pH+ Architects won the planning argument for this residential conversion of an apple store but lost to the client on spending
Lancashire has its mills, Northamptonshire its shoe factories; every region in the UK has a locally specific type of former industrial building that has been latched onto as ripe for conversion to residential use. Kent has oast houses of course, but as the orchard of England, and as fruit farming changes to lower, more tightly packed trees and refrigerated storage, perhaps there is a new local building type on the horizon: the apple packing station.
Andy Puncher of pH+ Architects certainly believes so. His practice’s ‘Apple Store’ conversion of a former packing station into a 1,000m² five-bed house with swimming pool and yoga studio in the Kent Weald, near Goudhurst, won planning permission three years before the arrival of permitted development rights for agricultural to residential buildings. Until now, apple stores have been more likely to become little business centres.
‘It’s not the sort of building you’d usually convert,’ explains Puncher, as we draw up to the newly painted grey structure behind a huge sliding gate surrounded by rolling hills, spinneys, hedges and open fields. ‘Tonbridge Council was very dubious about granting consent because it’s outside the village boundaries and in an area of outstanding natural beauty.’
Built in the 1950s to serve the orchards – when the working classes still used to come down from London for the harvest – the interior was a large open area for sorting and packing with three thick brick-walled cold stores along the southern elevation. The process was fairly linear, with fruit trucks entering the station from the fields at one end and lorries collecting the apples for sale at the other by the road. But as the farmer dug up and replanted orchards on the other side of the wood that butts up to the site, he no longer needed a large packing station here. He sold it in 2010.
‘That became quite important,’ explains Puncher. ‘In arguing that the agricultural use was redundant [the former orchard fields were bought by a neighbour to protect his view], we won planning permission for a house – but only if it kept a B1 business-use element.’
As well as containing residential spread, the council wanted to keep an element of community business on the semi-industrial site. At first planning permission was obtained for a house with an adjoining series of maker spaces to let out to local craftspeople and artists, but then the client changed and the brief became about wellbeing and studio spaces to bring in customers rather than tenants – for the new owner’s yoga classes and her husband’s film studio where he sometimes brings his assistants. The building also became one huge unit, rather than several smaller ones.
As expected, the structure itself had to remain largely the same on the outside, with planning restrictions extended to the garden too – one side has permission for a small orchard, the other must remain utilitarian in look and cannot be planted with flowers and shrubs. The structural frame was retained, along with the two brick elevations, while the corrugated asbestos roof and wall profiling has been replaced with a similar contemporary product made of aluminium.
Outside, the roof follows the form of the original building with even the ventilation chimneys remade. The only substantive changes have been to fill in the single storey porch that had previously stored pallets, the painting of the red brick walls grey and the insertion of new large spans of glazing – some at either end where the barn doors would have been, and others newly punched in to create picture windows and let in light.
Inside, there is a restrained palette of materials, partly because the building is so big. There wasn’t the budget for anything fancy; instead it’s painted white plaster walls, concrete floors downstairs, grey carpet upstairs and plywood for the doors, fitted furniture, stair and children’s slide. With the main structure left intact but repaired in places, the plan also follows the basic outline of what was there before, with the rhythm of bottom chords in the lightweight structural steelwork providing new natural boundaries between rooms. Two cold stores remain for more cellular spaces (garage and hallway), while one has been broken through between two trusses to create a huge, long kitchen, dining, games and living room crossing the depth of the house.
These new separations are connected by large double sliding doors that can be opened all the way from the pool to the film studio in memory of the former single, linear space of the packing station. A secondary rhythm on this axis is provided by the alternate two-
storey/single-storey ceiling height from the high swimming pool to the low studio.
The clever part of the project is to have done so much for so little. Economies have been made by hiring industrial contractors and using commercial-project processes and products where possible. The glazing systems are commercial, the floor is a new concrete slab polished up and fitted with underfloor heating, the plaster was sprayed onto the walls, as was the paint. The architect even persuaded the winning contractor to use telehandlers in lieu of scaffolding. These initiatives made the project possible, as well as sparing valuable time.
The methods are appropriate to the project, but feel more about getting everything done and in than making it delightful. Very little of what identified it as a former packing station remains – none of the huge metal doors to the cold stores for example. It would have been more interesting architecturally, and less dated in the long-term, to have retained the original rather red brick on the exterior too. For me, it comes down to the super strained budget rather than the architect and, unusually, it strikes you walking around that the project suffers because the client wasn’t able to spend enough to make it really good. At 1,000 m² for £1.1m it’s an incredibly low ratio. The architect has done well to manage. Everything except the pool bar and sauna is there, but in the most basic way possible and that method ultimately feels incongruous with the scale of the building and trappings of luxury it contains – although it shows a budget can go a really long way when tested. In the end, it’s just too big and sparse.
What’s my business in that? Well, Puncher summed it up himself in two ways. The first is that when the owner comes to sell, it will probably apply for planning permission to remove the B1 use clause and make it fully residential, thereby losing those initially cherished and no doubt hard-won by the council benefits for the community and the idea of a working landscape. The second is by thinking about what could have been here. The average UK home is 80m². You could fit 12 of those in here with room to spare. The architect’s skills and approach would have worked exceptionally well for that but that’s 12 we’ll have to find space for elsewhere – again. Still, Puncher seemed to acknowledge that, and suggested that a better building could be achieved by the clients if they didn’t try to do it all at once. But they refused. There’s always next time – and for pH+ perhaps this emerging typology could be extended to that other orchard of England – Herefordshire – too.
Architect pH+ Architects
Client Private client
Landscape architect pH+ Architects
Planning consultant Judith Norris
Structural engineer R&J Structural Solutions
Main contractor BCS Builders
Joinery BCS Builders
Kitchen and utility joinery Blackledge Cabinets and Furniture
Swimming pool XL Pools
Cladding Kingspan Glazing Leay