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RetroFirst stories: PUP Architects on its light-touch revamp of Surrey Docks Farm

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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.

Today we hear from Chloë Leen of emerging practice PUP Architects on how how they worked with the existing buildings on their project at Surrey Docks Farm, including the resurrection of a three-storey ‘tower’ gutted by fire a decade ago.   

Pup architects surrey docks farm collage retrofirst

Pup architects surrey docks farm collage retrofirst


Tell us about the project
Surrey Docks Farm is one of London’s few working city farms, based in Rotherhithe on a site right next to the Thames, looking over to Canary Wharf. The farm is a charitable organisation whose main remit is education around farming and food production. They do a lot for the local community such as hosting classes for school groups, adults with learning disabilities and volunteer groups.

The original brief was to put back into use a three-storey tower building, which had been gutted in a fire over 10 years ago, and to refurbish an adjoining classroom building.

We competitively tendered for the project, and proposed a ‘bigger picture’ strategy for the site. This involved opening up the buildings to the riverside, extending the classroom towards it, and improving facilities to make the spaces more attractive for letting out. Our project ambition was to also make the most of the rare, open views of the river and beyond, and to give the farm a more public feel.

In the end the project consists of around 250m² of refurbishment and new build. This includes a new, glazed ‘orangery’ extension and separate toilet block while the refurbished buildings house a classroom, offices, teaching kitchen and meeting room. Outside 320m² of space has been relandscaped to improve access between the farm and Thames Path. The budget was £860,000 which came mainly from grants and Section 106 funding from local developments.

What were the challenges of the existing buildings?
The project forms one side of a cluster of buildings that encircle the farm’s central courtyard. These buildings include stables and staff facilities along with our classroom and tower buildings. They are pragmatic, working buildings. A challenge for us was how some of these structures could be visibly renewed without looking out of place.

We needed to ensure they still worked together to retain the courtyard’s character. We chose a new black timber cladding; which is an echo of black-painted timber elsewhere on the buildings. This was a hard sell to some of the farm staff, who were concerned that a big, black tower might be too imposing. However, we think it now feels like the obvious choice and links with the other buildings really well. It looks noticeably new but doesn’t jar with what was already there.

The orangery extension adjoins the existing classroom and is the most significant new construction of the project. It’s a key space because it orientates the buildings towards the river and creates a new façade on the Thames. It was an opportunity to add some new character to the site and suggest a new lease of life for the buildings. A challenge was how to adjoin to the existing, unifying both geometry and character.

Had demolition ever been considered?
When the tower was damaged by the fire, the client worked with an architect to look into several proposals. One involved the demolition and development of the site much more intensively. However, planning discussions were not favourable, due to its scale and the scheme was abandoned.

Pup architects surrey docks farm existing tower internal

Fire-damaged interior of tower before renovation

Fire-damaged interior of tower before renovation

For this reason the client was cautious about a new rebuild and by the time we started working on the project, the focus was to redevelop on a more sensitive scale. Our approach was a lot more holistic, with a series of careful alterations and additions, making the most of the existing structures and conditions to reconfigure the site.

How did you convince the client not to flatten the building?
The strategy to work with the existing buildings rather than demolish was one of the reasons our proposal was chosen. As the site is designated as borough open land, demolition and expansion into a significantly larger development was not appropriate – nor did it suit how the site is primarily used. The purpose of the project was never to expand but just to improve.

Our strategy to work with the existing buildings rather than demolish was a reason our proposal was chosen

As the ambition did not involve a meaningful increase in size it did not make sense to demolish and rebuild. The farm is not a commercial client – their main interest is not the financial value of the site but its value and usefulness to their organisation and its continuation. They have rented the land from the local authority since 1986 and the success of the development has helped to ensure the continuation of their tenancy.

Aside from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?
The farm is really interested in green technologies and the impact of their operations. They have solar panels, and an anaerobic digester which uses animal waste to create bio gas. So we were very conscious of how to minimise the impact of the construction.

We looked to using structural timber where possible, minimising the use of new steels. For example, the new orangery and toilet block have a completely solid timber construction; and the new floors in the tower are also timber, which work with the existing steels. The new landscaping does have some new brick paving but also re-integrates the existing bricks and solid granite blocks. We weren’t able to eliminate concrete completely but foundations for new structures were engineered to reduce quantity.

In terms of the in-use carbon impact, the buildings have been upgraded significantly in terms of their thermal performance with new insulation and high performance windows and doors.

We used structural timber where possible to minimise the requirement for new steel

We also have a 5,000 gallon water tank which is buried underground. It catches rainwater from the roofs to be used for irrigation and flushing the new toilets.

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?
Yes they were. We did not have any particular difficulties with planning, especially as our proposals were relatively light-touch. As our project has a real public and community focus, and looks to integrate the Thames Path it ticked a lot of boxes for the local authority.

Pup 1101

Inside River Room

Source: Simone Bossi

Inside River Room

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?
It’s always important to recognise the value of the existing conditions and to consider how to make the most of what is already there. We also learnt the importance of an overarching project strategy to guide the design. This applies to any project really but seems more pertinent with a refurbishment.

The principles of re-establishing the relationship between the buildings and river, and creating a more public presence guided decisions at every stage and scale of the project. Following these principles helped to avoid a piecemeal approach. Instead, it’s the careful interventions that build up to create a cumulative impact.

Pup architects sdf 0ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan


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Readers' comments (1)

  • The 'big black tower' is surely only the obvious choice because of the current love affair with black - and could this be due for a rethink, looking at the 'before' and 'after' images of the tower?

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