The architect’s skilful play with material textures at this north London housing scheme calls for a tactile response, writes Manon Mollard.
Film and photography by Jim Stephenson
The wicker gate at 42 Barrett’s Grove is indicative of a necessary transition between the busy and increasingly anonymous Stoke Newington High Street (while independent coffee shops arrived en masse a couple of years ago, a Costa outlet has just opened here) and a calmer, homely environment tailored to its inhabitants’ everyday. Details here are different. Upon lifting the gate latch, you walk towards the building’s front door, protected on either side by elevated planted surfaces – one covering storage for bikes, the other for bins – and this elongated threshold continues into the entrance hall.
Amin Taha carefully considers future residents’ journeys, from the pavement to the apartment door, and designs bespoke interior spaces catering for the small needs of everyday life: a bench to drop bags while looking for keys, a circular opening for the wet umbrella, a shelf for shoes. The architect’s concern for future inhabitation at times conveys the idea that his projects are designed from the inside out – unsurprisingly perhaps, since his portfolio includes several terrace-remodelling projects where the interior is stripped back to its shell and furniture is part of the architecture. Driven by structural transparency and internal flexibility, Taha’s design approach translates into an unadorned aesthetic – both efficient and homely.
At Barrett’s Grove, the cross-laminated timber (CLT) superstructure is left exposed, eliminating the need for plasterboard walls and suspended ceilings, cornices and skirting, tiling and paint. In the apartments, the doors are full height, so that they can easily ‘disappear’ when open, floor-to-ceiling cabinetry pieces create a comfortable window seat in the bedrooms while providing clever storage compartments, and the spruce contributes to the warm atmosphere. The all-timber interiors, more common in Scandinavia than in the UK, slightly worried the client at first but he was reassured as soon as the units were put on the market. And, for obvious reasons, the name Nordic Lofts was preferred to the original Spruce Apartments.
When shortlisting the project for the Stirling Prize, the jury pointed out that ‘inside, the feeling is of a large house split into many homes’, a sensation heightened by the vertical circulation void and deliberately emphasised on the exterior with the almost cartoon-like pitched roof. Wrapping the CLT superstructure is a protective lattice made of double-stacked brick with an open stretcher bond – a slightly oversized pattern to accompany the oversized windows and oversized balconies on the front elevation. Although it all looks slightly too big when seen from the street, the brickwork’s homogeneous treatment brings together the walls and roof slopes into a single entity.
As Adolf Loos put it, ‘every material possesses its own language of forms, and none may lay claim for itself to the forms of another material’. It’s a statement that holds true of the perforated rainscreen at Barrett’s Grove – independent from the building’s core, the brickwork is allowed to expand and contract separately – but also of Amin Taha’s other recently completed projects, as exemplified by the solid terracotta concrete shell of Upper Street, the sculptural travertine staircase at Caroline Place and the structural stone exoskeleton of Clerkenwell Close. All these projects incorporate a dwelling component and, in each of them, the design of ‘rooms’ is abandoned in favour of the floorplate as a whole, considered as a single entity. As the warmth of timber contrasts with the coldness of steel, or the rough stone surface alternates with its polished side, the architect’s skilful play with material textures always calls for a tactile response.
The children in the adjacent school playground can touch Barrett’s Grove’s brickwork, while the residents are given folded leather straps as interior door handles – the willingness to keep those as economical as possible is also explained by the tailor-made articulated metal locks for the apartments’ front doors, with thumb grips that make them particularly satisfying to hold, open and close. Taha speaks of materials as ‘reassuring’; he highlights feelings of ‘mass’ and ‘solidity’. The desire to express material properties gives shape to all architectural elements, from the smallest details to the overall volume. When ‘architectural form results from material properties’, he explains, ‘buildings can teach people something’ by simply looking like what they are made of.
As the load-bearing elements are exposed, the construction joints are made visible too. When going from the interior to the terrace, the wall’s full section is visible, revealing the structure’s depth and all its layers. The balconies are south facing and ‘large enough for dining’. They protrude at 90 degrees to the front elevation, letting direct sunlight into every apartment and encouraging interaction between neighbours. Since balconies often become storage spaces for all sorts of residents’ paraphernalia, wicker is woven through the steel truss to avoid unattractive sights while ensuring privacy.
On a more practical level, leaving everything exposed naturally reduces time spent on site, overall construction costs and the project’s carbon footprint. The CLT superstructure was erected in just eight days and although ‘sustainability is not the main driver’, Amin Taha admits that ‘it has to be taken into account’. The architect convinced his client to adopt his ideas by proving they would ‘look better and save money’ – at a contract value of £1.27 million, the cost per square metre works out at £1,991. Prefabricated components and optimised building methods guarantee a low-cost design, yet the result is a welcoming and humane housing block – proof that a piece of architecture can bring forth materials’ immanent properties without compromising on its spatial qualities.
On such a narrow site, sitting between a buff-coloured semi-detached townhouse and the Edwardian red brick primary school, the slender tower seeks to promote increased density on difficult inner-city sites. The residential projects shortlisted for the Stirling in recent years have failed to bring substantial elements of response to the UK’s unprecedented housing crisis. Although valuable lessons can be learnt from Barrett’s Grove, and some of its ideas can arguably be scaled up, it is hard to see how a six-unit scheme can constitute a significant response to one of the biggest issues of our time.
Manon Mollard is deputy editor of The Architectural Review
How we built it
Barrett’s Grove accommodates two three-bedroom family maisonettes, three two-bedroom four-person flats and a one-person studio. Set within a conservation area, it stands between a tall, Victorian, buff-coloured semi-detached townhouse and an Edwardian red brick primary school. Its form echoes the slender gables of the school and the standalone presence of the neighbouring ‘villa’ architype. It retains a simplistic profile, partly generated through consultation with primary school pupils and their understanding of house and home and knowledge of building technology pitfalls: namely should we use straw, wood or brick? Why not all three?
Cross laminated timber (CLT) is used for all wall, floor and roof superstructure, sat on a concrete and brick basement box. Internally the CLT is left exposed, finished with a clear fire-retardant varnish. Insulation, a vapour barrier and self-supporting brick rainscreen make up the exterior thermal and protective envelope. Acoustic-resilient layers and boards, insulation and a floating timber floor are built up above the floor superstructure and accommodate underfloor heating, power, data and hot and cold water services.
The ability of material and structure to serve a number of purposes combined to remove the need for plasterboarded walls, suspended ceilings, cornices, skirtings and finishes such as tiling and paint. This strategy simplifies the architectonic form and allows the exposed structure’s inherent material qualities to drive a warmer and perhaps better-connected tactile aesthetic, as well as reducing the embodied carbon of the building, its construction cost and time on site.
Amin Taha, principal, Amin Taha Architects
Start on site February 2015
Completion May 2016
Gross internal floor area 635m²
Form of contract JCT Design and Build
Construction cost£1.27 million
Construction cost per m² £1,991
Architect Groupwork + Amin Taha
Client Cobstar Developments
Structural engineer Webb Yates
M&E consultant Syntegra
Quantity surveyor Groupwork + Amin Taha
Fire engineer Optimise
Acoustic engineer Syntegra
Project manager Groupwork + Amin Taha
CDM co-ordinator Syntegra
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor Ecore Construction
CAD software used Various
Annual CO² emissions 16.84kg/m²
This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue which includes a free colouring book