Building study: Is this transformation of a north London office slab into private-rented-sector flats the shape of things to come? asks Catherine Slessor
Looming like an obsidian obelisk over Holloway and Kentish Town, Archway Tower (pictured below) was a familiar landmark on the north London skyline. From a distance, its smoked glass bulk – a low-rent version of Paris’s Tour Montparnasse – stuck out against the bucolic backdrop of Highgate’s green acres. This brooding, 18-storey behemoth, completed in 1974, was part of a trio of post-war slabs plugged into the bottom of Highgate Hill next to Whittington Hospital.
Straddling an underground station, the tower was conceived as an office block with ambitions to be a major transport interchange. Yet its scale and setting conspired to neutralise any sense of habitable public realm. Downdrafts, siphoned by its vast bulk, buffeted pedestrians, while traffic surged and roiled around a toxic spaghetti of roads. The tableau of urban anomie was completed by glum parades of shops and pubs defiantly keeping gentrification at arm’s length.
No longer. Erased from history like an out-of-favour Politburo member, Archway Tower has been remade and remodelled as Vantage Point, a complex of build-to-rent flats aimed at transforming the London rental market.
With Margaret Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy now in tatters, the growing focus for many developers is on cannily reconceptualising the private rental experience. Since the government’s ‘Build to Rent’ scheme was launched in 2012 through the National Planning Policy Framework, an estimated £1 billion of institutional investment has been poured into the private rental sector.
With its generous communal spaces, art collections and on-site custodians, Vantage Point feels more like a high-end hotel than a block of rented flats
Vantage Point, developed by Essential Living, is the first scheme specifically designed for rent from the ground up, but others are under way in London and beyond, as the realities of the housing market abruptly reconfigure the expectations of a younger generation. In London, where the housing crisis is especially acute, the level of owner occupation is predicted to fall to 40 per cent by 2025, with only 26 per cent of 20 to 39-year-olds able to afford to buy a home. With so many forced into the rental sector, clearly there will be rich pickings for astute developers.
‘Aspirational renting’ is the new concept for our time. Intended to negate the notion of renting as somehow socially inferior – something that would perplex our European neighbours – it envisages renting as an end in itself rather than a step on the hitherto sacrosanct road to property ownership. With its generous communal spaces, curated art collections and on-site custodians to iron out problems, Vantage Point feels more like a high-end hotel or hall of residence than a block of 118 rented flats. Its carefully disseminated public image is of groups of glossy thirty-somethings enjoying the communal amenity space on the 16th floor with its Master-of-the-Universe views over London.
Such ‘Made in Archway’ overtones have proved catnip to the property sections of national newspapers, which have been cooing over Vantage Point as the enviable shape of things to come. For those, of course, who can afford it. Rents range from £485-£500 a week for a studio to £675-£1,000 for a two-bedroom flat, easily comparable with current market rates in central London. But you do get more bang for your buck. As well as access to a communal games room, library, lounge, roof terrace, gym and amenity space, rental packages include pick-and-mix options that extend beyond the usual fully-furnished model, with bed linen and kitchen equipment available as add-ons.
Immaculately set-dressed in mid-century modern fixtures and fittings, the outcome is undoubtedly polished yet curiously anodyne, like a tasteful Scandinavian boutique hotel. You wouldn’t mind spending a weekend there but taking up residence is another thing entirely.
Mindful that flats may be changing hands on a regular basis, finishes are robust and easy to clean, consciously engineering out potential issues of wear and tear
However, this is not to diminish the scale of the architectural challenge involved before the set dressers got to work. With its narrow and outmoded 1970s floorplates, Archway Tower had long outlived its economic usefulness as an office block. Permitted development rights were invoked to convert it to a residential enclave. ‘The original building was too dark, too inactive and too recessive,’ says Craig Casci, director of GRID architects, which specialises in residential development with a focus on build-to-rent. ‘We asked: how can we improve it?’
The most conspicuous improvement has been the modification of the façade to improve thermal performance and eliminate downdrafts. The treacly skin of curtain walling has been replaced by clear glazing, framed by a coffered grid of gleaming metal fins, their angular form calculated to reflect light, deflect wind and deter roosting pigeons. Certain sections of the fins are perforated and connect with openable panels on the inside to allow natural ventilation to individual flats. Creamy stone cladding replaces the black concrete of the end walls, rendering the building practically unrecognisable from its mid-70s incarnation.
Flats are designed to optimise space, adopting a rigorously modular approach to internal planning. Tenure breaks down into 34 studios, 57 one-bedroom and 27 two-bedroom units, but bathrooms are the same size, regardless of flat type. The perimeter upstands of the concrete floor slab are encased in timber and transformed into window seats, an effective way of creating space in the smaller studios.
Mindful that flats may be changing hands on a fairly regular basis – though three-year tenancies are possible – finishes are robust and easy to clean, consciously engineering out potential issues of wear and tear.
