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Hayhurst and Co's Garden House transcends backland densification

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A striking stepped roof garden is a highlight of this two-level live-work building for a leatherworking costumier, says Jay Merrick


Garden House sits in what was originally the 101m² back garden of a substantial mid-19th-century semi in a quiet London street, three minutes walk from Dalston Junction. In the early Edwardian period, the plot was partially overbuilt with an office, which was expanded in a nondescript way during the 1980s, and later taken over as a live-work unit by the two partners of leatherworking costumier Whitaker Malem. The building was nothing more than a back-lot barnacle with a flat bitumen roof, six skylights, and brick party walls on three sides. 

Hayhurst and Co’s scheme replaced it with a two-level building on 85m² of the site, which is reached by the semi’s side gate and an 800mm-wide path. The most obvious feature of the new structure is its ziggurat-like roof, stepped with triangular-sectioned, stainless-steel trays holding several hundred sedums, heathers, flowers, and herbs. ‘We spoke to a number of nurseries and green roof companies,’ says Hayhurst’s Jon Nicholls, ‘but they were surprisingly unhelpful. They thought it was a high-risk proposal.’ 

The glinting planters, lined with geothermal fleece, reference the small eruptions of obdurate salt-rimed plants in and around Dungeness and Lydd in Kent, where the leatherworking virtuosos have a bolthole far from the madding demands of producing elaborate carapaces for Batman or Alexander McQueen. 

Beneath the crisply Modernist hanging gardens, there is a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor; above them, under asymmetrical roof pitches, are a workroom, office, and small bathroom. The vivid originality of the grid of planters, which sits on a GRP substrate, is certainly admirable; but this money-shot ecological feature is not at all the most significant thing about the architecture, which joins two other notable examples of 21st-century domestic architecture nearby: Moxon Architects’ assiduously crisp two-storey house extension in Buckingham Road, and David Adjaye’s darkling Sunken House. 

Three words characterise the architecture: finesse, atmosphere, geometry

The design of Garden House has delivered a minor-scale domestic urban densification whose qualities of light and volume have a resonant quality more likely to be found in bigger, more deliberately luxe projects; but its construction cost, including fixtures and fittings, was £300,000. Three words characterise the architecture: finesse, atmosphere, geometry. And particularly the latter – in describing the scheme, variations of the word ‘asymmetry’ are unavoidable. 

Hayhurst’s use of geometric modulation has, of course, become a familiar default move. The most striking example of its splayed plans and sections is the extensive, award-winning transformation of the Pegasus Academy at Thornton Heath. Novel, relatively restrained angularities are seen in its smaller domestic projects in London, notably the trapezoidal portal and internal space in the 2010 Hairy House, generated as a so-called ‘mutant’ response to an oddly shaped end-of-terrace Victorian house.

One  of Hayhurst’s drawings for Garden House is quite intriguing. It shows various asymmetrically volumed additions to several fag-end plots and buildings in the vicinity, describing these potential small-scale interventions as ‘form of best fit’, though what spring to mind are stripped-down, geometrically planar stealth objects. 

The irregular envelope of Garden House, which is within the De Beauvoir Conservation Area, was essentially the product of two conflicting requirements: the need to protect neighbours’ rights of light and internal visibility with controlled outlooks; and the desire to bring natural light into the building in the most effective and interesting ways. 

The development of the shape of the building and its apertures generated a number of cardboard models. The asymmetric form of the three most locally sensitive roof falls – to the north, east, and west – was established quite quickly, as were potential cutaways to admit light. One prototype had a single big rooflight; another bristled with a fidgety array of seven angular and square rooflights. 

The final arrangement includes a trio of conjoined glazing panels in the centre of the slightly angled rooftop; two recessed top-floor windows set into the eastern pitch, along with three asymmetrically sculpted rooflight funnels which carry light down into the kitchen and ground-floor bathroom; a rooflight in the northern pitch above the bedroom; and a cutback in the northern pitch, lined with polished stainless steel, reflecting light down through horizontal glazing above the winter garden-cum-entrance lobby. 

The modelling of the potential effects of internal light is never quite an art, nor a science; algorithms for visual outputs, however sophisticated, are not reality. Investigating the potential effects of light seems to depend more on the quality of an architect’s imagination, and sheer persistence. I recall David Chipperfield admitting that the remarkably successful combinations of volumes and light at the Hepworth Wakefield were ‘a nightmare’ to judge via models. 

Hayhurst and Co has produced naturally lit spaces of quite distinct characters

At Garden House, Hayhurst and Co has imagined and produced naturally lit spaces of quite distinct characters – quite an achievement in a glulam-framed building with an internal plan measuring 10m by 7m, and a roof ridge at 6.2m. The falls of light in the winter garden lobby, kitchen and upstairs workspace are particularly satisfying, and tweaks of volume and detail have a great deal to do with the feel of these differences. 

For example, high-level display shelves in thin white-painted steel, folded upwards in places and asymmetrical in plan, run down both long sides of the downstairs living space. These create interesting lines of perspective in what is otherwise a simple 10m by 7m space. The floor is made of shiny, light-reflecting limestone bricks. White-painted, wall-hung steel stairs, narrowing towards the top, lead to the upper top-lit workspace, and we duly rise from a pale and interesting space into a volume where oak-panelled asymmetry creates an entirely different ambience. 

