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RetroFirst Stories: Cassion Castle turns ramshackle Victorian warehouse into studio

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The latest in a new AJ series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or brought them back from the brink of ruin

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

Here, Cassion Castle, of London-based practice Cassion Castle Architects, explains how he is turning a ramshackle Victorian warehouse building in Yorkton Street, Hackney, into a new studio for designers PearsonLloyd.

What were the challenges of the existing building?

The building itself was a mess with lots of overlaid alterations over the years. For example, part of the original Victorian building was replaced with a modern utilitarian structure – likely in response to extensive fire damage in the 1990s. The building offered 6,000 sqft of functional space that was largely uninspiring because of this – an opportunity, but a challenge.

Had demolition ever been considered?

Demolition would have solved many of the usual difficulties of working with existing buildings: wonky walls, crumbling brickwork etc, all requiring on-site decisions. But our final approach was to try to strip that all back and bring the essential characteristics to the fore.

All projects have some level of collaboration with the client but, as PearsonLoyd are both designers, this was a three-way collaboration between Tom, Luke and me, each with an equal say, so the question of whether to flatten or not was something we all grappled with.

Aside from the obvious point about embodied energy, the main thing for me is that the interiors of this scheme will be so much richer because it is a refurbishment rather than a new-build. We have been careful to include as many existing features as possible. The history of the building will be ever-present.

Yorkton street in progress shots 2019 photo courtesy pearsonlloyd highres 006

Yorkton street in progress shots 2019 photo courtesy pearsonlloyd highres 006

Why did you and client decide not to flatten the building? 

Yorkton wasn’t a simple case of the architect proposing a plan to the client, or vice-versa. It was a collaboration; we’re all designers, just with different practices. It was PearsonLloyd’s decision to work with the existing building. Prior to my involvement they had been working with a different architect who had proposed to demolish and rebuild. When they made the decision they came to me as a designer and builder with experience of working with existing buildings. At that stage though they weren’t 100 per cent sure that they’d made the right choice. I think it’s fair to say that my enthusiasm for and experience of working with existing fabric helped to make up their minds.

About one third of the whole-life carbon footprint of a typical office will already have been emitted during construction

As about one third of the whole-life carbon footprint of a typical office development will already have been emitted during the construction phase, it was a very important decision to not knock down the building. It demands more initial thought, and a lot of decision making along the way which drawings can’t plan for. This was a delicate Victorian structure at heart. We recycled materials throughout, including the bricks, timbers, steel, and so on.

Aside from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?

There are a range of other technical measures we have undertaken to reduce carbon consumption. These include an extensive solar array and enhanced insulation. We also carried out an overheating study and adjusted some of the glazed openings accordingly to encourage cross-ventilation. In this way we avoided the need for any automated cooling by dealing with it passively.

Render of yorkton street 2020 retained wall and steel image by cassion castle architects  webres 1

Render of yorkton street 2020 retained wall and steel image by cassion castle architects webres 1

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?

They were completely supportive of the proposal. It was a smooth process with planning as it’s a modest volumetric expansion of the existing buildings and we retained the existing façade.

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?

It’s been a really fiddly project. I think my combined approach as architect and contractor has been invaluable. I visit site every single day and there have been so many examples of on the spot-decisions required both big and small, which could not have been picked up by the drawings. I really think there’s no better way to produce a finely crafted finished product out of a building like this.

Archival image yorkton street photo courtesy pearsonlloyd highres 002

Archival image yorkton street photo courtesy pearsonlloyd highres 002 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I'm not sure this has less embodied carbon than starting from scratch, there is no need to use steel in such a small building and from what i can see more than half of it is new build.

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