You can take an architect to water but you can’t make it build a warehouse. PH+ takes a fresh approach to housing
It’s good to come across a fresh idea when it comes to waterside housing, especially canalside housing. Too often you get the pseudo-warehouse aesthetic or just the standard brick-block-with-jutting-balconies. Anyone who walks the London waterways is drearily familiar with these types. Not here in Bow, though, on the Hertford Union Canal that runs along the south-eastern edge of Hackney’s Victoria Park. Here, on a tight triangular site, architect PH+ has opted for a sculpted concertina-wall approach, in red brick rather than the more usual yellowy London stocks or brindled-grey.
It’s a proper local landmark for passers-by – from the park, from the canal towpath or from Old Ford Road behind. The residents have cause to thank Sir George Duckett, the original promoter of this curious one-mile canal which opened in 1830 as a link from the Regent’s Canal to the River Lea. That was at the tail end of the canal-mania era and it was a commercial flop, but it survived as an industrial – and now post-industrial – corridor. Housing is the new industry round these parts, either formally as in this case or informally, given that London’s waterways are now lined with live-aboard boats. Nose to tail, often moored two abreast, obliged to move periodically by the licensing authority but always immediately replaced by others, just such a shape-shifting boater community occupies the towpath side of the canal here as a reminder that not all homes are static and grid-connected.
It’s a compliment to say that the architecture of this new block feels more like that of a bespoke one-off house than the product of a speculative developer – in this case Earth Residential which has an established niche in developing upmarket properties on often ‘difficult’ bits of brownfield land. London property values obviously make a difference but building in this way was relatively complex and carried with it extra expense – for instance a lot of Wienerberger brick specials were needed to keep the clean lines and sharp angles of the design. Working to a traditional JCT contract clearly helped the detailing.
Although there is a very strong overall consistency to the design, it becomes increasingly ‘one-off’ in feel towards its apex where there are relatively few repeated elements. Everything is held together by geometry and uniform materials. The brickwork shrink-wraps itself into every opening. The upper two storeys on the canalside float above a straight-line fully glazed plinth opening up onto broad well-planted canalside terraces: on the roadside elevation the angled masonry continues to the ground, though here the plinth line is expressed by a slight inset in the brickwork. The roadside elevation is also marked by smaller and fewer windows.
As if determinedly to avoid architectural cliché, no great play is made of the apex of the plan. No vertical element here, no Stirling-esque conning tower. Instead the apex ends on a down-zag rather than an uptick, expressed as a narrow solid wall, deliberately not gazing west along the road as it could have done. The oblique views from the two main windows in the angled flank of this house suffice. The gesture of the overall form is enough. In fact ground conditions did not allow for much more at this point, as the building had to pull itself back a little from a large gas main crossing the site there.
This crinkle-crankle form contains three kinds of home. There are three three-storey, three bedroom freehold houses at the western end, while the broader eastern end contains three two-bed duplexes starting at first floor level, and two ground-floor single-bed flats plus a communal hall and bike store for them and the duplexes above. On the canalside elevation the duplexes are marked by double-height recessed balcony apertures missing from the houses, but at a glance as you walk by, the composition reads successfully as one.
This was my first proper building visit – with architects and clients on site – since I just made it to the new student centre in Durham as the country was sliding towards lockdown. For this housing development, the shutdown has meant two things. Sales of the homes had only just started, and came to an abrupt halt with lockdown; and then resumed with a vengeance when lockdown eased, helped no doubt by the market-stimulating stamp duty reductions. Now they are all sold.
And secondly, the street outside has been filtered, with big planters placed in the roadway, so that pedestrians and cyclists – but no longer motor vehicles – have a route through this heavily residential area, instead being diverted a bit further south. This may not become permanent but one does get the sense of an urban rebalancing gathering pace. It wasn’t planned but it certainly helps the environment of these homes which suddenly have two peaceful sides instead of one.
For the duplexes, you take stairs to the first floor kitchen level in the centre of the plan, then down a couple of steps to the taller-ceilinged living area with its inset balcony. There are no huge surprises to the interiors – all very tasteful, pretty spacious and well daylit, done in collaboration with the developer in the modern upmarket manner – except one. From the top floor a final set of stairs takes you up through a sliding glass skylight to a roof terrace, carved out of the shallow pitch of the copper roof, running across the plan. The houses have the same arrangement. It was a conscious architectural decision to use the volume in this way, rather than extend the bedroom roofs upwards.
The spaces up there are quite enclosed, open to the sky and treetops rather than the world of other people. This too is where the angled frontages score as overlooking from the inset balconies is much reduced. However, everything gets much more potentially communal at ground floor level where the canalside terrace runs right along in front of the ground floor flats and the ground floor of the houses, each unit separated not by a fence or railing but by good planting which will develop into native-species hedging: one hopes the residents will buy into this rather than getting in larchlap fencing panels. The planting also provides a degree of privacy from the other side of the canal, and is part of an acknowledgment of the natural world that includes special nesting bricks for birds (including swifts) and bats incorporated into the facades.
It’s a pleasure to come across a small residential market development like this that dares to be a bit different, is intelligently thought through and makes a significant visual contribution to its surroundings. Sir George Duckett would have been astonished.
£2.4m contract cost
£2,867 GIA cost per m2
Traditional contract JCT ICD 2016
Architect pH+ Architects
Client Earth Residential
Structural engineer ADS Consultancy
M&E engineer KUT
Quantity surveyor Newtonwood
Landscape consultant BD Landscape Architects
CDM co-ordinator Peligro
Approved building inspector Salus
Main contractor MD Construction
Facing brickwork Wienerberger Autumn Russet Sovereign Stock
Rooflights Glazing Vision/Box Rooflights
Windows Arkay Windows/various
Metal roofing Aurubis Nordic Brown
CAD software used Vectorworks