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RetroFirst stories: MATT Architecture on creating a surprise government pin-up

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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 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 re-use 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.

Today we hear from MATT Architecture’s founder Matt White about the practice’s recently completed overhaul of a 1974 concrete frame block in Wimbledon, which became the unexpected cover star of the government’s Living with Beauty report.

Matt White, director of MATT Architecture

Tell us about the scheme
The completed £12 million scheme provides about 4,500m² of commercial space – roughly double the size of the original Wellington House building of which we were able to retain about 80 per cent. It’s mostly office and I’m happy to say it’s fully let – for what we understand to be the highest rent in its area.

There are also a couple of retail units and a restaurant on the ground floor, two of which wanted to stay in place, and trading, throughout construction.

What were the challenges of the existing building?
The restaurant on the ground floor was tricky – an Argentinian Steakhouse on a long lease with a giant grill that needed constant venting and extraction regardless of the construction work all around. I recall some pretty pungent site visits where the temporary positioning of the kitchen flue was not quite as well routed as it could have been. Unless being gassed with Bovril is your thing, which – happily for me – it is.

Sec prop 1 200

Sec prop 1 200

Had demolition ever been considered?
Not for long. It was one of the options of course – but curtailing the long leases would have been costly and much of the area uplift came from filling in a rear car park area to the same height as the existing building – which provided more generous ‘lateral’ floorplates. We were also able to add some space on top.

 How did you convince the client not to flatten the building?
We were lucky that they were already heading in that direction and had, in part, come to us because of a similar project we’d completed nearby, Pinnacle House, which also doubled the area on site while retaining much of the existing building. It became obvious fairly quickly that the surrounding Conservation Area, and some very vocal locals, made it unlikely that we’d get significantly more height with a new-build – so retro-first-refurbishment started to look like a winner.

Aside from retaining elements of the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?
One of the things we were really excited about was the displacement ventilation system. It sounds tooth-pullingly tedious but is actually pretty cool. The floor void is used as a supply plenum for the fresh air, divided into zones for meeting rooms, desking etc. using baffles in the floor void, with extract through the cores to the roof. While the floor void has to be a bit deeper than normal – 2-300mm as opposed to the 150mm norm – it means that you don’t have to have loads of ducts and fan coils on the ceiling.

From a whole-life carbon point of view this is terrific

From a whole-life carbon point of view this is terrific, as it not only requires about 25 per cent less physical ‘stuff’ to be installed in the building, it also massively reduces the amount of ceiling ‘stuff’ that would normally get thrown out every time the CAT A/B gets refitted in the future. Additionally it turns out that the use of heat exchangers and the system’s default of providing a relatively directional (rather than mixed-up) flow of air on the floorplate means it’s also well-placed to respond to current concerns about infection and re-circulated air in office buildings. This is because the air doesn’t need to be re-circulated if you don’t want it to be. – like pressing ‘off’ that circular arrow button on the dashboard of your car.

We also tried really hard to make the building all-electric. We failed (see notes on ‘Argentinian Steakhouse’ above – induction just doesn’t cut it for the full macho/gaucho experience…)

…but we’re getting another shot at this on our next project in Wimbledon, which got planning last month. The all-electric point is really important as the statutory de-carbonisation of the UK national grid by 2030 means that any all-electric building will effectively become ‘zero-carbon-in-use’ by default from that date. We should all be doing it.

10 logpile  s kristensen

10 logpile s kristensen

Were the planners and public supportive of the proposals?

Initially it was planners yes, public no – though that’s not uncommon is it? The local authority have a pretty lively Design Review Panel which gave us some very useful feedback, and I’m happy to say that we were really able to listen to, and respond to, what the public were telling us, too.

I know that as designers we’re often thought of as finding it annoying when people ask us to amend our designs but I have to say it was lovely to see that everyone cared so much – planners and public alike.
The truth is that everyone got a much better building from that review process working as well as it did, however bruising it could seem sometimes.

How has the completed building been received and have you been back to see if it is performing as predicted?

Happily the building has been very well received, particularly locally, and has also just been shortlisted for an RIBA Award.

It was a surprise to see it on the cover of the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report

In slightly more left-field recognition, we were surprised to see its image on the cover of the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s Living with Beauty Report (Their mouthful of concise language – not mine). We weren’t sure how to feel about that as, given one of the report’s aims is to encourage designers to design beautifully, it seemed a little ill-considered for it to champion our design without also championing its designer.

We had no idea they were going to use our design in their report and we are not credited anywhere. While we don’t think that’s very encouraging who are we to complain? It hasn’t stopped us telling as many people as possible anyway. You’re welcome.

Performance data is not yet available as the Covid-19 lockdown coincided almost exactly with the end of the CAT B fit-out by the tenant, so it’s looking great but has yet to be occupied. However, we did visit the building earlier this month to inspect for latent defects. I’m happy to report that the rooftop birdboxes and logpile insect ‘hotels’ are fully let at least.

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

Think very hard about designing large, bespoke ceramics.

We’re continuing to do a lot of investigation into the use of digital technologies to achieve bespoke forms and finishes affordably. Just to make things pretty. For this project that work was mainly focused on the green glazed tiling at the base of the building and the terracotta cornices along the façades. And sometimes, like all R&D, that work goes wrong. The green glazed tiles have worked beautifully, covered with bespoke palm frond patterns referencing the Paxton plant nursery that used to be nearby – but they’re small, flat ceramics and very different to the larger terracotta cornices above, which were nightmarish.

These suffered huge amounts of unpredictable shrinkage and dimensional instability creating quite a very wobbly architrave. In better news they do at least look hand-made by humans, however, which is important and possibly gave us our most valuable lesson – to create a building that people can relate to, and even love.

Darwen green cornice 1

Darwen green cornice 1

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A very clever scheme. Erich Mendelsohn would have been pleased to see the similarity of the facade treatment to his 1920s Berlin buildings

    Winston Newman

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