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RetroFirst stories: Campbell & Co on converting shops to council homes in Haringey

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The latest in an AJ series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or brought them back to life 

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 series seeks to celebrate the projects that save buildings from ruin or demolition and to hear from the architects that designed them.

Today, we hear from Jamie Campbell, director of Campbell & Co Architects, about how his practice is creating new flats in a derelict former newsagent’s in north London – just one scheme in Haringey Council’s larger drive to transform abandoned shops into homes.

Jamie campbell (c) will scott

Jamie Cambell, director of Campbell & Co Architects

Source: Will Scott

Jamie Cambell, director of Campbell & Co Architects

Tell us about the scheme
The Scales Road project is part of a wider new council housing scheme for Haringey Council, converting a disused shop and apartment within a council-owned block of flats to create a spacious three-bed apartment on the ground floor and a two-bed apartment above.

We’re also working with Haringey Council on two other retail-to-residential conversions in the borough, as part of the council’s drive to adapt underused existing buildings to help provide 1,000 new council homes by 2022.

Each infill site is relatively small – Scales Road is just over 181m². However, they are complex and challenging owing to the existing buildings and streetscapes we have to work with.

We’re really enthusiastic and excited about these projects as we see them as part of the wider conversation around affordable housing provision in the UK.

What were the challenges of the existing building?
The site is a former newsagent shop which closed in 2017. The council had tried to re-let the space commercially but struggled, and in the meantime the retail unit and flat were becoming derelict and attracting squatters.

The biggest challenge for these projects was identified in the client’s brief; they wanted to create new homes, not converted shops. Introducing a domestic scale to the proposals and also creating a clear identity alongside its immediate context meant we needed to carefully consider the materials.

We introduced a simple palette of materials including a Staffordshire Blue brick and dark grey render, we reduced the size of the openings to give a more domestic scale to the façade, and this created a strong identity to the base of the block.

Permitted development would have been easier, but would not have allowed us to create homes with such a strong sense of character

Had demolition ever been considered?
Demolition was not an option as the former shop and upstairs are part of an existing block of council flats. Commercial use was no longer viable, so a new use needed to be found to prevent the site going to waste and becoming a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour. A retail-to-residential conversion proved to be the most financially viable, while also helping to address the borough’s housing needs.

The apartment block itself is sound and provides homes for a number of Haringey’s council tenants. Haringey should be given credit for making smarter use of their existing building stock to provide new council homes, and for demonstrating how a ‘RetroFirst’ approach can address pressing housing needs.

Scales road existing interior

Scales road existing interior

Existing interior of Scales Road property

You submitted a full planning application rather than going down the permitted development route? Why was that?
Permitted development would have been the easier option, but would not have allowed us to create new homes with such a strong sense of identity and character.

We agreed with Haringey early on that permitted development was not the right approach. They wanted us to design homes in a way that didn’t simply look like a shop with a new door and frosted glazing. Garden spaces, planting, bin and cycle storage, orientation, views to the street, passive surveillance, natural light and positioning of rooms all need to be considered when thinking about a home. Why should a retrofit be any different? Haringey Council’s determination to prioritise design quality should be congratulated: we feel the outcome is more respectful to residents, the building and the neighbourhood, and ultimately the people who will live there.

Aside from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?
We’ve used relatively straightforward yet effective measures, such as upgrading the envelope with new internal wall insulation and high-performance double-glazed windows and doors, and specifying low-energy lighting and low water use fittings throughout.

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?

As a client the council could not have been more supportive. We also worked closely with the planners to clarify any queries they had and to help them understand the context of the applications and the driver from the client to create more new council homes.

Following on from our three retrofit projects, we are now working with Haringey on a new build infill site to provide further new homes in the borough.

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply to other developments?
Boarded-up shops are often seen as a sign of decline within the communities: this project shows that, with a more flexible approach and some creative thinking, they can be used for renewal.

There are hundreds of sites similar to Scales Road all over the country, where local authorities are struggling to make them work commercially while facing housing shortages. I would hope that Scales Road can be a prototype for bringing all those disused properties back into productive use through thoughtful retrofit.

It is also worth noting that, while permitted development does serve an important purpose, I would advocate the planning route for the creation of new homes from commercial spaces as it allows architects to consider what it means to create homes, not residential units.

Scales road ground floor plan campbell and co

Scales road ground floor plan campbell and co

Ground floor plan

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I fail to see how the AJ can present the conversion of a much needed community shop into residential on a housing estate as a good news story. When architects are fighting tooth and nail across the country with developers and planners to incorporate more active uses into housing projects, this sends an incredibly bad message. The profession should not be promoting adaption of A & B uses to C4 & C4. The press should know better.

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