resin floor, takes one across the threshold from the world of the city to that of the home. Here this can both be home as refuge, but also, on the upper floor, as home with a green lung, and the place for entertainment.

Many of our projects are new build, and it is exceptionally hard work to know whether what is proposed is going to be good enough. This project, once we had stripped out the office interiors, gave us a robust and characterful box. After our first moves for the stairs and the terrace, we always had the strength of this box to make invigorating contrasts with our home-making luxuries.

Crispin Kelly, Baylight Properties

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

Lighting designer’s view

The largely daylit upper level supplementary lighting is provided by concealed luminaires positioned between steel members and flat panels of clay plaster, allowing the distinction between structural and enclosing elements to be subtly articulated. Sheets of onyx held within mild steel frames and fixed to steel columns throughout the space further utilise the structural logic of the space as a primary source of ambient lighting. In addition a collection of objet trouvés occupy the interior, including a glass chandelier sourced from Berlin and a collection of mid-century modern Scandinavian pendants. At the lower level, light fittings straightforwardly provide illumination only where required, allowing for an intimate and subdued atmosphere. Wall-mounted light fittings provide locally focused ambient lighting and indirect light by washing light onto the ceiling surfaces. The luminaires are a combination of objet trouvé and bespoke fittings formed of backlit onyx. 

Michael Grubb Studio

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

Project data

Start on site February 2014
Completion February 2015
Gross internal floor area 464m2
Form of contract or procurement route JCT IC 2011
Construction cost £1.6 million
Construction cost per m2 £3,448
Architect Robin Lee Architecture
Client Baylight
Structural engineer Structure Workshop
M&E consultant Mecserve
Quantity surveyor HBSV
Lighting consultant Michael Grubb Studio
CDM coordinator AGA
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor Evolve Production Services
CAD software used Vectorworks
Photography James Newton

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture

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