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The Green by AOC

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AOC’s first stand-alone public building – a community centre is Nunhead, south-east London – is a satisfying, contextually coherent building, says Jay Merrick

BRIEF• ARCHITECT’S VIEWCLIENT’S VIEWPROJECT DATASPECIFICATIONPLANSSECTIONSISOMETRIC DRAWING

The most intelligently ambitious practices tend to experience a tipping-point between delivering interesting buildings that seem like testbeds for ideas, and the arrival of a building of ideas whose composition radiates fully expressed architectural certainty. 

In the case of AOC, the former category would include its vividly collagist 2006 Janet Summers Early Years Centre in Southwark. A decade on, The Green community centre in Nunhead, south-east London, is the practice’s first stand-alone public building, and the apotheosis of one of its essential aims: to create, as co-founder Geoff Shearcroft puts it, ‘an architecture of generosity, the intimacy of the domestic, with some grandeur’. 

The project marks a turning-point, which is apparent in the range of its latest work, including a particularly intriguing commission shared with another practice; more on this in a moment. 

The community centre, and AOC’s restrained transformation of the once rather grotty Nunhead Green, is contextually coherent, formally witty, materially engaging, and socially inclusive. It is also textbook Big Society, with added New Austerity, because the project will ultimately cost the staunchly Labour borough of Southwark nothing; it will be paid for by a small AOC-designed open-market housing scheme to be built next to The Green. Furthermore, the Nunhead’s Voice community group is responsible for programming and operating the centre, and meeting all running costs. 

In 1878, Edward Walford’s Old and New London noted that Nunhead was ‘rapidly becoming a place of some importance’. Gone were the days when village lads and lasses ‘were wont to dance and romp there, and when the ancient Nun’s Head, which has been an institution in the locality for above 200 years, was an object of attraction, through its tea-gardens, to worn-out citizens’. There are fewer worn-out citizens today. Nunhead is experiencing a surge of middle-class incomers; house prices in the street behind The Green have doubled in the last five years. 

The architecture of The Green demonstrates three main intentions: as an object just off the Nunhead Green, it expresses architectural elements of its context in playful, easily understandable ways; the girdle of space around it is a carefully configured public realm; and its interior is thoroughly receptive, atmospherically and functionally – office, café-kitchen, lavatories, central living room, and a big double-height hall on the ground floor; medium and small meeting rooms on the top floor. The two levels are linked by a staircase, which rises diagonally across the reception area. 

The building could have been bigger and cheaper, ‘but we wanted something of better quality to attract wider uses,’ says Shearcroft. The building’s northern shoulder drops down to a single storey, which cranks along the triangular northern segment of the site to create a substantial storage space for the big hall and a covered cycle shed. 

The lantern-cum-faux-chimney-piece, and the embossed herringbone brickwork on the main elevation – with mortar the same colour as the brick to monumentalise the mass – references the brick pattern of the Old Nun’s Head pub opposite, and the charmingly bumptious chimneys of the 1852 almshouses facing Nunhead Green. Conceptually, the design takes the bottom storey of a Victorian terraced house opposite, and puts an almshouse on top. 

This expressive treatment of surface and detail is apparent internally in the red-stained plywood walls of the living room – ‘almost like the marble in 19th-century public buildings, and also looking back to Gehry’s use of plywood in his early buildings, enjoying the richness of it,’ according to Shearcroft. And one of the stair’s bannister rails flips sideways like a rabbit’s ear. 

The cranking of the building’s single-storey north end is echoed by a pale green painted steel balcony angling outward from the main elevation to create a substantial canopy over the entrance. There is a sign, and a symbol: the words ‘THE GREEN’ are set in steel lettering across the angle of the balcony railings, with a silhouette-cum-column below representing Jenny Green, locally famous in the 19th century as a music hall performer. 

A crucial element of the scheme is barely noticeable. Jim Grace of Synergy designed a low-tech dynamic insulation system with a plenum, internal and external air-bricks, and controlled air circulation through and up the outer walls. Annual heating costs are confidently predicted at £371. 

This is a satisfying building; a conclusion of AOC’s original vision. ‘When we set up in 2005, we admired FAT and Sergison Bates – the symbol-laden, and the material,’ Shearcroft explains. ‘Surely Lewerentz and Venturi could have a conversation bringing together myth, symbol, and material richness. We began with a lot of hunches about what participative architecture might be. We’re far clearer, now, about articulating the worth of that.’ He pauses. ‘Those new buildings at King’s Cross look simple, a bit like 1930s architecture in Milan. A lot of that is about moving away from aparticular architecture, which is what we’re interested in.’

