Peter Barber Architects’ Jason Lee House proves that the architecture of good intentions is alive and kicking, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Morley von Sternberg
In 1994 the critic Colin Rowe reluctantly predicted the demise of what he called the architecture of good intentions. Seventeen years later, it’s harder than ever for British architects to live the Modernist dream and transform society.
They can only hope to do so by going through certain ever-contracting channels and playing by the rules of a marketplace in which they are seen as mediators. Architects require nous and good fortune if they want to do work with genuine social and political value. Peter Barber, who has designed a series of hostels, culminating in the recently opened Jason Lee House, has both.
‘We knew what to expect,’ says Jeremy Nicholas, regional services manager of homelessness charity SHP that, in partnership with the London Borough of Redbridge, commissioned Barber to replace an existing night shelter in an Edwardian house with a hostel for 18 clients. Clients stay for three to nine months, acquire life skills and receive support, but not care. As at Barber’s Villiers Road Studios (AJ 08.04.10), if all goes to plan, the clients, many of whom are particularly vulnerable because of alcohol and drug addiction, can live independent, but socially integrated lives. Visitors, who might bring alcohol and drugs, are discouraged. ‘The aim is to provide an environment where people can stop thinking, “Where will I get my next drink or fix?”’ says Nicholas.
The hostel is part of the Places of Change homelessness programme, managed by the Department for Communities and Local Government. ‘It’s an amazing country-wide programme set up by the previous government to put money into old buildings, which were a disgrace,’ says Barber. ‘That said, this was a lovely local project in an area with a strong church community.’
Rather than concealing the hostel, Barber inserted a white rendered cassette with a tapered, cantilevered radius end that projects beyond the original residence, which it nestles up to but does not touch. ‘Quite often in suburbia a little flourish happens at the corner,’ says Barber. Nicholas refers to it as a ‘beacon’ and residents call the ensuite unit it contains, ‘the penthouse flat’. It looks as though you could remove, transport and plug it into another house.
‘We were asked to deal with the existing building and make it lighter and brighter,’ says Barber. Although he has retained existing cellular construction on the upper levels as living accommodation, he has avoided dingy, institutional corridors. Barber opened up and extended the ground floor to form a large multi-purpose area that looks on to a secluded, informal courtyard enclosed by seven ensuite units, a training kitchen and a laundry.
‘The aim is to reduce people’s stress levels,’ he says. ‘You can’t do this if they’re in a crummy, shitty environment.’ Although Barber appears uncomfortable with the idea of standardised hostel spaces, the size of these units is above the minimum and no one has to share. ‘It’s not about a trade-off between the courtyard and the rooms,’ says Barber. The brief stipulated 18 units.
The new construction around the courtyard is pushed out to the site perimeter. From here, the roof slopes upwards, maximising the height of the courtyard glazing so that clients have the option of receiving plenty of natural light in exchange for being highly visible, which in some ways is a good thing. ‘It gets quite hot so you have to close the curtains,’ says one of the clients.
Barber suggested pull-up blinds, but there were compromises. ‘The underfloor heating and commercial kitchen in the original brief had to go,’ says Nicholas, ‘And there are less solar panels than we started out with.’ On the other hand, timber flooring was retained, along with Barber’s signature render. ‘We’ve stopped using render on bigger projects,’ says Barber, ‘But on smaller ones like this it’s easier to maintain – people can get up on a ladder.’
You could say there’s something retro about this combination of pure geometry, render and altruism, but Barber has his own take on each of these. The render, part of a proprietary insulated system, has a forgiving and durable, rough finish. It is taken over the top of the parapets and is played off against the bottle green finish to the existing brickwork and the courtyard windows and doors. And the political environment within which he works is very much of its time, an era typified by devolution, dissolution and the Work Programme. ‘They said, “we can give you X, if you can get Y from your fundraising”’, says Nicholas.
Start on site December 2009
Ccompletion December 2010
Gross internal floor area Approx 470m2
Type of contract or procurement Design and Build
Contract value £1.15 million
Cost per square metre £2,447
Client London Borough of Redbridge
Architect Peter Barber Architects
Structural engineer Bolton Priestley
M&E consultant Barker Steels
Quantity surveyor Philip Pank Partnership
Project manager Philip Pank Partnership
Main contractor Durkan Group
CDM co-ordinator Philip Pank Partnershipacoustics consultant Sol Acoustic
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 59.3 kg/m2
Estimated annual heating load 160kWh/m2
Estimated annual hot water load 110kWh/m2
Estimated annual electrical base load 30kWh/m2
Estimated annual IT and small power load 35kWh/m2
Onsite energy generation Seven per cent electrical base load provided by PV installation
Average u-value for walls 0.35W/m2K
Average u-value for windows 1.99W/m2K
Average u-value for ground floor 0.25W/m2K
Airtightness at 50pa 10m3/h/m2
Insulated acrylic render Alsecco
Brickwork Baggeridge Yellow Multi-Retro
Sedum roof Bauder ZE301 Xeroflor mat system
High performance rigid insulation Rockwool DuroROck SPA roofing board
Aluminium windows and glazed doors AsTec with RAL 6007 bottle-green finish
Circular rooflights Coxdome TPX
External courtyard paving Hanson Formapave Ecogranite Setts, natural
Internal communal areas flooring Boen Prestige walnut engineered timber flooring
Bedroom sheet linoleum Forbo Artoleum Piano