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Higher ground

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building study - Incorporating a 40m-high water tower was the biggest challenge for architect Loates-Taylor Shannon in creating a new hill-top home in Shooters Hill, south London

A house eight floors high does not immediately strike you as a model of convenience, though it does bring to mind one of Bryan Avery's stranger ideas for high-density urban housing - where each dwelling was stacked one room per floor for half a dozen or more floors, connected by a linear-motor lift. For this house on Shooters Hill, near Greenwich, south London, there is a combination of the strange (converted) and more conventionally planned new space.

At the base of the tower is a new twostorey pavilion with entrance hall, kitchen and living/dining space on the ground floor, two en suite bedrooms and a utility room above, with a covered bridge into the 120year-old tower. Located close to the brow of Shooters Hill, the tower has amazing panoramic views across London - it is nine miles east of central London yet you can just make out the Wembley arch.

Originally it held 80 tonnes of water for a former hospital nearby. Consequently, the solid masonry walls are a metre thick, windows are few and floors small in area when considered as potential habitable space.

After a tight five-person (lockable) hydraulic lift has been squeezed in alongside the existing stair, the remaining internal floor area is about 2.75 x 3.50m (floors vary). The excellent quality of the original brickwork includes a 2 ¦ batter to the walls above the plinth. Floor-to-floor heights are largely defined by the existing stair, with occasional adjustments of a step or two into a room.

Much of the brickwork is left exposed and lancet window openings have been retained.

There are windows on the east accessible to fire ladders and the tower is sprinklered.

Architect Loates-Taylor Shannon (LTS) has responded to this stimulating set of constraints with a room-stacking that works off its industrial past. The original cantilevered stone stair, which has been sandblasted and sealed, is extended at the top with a new galvanised stair that has open-grid treads and landings that add to the sense of spiralling height. The vertical sense is also reinforced by making the entrance hall two storeys, with a mesh balcony to access the lift. Above these two floors, the other seven floors are planned as bedroom three, bedroom four, bathroom, bedroom five, WC and kitchenette, plant, then observatory. The lift stops at level seven to allow the maximum panorama from the observatory, which follows the original roof profile. This observatory is fully glazed, though shaded by an oversailing roof that also shelters a perimeter balcony.

The overall composition consists essentially of two objects - the tower and the pavilion - in a fenced garden enclave.

The surrounding streets are mostly undistinguished suburbia, except for some of the Victorian hospital buildings nearby. It feels surprising to find this dwelling here.

The tower retains its original feel, its brickwork sandblasted and chemically cleaned, damaged terracotta mouldings remade to match and pieced in, and finials restored. In contrast, the new pavilion has extensive metal-framed glazing, with brick to the ground floor matching the tower plinth, then a terne-coated stainless-steelclad first floor. The new-build emphasis is horizontal.

This new pavilion is glazed at either end and has no structural crosswalls, requiring some ingenuity from engineer Haskins Robinson Waters. Standing above 3.5m of desiccated clay, the house is founded on mini-piles, linked by a ring beam. Concrete walls are cantilevered off this ring beam - single-storey below the clerestory window to the west and two-storey, incorporating large openings, along the spine. These concrete walls support a light steel frame, itself cantilevering out to support timber floors, hanging-walls and the roof to the east.

As well as its glazing facing north and south, the ground floor has a long glazed area facing the tower, so that when you experience the house, it feels less like a building in two separate parts. Also helping link the two, and evoke the tower's past, is a stepped pool between them with running water.

Internally, the new work is to a high specification, including extensive solid walnut, Starck sanitaryware plus Jazz and Odissi baths, and an austere kitchen by Nicholas Anthony, somewhat coldly out of keeping with the warmth elsewhere, such as from the timber and the pink metal stair. This stair's positioning is logical on the first floor but does interrupt the flow of space front-toback on the ground floor.

More in keeping than the kitchen is the lighting by Kevan Shaw, a long-time LTS collaborator, which was brought in very much as part of the design team. Custom-made fittings hang in the double-height stairwell and there is a lot of attention to the exterior night effect, particularly bottom-lighting of the water, and to lighting of the tower's entrance and stairs.

As well as being the architect, LTS has been part of the development team, along with Chickenfeed. It is a role Greg Shannon and Michael Loates-Taylor feel every architect should experience at least once, to empathise better with clients, although LTS is not planning a future as a developer. This oneoff building is, though, an advertisement for the sort of vision that only architects bring to projects.

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