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Back to basics

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MetalWorks Little gems

William Russell's house in London's East End makes the first domestic use of Cryoform's off-the-shelf steel covering

The grey sky was draped low over east London's Brick Lane the day I went to see William Russell's house. The area's scraggy mix of dirty Victorian brickwork, shuttered backstreet lock-ups, overstuffed wholesalers' displays stocked with spangly gewgaws has been shaken up by Russell's tough but crisp block of steel and glass. But there is, refreshingly, nothing precious about this architect's new house. Russell has avoided the prissy minimalism or self-conscious billboarding of many architects' houses.

The hard surface and occasional glint of the galvanised steel cladding, coupled with the basic, raw concrete and the skeletal structure and fittings, make the building a very London shade of grey. It seems to reflect the dense cloud and suck up the monotone of the pavements, wire fences and steel shutters that characterise the area.

The architect has achieved this palette with an innovative and cheap surface solution. The street elevation is clad in galvanised steel. The covering is based on an off-the-shelf system from Cryoform but it is a product that had hitherto only been used in big shed buildings, industrial structures and offshore platforms. This use, which sees 50mm of insulation sandwiched between two layers of steel sheeting, is the first in this kind of domestic, street-front setting.

As the house rises, steel gives way to glass, climaxing in a huge sliding window (weighing, Russell tells me, 750kg) which makes the lofty double-height space at the heart of the interior feel almost like a terrace.

Living, cooking and dining all happen in this expansive, deceptively simple volume within which areas are defined by varying ceiling heights. Even on the grimmest of London days, the space is no less visibly light than the outside. The top floor also encompasses a roof terrace framed by exposed steel beams where the skeleton seems finally to make itself visible. The light and airy internal volumes are knitted together by a dark, profoundly solid stair core in which the stairs, walls and solid balustrade are all of coarsely finished concrete.

The articulation of the facades is simple, the rhythm being built up through the layering of the fenestration and the repetitive units of the steel cladding. The entrance is announced through a cutaway from the main volume, creating a kind of porch so that the bulky volume of the corner is suspended over what becomes the visual focus. The door looks as tough as the lock-up workshops in the railway arches which sit astride so many of the roads around the area and clad, like the solid surfaces elsewhere, in galvanised steel.

Off this, a continuous window illuminating the double-height basement (conceived as an independent unit to be let out but easily worked back into the main volume later) gives the illusion of a house floating on no structure at all. The bedrooms on the first floor are lit by twin full-height windows (one half-height steel panel in each room is also hinged to open for ventilation) and, above these, translucent sheets of glass replace the steel walls. From twilight onwards, these translucent sheets reveal the shadows of the concrete structure and the delicate and changing pattern of illumination within.

The surfaces within are relentlessly concrete. From the floor to the walls through the built in work surface and ceilings, there is little that is delicate about the finishes. This is an interior built less for the architectural photographer's lens and more for the life of Russell's family. The robust, semi-industrial window frames are also constructed in galvanised steel, with joins and welds left exposed rather than being ground smooth.

The sill for the huge sliding window doubles as a handrail which sets up a kind of dado datum in what would otherwise appear an inordinately tall domestic space.

Russell's achievement is commendable.

He has created a block on a severely restrictive site and carved from it a varied and fascinating series of spaces. Furthermore, his use of basic materials in an innovative and thoughtful fashion allows the house to mingle effortlessly with its urban neighbours.

He has also, almost certainly, elevated Cryoform and Corus' mass-produced galvanised products into a highly desirable, and almost painfully hip external finish which straddles the awkward gulf between the fashionable and the gritty urban.

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