The sense of the crafted finishes upstairs is engaging and peculiarly cosy. Though the actual plan of the space is rectangular, the panelling on the east side of the room is skewed in plan so that the angle is parallel to the veering taper of the stairs’ eastern edge. This artifice had a point: it allowed the formation of a trapezoidal door leading on to a mini roof terrace.

The angled internal wall also produced two small, deeply punched windows in the eastern roof pitch, set into slots lined with polished steel, giving the costumiers a deliberately constrained view out. This shift in plan seems attuned to the geometric variations of the rooftop and the two pitches dropping away from it at 30° and 45°  – the final pieces of a design whose unusually deft harmonics of light, line, and space transcend the dutiful phrase ‘backland densification’ with some brio.

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co


Hayhurst and co garden house plan

Hayhurst and co garden house plan


Hayhurst and co garden house section

Hayhurst and co garden house section


Hayhurst and co garden house details

Hayhurst and co garden house details

The roof, developed through a series of workshops with our client Whitaker Malem, was devised as a series of lapped planting trays installed over 30° and 45° pitched roofs. The trays provide level beds in a stepped terrace, which can be actively gardened and planted.

A 1:1 prototype of the trays was erected on our roof terrace during the design period so we could explore the details of the soil substrate, drainage and moisture retention, heat transfer and evaporation, as well as the fixing method and the species of plants.

The design uses marine-grade stainless-steel trays that lap over a ribbed GRP roof to provide an independent weathering layer. The trays incorporate a ribbed geotextile fleece to provide thermal separation from the steel tray and to aid drainage that dissipates through perforations at the rear of the trays. An extensive soil substrate is suited to sedums and heathers, while light granite chippings reflect solar gain and retain moisture.

The planted habitat of more than 800 plants – each hand-planted by the client – replicates the character of the planting and fauna of Dungeness, where Whitaker Malem has a second home.

This green roof is unique but appropriate to its urban setting and our client’s brief. There is no product or specification clause for the system, which was designed, tested and constructed from first principles.

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Source: Kilian O’Sullivan

Architect’s view

On the site of a single-storey workshop it self built in the mid-1990s, Whitaker Malem wished to create a new home and studio that maximised the space and natural light available within its tight, north-facing site behind Victorian terraced housing in Hackney’s de Beauvoir Conservation area. 

The scale of the buildings to the south and east, and the depth of the gardens to the north and west helped generate the key architectural form. The building’s profile comprises three different roof pitches creating a ‘form of best fit’ – a negotiation between maximising internal accommodation and protecting adjacent residential amenity. 

The project was developed from concept to detail as a design collaboration with the ‘maker’ client, a relationship that opened up a uniquely engaging ‘making-based’ design process. 

The building is entered through a winter garden with a large skylight and mirror-polished stainless-steel reveals, which ricochet light around the entrance, distorting the scale of the space and the fall of light. This leads to a connected set of living spaces, top lit by natural light from sculpted shafts in the roof. 

On the ground floor, storage and display for the owners’ art collection is provided in the form of bespoke white steel shelves, which continue into a steel staircase that floats away from the wall, allowing natural light to pass behind it into the house.

 The upper floor is lined with oak panelling to provide a rich environment for the studio, which is also used as a fitting room for clients and as a gallery space for private exhibitions of the owners’ work. The space is naturally lit with a large top light and storage and desk space built for sewing machines and embroidery areas. 

At roof level, a garden is created, comprising over 800 sedums and heathers set into stepped beds. The ‘hanging’ garden is a unique and accessible roofscape which creates a dramatic insertion into London’s urban landscape. 

Jonathan Nicholls and Nick Hayhurst, Hayhurst and Co

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Source: Kilian O’Sullivan

Client’s view

We purchased the former garden workshop in De Beauvoir Town nearly 20 years ago. Doing the work ourselves on a budget of £5,000, we turned it into a habitable live-work unit from which to operate Whitaker Malem, our body-based design business. 

Over time it became apparent that a major rebuild would be in order. We found Hayhurst and Co via press coverage of its ‘Hairy House’ commission, and felt the practice was the right fit for the job. Our brief was for a versatile space that might even be used for small exhibitions of our work as well as being a home and studio. Hayhurst and Co honed the limited space accordingly. 

When a green roof was suggested as a way to help us get the new first floor through planning, our immediate reaction was that we would only have a green roof that we could really garden. 

The development of the stepped arrangement of planting terraces and a simple v-shaped trough was arrived at through a close collaboration and sharing of ideas between architect and client. 

We believe  our build has a crafted quality derived from our collaboration: our background as designer-makers and Nick and Jonathan’s expertise and interest in the line and the fine detail. We believe we have delivered real architecture on a compromised site and with a limited budget. 

Whitaker Malem

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Source: Kilian O’Sullivan

Project data

Start on site May 2014
Completion March 2015
Gross internal floor area 99m2
Form of contract or procurement route JCT MWD 2011
Construction cost £305,000
Architect Hayhurst and Co
Client Whitaker Malem
Structural engineer Techniker
Main contractor Woodbar
CAD software used Vectorworks

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Garden House by Hayhurst and Co

Source: Kilian O’Sullivan



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