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Wombats by Andrew Mulroy Architects

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A £9million new youth hostel in east London has refurbished two very different buildings to create a modern place for travellers to meet and sleep, says Will Hurst

The Wapping-based hostel is the first British outpost of Wombat’s, which despite its name is an Austrian rather than an Australian chain with earlier incarnations in Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Budapest.

The project is a comprehensive refurbishment which sews together a six storey 1950s brick building with a grade II-listed, four storey 19th century seaman’s mission that was until recently used as a homeless shelter. The two buildings have been linked since the fifties but, over time, legibility had become a major issue with unaccountable partitions and voids resulting in a rabbit warren interior.

While the 50s building had retained what the architect calls its ‘honest and robust’ character, the whole ensemble had a run-down and institutional atmosphere which was reinforced by its scruffy presence on the street.

The architect set out to retain and underline the best original features of the two buildings while creating a partly new and far more legible link building between them. Just as important was the aim of escaping the sense of a typical hostel to create something altogether more inviting - think upmarket budget hotel. In both objectives, Andrew Mulroy Architects has succeeded remarkably well considering the budget was just £1,550 per square metre and this figure included around 280 square metre of new build extension work and part of the fit out cost.

Wombats boasts 108 bedrooms, with a range of room sizes from 2-bed to 8-bed rooms to suit travellers ranging from young single people to older couples and families. Many of the rooms have an individuality you certainly won’t find in a Travelodge, boasting vintage furniture, USB connections and decent bathrooms and lighting. Layouts have been carefully considered so that - for example – those sitting or lying on a bed will usually not be looking directly at the back of a bathroom door.

When you consider that staying at Wombats costs as little as £25 per head in peak season (or £40 per head in a double room), such facilities represent good value even though slightly blank looking corridors and the necessary fire doors mean you never quite forget you’re in a hostel. And despite the aspirational nature of the project, the architect has not lost sight of who the user is. No doubt partly as a result of its experience in designing homeless hostels, the practice has specified ultra-hard wearing materials such as scrubbable latex paint in the bathrooms to guard against the occasional idiot inclined to graffiti the walls.

Wombats really in its communal spaces

Where Wombats London really excels however is in its communal spaces. The architect has tried to improve the hostel’s unprepossessing front entrance and porch but the real sense of arrival is found in the reception area – a highly successful social space where just the right balance has been found between original features and subtle new additions. Featuring white painted walls, timber book cases and carefully aligned exposed services, the room is brought to life with its huge illuminated ‘Wombats’ sign and scattered loose furniture and wooden day beds upholstered in the familiar patterns and hard-wearing fabric of London Underground seats.

Wombats Hostel by Andrew Mulroy Architects

The latter are a good example of how Andrew Mulroy and project architect Liz Sidey have considered the lone traveller. The simple right angled layouts or ‘L shapes’ of the day beds or in Wombats for example are intended to encourage interaction and impromptu conversations between strangers.

The new link building functions effectively as a place for maintenance and services to operate as well as a connection between the 1950s and 19th century architecture but Wombats’ other main communal space is to be found in the cellar. Here, the architect has rediscovered a rather splendid network of vaulted brick spaces similar to the café in the St Martin in the Fields crypt. Once closed to the public and crammed with services, it now boasts more of the London Underground seating and a café and bar, all reflecting, to varying degrees, those L shaped arrangements found in the reception.

Wombats London is an unusually good youth hostel and a skilful piece of architecture that recognises the best aspects of two forgotten buildings. Andrew Mulroy Architects has delivered a hard-wearing place to stay that understands the mindset of the adventurous young travellers who will stay there.

Architect’s view

Originally built as a seaman’s mission in the 1820s, Wombat’s occupants had included thousands of mariners including Joseph Conrad before its more recent incarnation as a homeless hostel. Our objective was to give it a further lease of life as a contemporary backpackers’ hostel, using the building to its best advantage while banishing any suggestions of a stereotypical hostel environment.

With the opportunity to sustain a tradition of hospitality going back almost 200 years came the task of addressing buildings that had experienced decades of rough treatment. We took a light touch approach to their restoration and refurbishment, bringing out their robust and honest character and highlighting surviving features such as a Victorian drinking fountain or the stylish 1950s staircase. We brought redundant parts of the building back into use – such as the old lift room and water tank house – creating around 3,000 sq.ft of additional space.

Today Wombat’s feels more like a high quality budget hotel. The arrival area is designed as a welcoming space where guests can relax and make new friends. We are particularly pleased with the new cellar café/bar, where the restored brick vaults are a rich textured backdrop to a warm and stylish social space. We worked very hard with our client to think about the bedroom accommodation, and created a wide range of room sizes to suit different groups. High quality furniture, stylish décor, ensuite bathrooms and little touches such as USB ports by every bed are designed to keep modern travellers comfortable and happy.

Andrew Mulroy, Director, Andrew Mulroy Architects

Wombats Hostel by Andrew Mulroy Architects

Project Data

Strip out start on site: November 2012
Strip out completion: April 2013
Build start on site: May 2013
Build completion: December 2014
Gross internal floor area: 5,815m²
Construction cost: £9,000,000
Construction cost per m²: £1,548
Architect: Andrew Mulroy Architects
Client: JMS Estates
Tenant: Wombats London
Structural engineer: BSP Consulting
M&E consultant: NLG Associates
Interior designer: BWM Architekten
Project manager: PTCM
CDM co-ordinator: Newell Projects
Approved building inspector: MLM Building Control
Main contractor: Eastern Corporation
CAD software used: Vectorworks

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Readers' comments (1)

  • wombat - Australian marsupial that eats roots and leaves. An appropriate name for a chain of youth hostels.

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