The practice will remain engaged in designing ordinary buildings with ‘everyday briefs’, but it is exploring new formal and material possibilities. It is working on a scheme with Sergison Bates, the nature of which can’t yet be revealed; and its list of live projects includes the reading room at the Wellcome Trust, the learning commons at Roedean School, Kew Archives public realm, creative studios at Somerset House, a postgraduate building at Cambridge, and a self-build house format for the Igloo development in Cornwall. ‘We’re speculating again,’ muses Shearcroft. 

Brief

The Green is a new public building in south-east London, which accommodates the events, exchange and collaboration that constitute contemporary Nunhead’s community life. Built by Southwark Council, it is run by Nunhead’s Voice, a group of local residents and volunteers who were closely involved in developing both the brief and the design. It is the first building to be completed in AOC’s masterplan for the conservation area, following the practice’s redevelopment of the green itself. 

Plans

The Green by AOC

Ground floor plan

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Sections

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Isometric drawing

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Architect’s view

Following the demolition of two 1970s council buildings that failed to meet changing local needs, we were appointed by Southwark Council to develop a high-quality, low-maintenance building to be run by Nunhead’s Voice, a local residents group and now a registered charity. We led an extensive brief development process with the group, culminating in the shared ambition to create a building that allowed ‘different people to do different activities in the same place at the same time’. 

Our design seeks to create a generous public building with a domestic intimacy, a home for diverse publics rather than a public institution. Located on a significant site in a recently created conservation area, the building samples the forms, materials and myths of Nunhead to create a modern building that is particular to the place and resonates with its past. The timber-framed structure creates a family of discrete rooms arranged around a double-height space, providing acoustically separate spaces to accommodate different activities. 

Nunhead’s previous community centre, like many public buildings in the UK, was forced to close because of onerous running costs, so the new building’s design is based around low-energy principles to assist its economic viability. The building is BREEAM excellent and the first example of a modern dynamically insulated wall system in a non-domestic building; external air is drawn into the building through super-insulated walls that perform as a heat exchanger, with a subsequent reduction in the need for internal service ducts. The structural capacity of the timber frame and the section have been designed to maximise the ease of future adaptations, allowing the building to be divided both horizontally and vertically, in response to the changing needs of its users. Geoff Shearcroft, AOC

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Source: Tim Soar

Client’s view

We are incredibly proud of this stunning new building, which the council has supported from day one, both financially and practically. It is obvious to anyone living in the area that we have helped revitalise Nunhead in recent years, with the regeneration of the shopping parade, the building of new council homes, and the transformation of Nunhead Green with its new community centre. The Green is a fantastic example of what can be achieved when the council works hand in hand with the community, transforming what was a dirty and derelict space into a lively and loved focal point for the community. Fiona Colley, cabinet member for finance, performance and modernisation, Southwark Council 

Nunhead’s Voice is delighted to have The Green, a new community centre for Nunhead. Working with AOC has been successful; the practice put in a great deal of time and effort in supporting us during the planning, design and construction processes. The Green is a lovely building with an attractive and airy feel. The rooms are well proportioned with excellent levels of daylight and good views of the outside world. We are really excited about what the centre can deliver for the whole of the local community. Ben Hyde, Nunhead’s Voice

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Source: Tim Soar

Project data

Start on site May 2015
Completion  September 2016
Gross internal floor area 307m2
Form of contract or procurement route GC/WORKS
Construction cost£1.2 million, including external works
Architect  AOC
Clients Southwark Council and Nunhead’s Voice
Structural engineer  Engineers HRW
M&E consultant Synergy Consulting Engineers
Quantity surveyor Appleyard & Trew
Transportconsultant WSP Group
CDM co-ordinator Appleyard & Trew
Main contractor  Neilcott
CAD software used Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions 20.9 kg/m2

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Source: Tim Soar

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Source: Tim Soar

Specification

Stretcher and bespoke bond brickwork to elevations, garden wall and brick slip gate by Wienerberger Durham Red Multi Stock 

Low pitch and vertical hung tiles to roof and lantern Sandtoft 20/20 interlocking tile and Humber plain tile 

External windows to elevations and garden wall by Schüco AWS 70 HI window/door system 

Dynamic insulation system to external cavity walls by Jablite JDP075 

Internal plywood wall linings by Décor Melamine Clear grade face Douglas Fir panels 

Coating system to internal plywood wall linings by Morrells Xerofire coating system with bespoke red stain 

Linoleum floor coverings by Forbo Marmoleum modular 

Rainwater collection unit to garden by Cheeky Chicks XL Oak whisky barrel

The Green by AOC

The Green by AOC

Source: Tim Soar

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