The metamorphosis of the original rooftop plant room is the pièce de résistance; it now houses a communal zone where you might usually expect to find an off-limits penthouse. The panoramic double-height amenity space, equipped with kitchen and dining room, can be booked by residents for £50 per evening to host private dinner parties. There is no shortage of takers.
The building, still being fine-tuned, is an organism that will obviously take time to find its level, shaped by the expectations of those who live there. But, as an armature for a certain kind of life for a certain kind of people, it is a paradigm that rewards scrutiny. And it will doubtless be imitated by others with covetous eyes on the burgeoning build-to-rent market.
The transformative impetus extends beyond the building to the terrain around its base. Toxic traffic has been re-routed and hard landscaping is being installed to create a new public space for general congregation and artisanal street markets. Proof, if it were needed, of the ongoing Shoreditchification of London, impelled by changing demographics, market forces and the city’s apparently inexhaustible capacity for reinvention. But despite all this, the question of how to provide decent, affordable housing for all still remains stubbornly and shamefully unanswered.
Morley von sternberg 10
Start on site May 2014
Completion May 2016
Form of contract Construction Management
Construction cost £ 21 million excluding furniture, fixtures and equipment
Construction cost per m² £10,081
Architect GRID architects
Client Essential Living
Structural engineer Walsh
M&E consultant SWECO (formerly Grontmij)
Quantity surveyor Arcadis/Cast
Acoustics Hann Tucker Associates
Project manager Capita
Principal designer Rider Levett Bucknall
Approved building inspector MLM Building Control
Main contractor McLaren Construction
Façade consultant Wintech
CAD software used MicroStation
Airtightness at 50pa 3m3/h/m2
Heating and hot water load 76.21kWh/m² (annual gas consumption for heating and hot water associated with the apartments)
curtain wall with opaque and glazed elements 1.1W/m²K
opaque wall 0.2W/m²K
opaque wall with windows 1.4W/m²K
GRID is immersed in the Build to Rent movement and is one of the first practices to have completed PRS projects. For them, we have to offer services that differ from those offered to housebuilder and developer clients, including seamless integration of brand, interior design services, construction and operation standardisation, and dressing of interiors.
There were limitations on what could be done to the existing 17-storey 1970s office building at Archway, as the lease extended only to the outside of the existing cladding, so there could be no extensions or balconies.
The building was composed of three ‘slabs’ seemingly sliding past each other – a classic slab block technique. While the change of use was obtained through office-to-residential Permitted Development, the cladding was replaced as part of a Detailed Planning Application. The concrete frame was retained and the new cladding system was purpose-designed to accommodate the external structure, picture windows and natural ventilation openings. To transform the over-scaled, foreboding mass, the end-walls ( formerly in black concrete ) were reclad in light stone and the other façades in deep, perforated aluminium coffers with floor-to-ceiling glazing. The coffers reflect east-west light and the sloping sills reflected the sky. The result is a light and deeply modelled building.
To overcome the poor public realm provision and dark, inactive frontages, the client asked for an enhanced and more visible entrance hall to the corner of the site to enliven the streetscape and help reduce the strong wind conditions there.
But the greatest change was reserved for the rooftop plant room, which was to become a double-height shared amenity space in the form of a bronze box with two roof terraces.
The floor plans exceed London Plan requirements and, while the remaining core was retained, a second means of escape was removed. The views to Hampstead and Central London have been opened up with new windows through the end-walls. Events in the rooftop amenity area also give local people a new experience.
Craig Casci, director, GRID architects
Detail: Concrete frame perimeter and sill
Vantage point detail section
Once we had established the façade concept of coffered fins overcladding the columns, an additional fin was introduced to subdivide the grid further and provide rhythm and proportion to the new façade. This ‘intermediate’ fin is perforated and conceals the purge vent to the glazing system and MVHR intake and extract locations. This allowed the glazed elements of the façade to remain as large picture windows.
The opening vents were originally designed to be solid but developed to be glazed with a further perforated panel added as a guard. As a result of the two layers of perforations, interesting dappled lighting effects are cast within the apartments and at night emitted from the façade.
The existing structural design drawings indicated an in-situ concrete frame with substantial concrete upstands and downstands to the perimeter. This precluded full-height windows but we took it as an opportunity to incorporate window seats to the depth of the concrete frame, and these have become a well-used aspect of the interior space.
The concrete frame is infilled with an SFS substrate, clad in aluminium and Dekton ceramic rainscreen cladding.
The floors consisted of a thin concrete slab and beams which did not provide sufficient acoustic separation between dwellings. Additional mass was added within the ceiling with mineral wall insulation and two layers of SoundBloc plasterboard. A proprietary batten and boarded raised floor was laid on the existing screed.
Lawrence Osborne, director, GRID architects
This building study was published in the Built to rent issue – click here to buy a copy
Aspirational renting: Vantage Point by GRID architects