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RetroFirst stories: alma-nac’s low-cost, zero-waste warehouse upcycle

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The latest in the AJ’s retrofit case study series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or given them a brand new life

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

With up to 40 per cent of carbon emissions coming from the construction industry, the profession needs to find ways of adapting the type of buildings it designs, and fast.

In order to tackle the climate crisis, the default – and less carbon-hungry – option for any project should be to adapt and reuse an existing building, one of the key demands of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign.

With the spotlight on retrofit, our ongoing series seeks to celebrate the projects that save buildings from ruin or resurrect them in innovative new ways and to hear from the architects that designed them.

Today we hear from Chris Bryant of alma-nac about the studio’s low-waste plans to convert a former industrial unit in south London into music studios for a new enterprise with limited funds. 

Alma nac the axis axo

Alma nac the axis axo

Axonometric

Tell us about the project?
It is to repurpose a light industrial warehouse into a set of state-of-the-art music studios for The Axis, a new enterprise specialising in the provision of writing and production spaces for music professionals. The space is a typical 400m² steel-frame, pitched roof warehouse located in South Bermondsey among similar buildings but in an area that is undergoing significant change.

Chris bryant

Chris bryant

alma-nac’s Chris Bryant

The Axis, formed of three directors with experience in the music and events industry, wanted to create a low-cost, but high-quality offer for musicians within easy reach of central London. They see this as the first of many and part of the project is a working prototype.

What were the challenges of the existing building?
The key problem is that we are trying to create a series of highly controlled spaces in a building that is about economic shelter and changes with the daily and seasonal cycles.

It is also a building that has had many lives and bears the memories of those. At the same time this is a new enterprise with limited funds, whose owners want to do as much of the build by themselves as possible. They have good experience of building but not of specialist trades.

The solution to this is to work with the qualities of the building where possible and only create controlled environments where absolutely necessary – in the studios.

The communal areas celebrate the industrial nature of the building and the design is robust enough to deal with idiosyncrasies and roughness of the existing fabric.

We worked with a great acoustic consultant, Gillieron Scott, who helped us design the simplest solution to achieve high-quality acoustics in the studios.

Had demolition ever been considered?
Demolition was never an option, due to the lease length and budget.

Apart from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?
We’re making a concentrated effort to achieve zero-waste. The studios are built to sheet and stud sizes both in length and height. This means only a single cut of one sheet is required per studio and the offcut can be used on the next studio. The timber studs only need cutting to form the noggins and any excess from these will be used to build furniture inspired by Enzo Mari. Even the plywood face to the studio is cut in a way that the only waste is from the cut itself.

 We’re making a concentrated effort to achieve zero-waste

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?
The building had previously been used for business and as a church, so carried both B1 and D1 uses and therefore we didn’t require planning permission.

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?
It feels as if we are truly upcycling the building with a relatively limited input. It has been a fascinating process in achieving a design that will allow for industry-leading writing rooms in a building that on the face of it doesn’t allow for this level of control. It shows how flexible and adaptable these buildings are if approached in the right way.

It has also been a very enjoyable puzzle working with the various modules of different materials to achieve something that is quick to put together and reduces waste.

Have you altered the scheme or its timetable because of coronavirus?
Work on site has paused and so the anticipated opening in May has been pushed back. Until when, we wait to see.

The client is a new enterprise. What has been the biggest risk for them and yourselves on this scheme?
As with many new enterprises, keeping costs down has been of paramount importance. Linked to this is satisfying building control. We had different responses from two different inspectors. There needs to be a commonsense approach taken around these buildings, even if the use type is changing.

Along with planning, building control can be a regulatory hurdle that hinders the re-use and upcycling of buildings.

Alma nac the axis photo existing 02

Alma nac the axis photo existing 02

Existing interior photograph

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