Two residential buildings in brick and precast concrete reflect their varied constructional context
Separated by a short walk along Well Street, two enjoyably idiosyncratic apartment buildings designed by Henley Halebrown for Hackney Council make a pair of non-identical twins. They assume quite different forms, but share a muscular material character: crisp volumes of red brick are overlaid with a heavy carapace of decks and balconies in reddish precast concrete. This combination of frames and walls responds to the particularities of place. Both buildings sit on the southern fringe of the post-war Frampton Park Estate, whose loose grid of slim brick blocks frames a generous green landscape but makes a weak edge to Well Street, in contrast to the 19th century houses across the road. ‘Part of the ambition of the project was to reconcile those conditions’, says architect Simon Henley. ‘The buildings’ outward appearance marries two constructional traditions: what happened in the 20th century, and what went before’.
The first building, providing 20 homes for social rent and shared ownership, is on a narrow strip of land aligning Well Street, which previously contained a pub. Behind was an open court bounded on three sides by existing blocks. To reflect the rhythm of the Victorian semis opposite, Henley Halebrown arranged the new homes as a row of three individual buildings, known as Taylor Court and Chatto Court. Passages between them preserve routes and views from Well Street into the newly enclosed courtyard.
Henley Halebrown refers to these five-storey buildings as ‘villas’, and has made successful efforts to suggest a domestic scale. Bulk is broken down by creasing the facades, producing a faceted building line and animating oblique views. Manipulation of the building forms also enlarges the public realm to the front, and makes an inviting space out of the passage to the courtyard.
Two-storey maisonettes on the ground and first floors put doors on the street, which are tied together by a pink ribbon of fluted concrete. Above, there are lateral apartments on the second floor, and more duplexes on levels three and four. It’s a neat arrangement that provides a range of flat sizes and efficient circulation. Common stairs only need to rise to the fourth floor, and where possible the circulation is taken outside, using access decks that mingle with private balconies overlooking the well-used courtyard.
Open-air bridges between two buildings allow them to share a single core, and created the opportunity for one of the project’s most distinctive features – a half-arch spanning two villas that appears to support the lower bridge (although its structural redundancy is made clear by exposing the concrete soffit). The bridge also shelters an entrance below, and the form of the arch is completed by the curved plaster lining of the lobby.
The bridge-arch illustrates Henley’s view that within the economic constraints of housing design, external circulation offers a significant opportunity to add architectural value. ‘When you reduce the enclosed volume and increase the amount of outside space, money moves around in a way that is often to our advantage’, he says. ‘It is spent not on building corridors that have no qualities, but on facades that do.’
The use of external circulation to make a deep perimeter for buildings – an inhabited wall – has been a recurrent feature of the architect’s work for more than 20 years, and Henley is evangelistic about the potential of such ‘liminal space’. Decks animate the facade, and foster social interactions and community feeling, he suggests. They also orient residents outward, towards the city and nature. At Taylor Court and Chatto Court, the precast frames that form both access decks and balconies relate to specific green spaces on the building’s north, east and west sides. The intimate scale and material weight of the loggias feels protective and dignified.
At Henley Halebrown’s second building on the estate, Wilmott Court, the exoskeleton of pink precast concrete provides balconies rather than circulation. Here, the architect has replaced a small block of six flats on a large island site with a ‘palazzo’ that occupies the whole plot, and provides 25 flats for shared ownership and private sale. The wedge-shaped building is encircled by bands of concrete that vary in depth. On the west side, facing a quiet back street, the frame appears as a projecting string course supporting Juliet balconies; on the north, it sits flush with the brickwork; and on the south and east elevations, facing the busier Well Street, it widens to form loggias.
The plan is arranged around a central hall – a pear-shaped triple-height space with a grand stair curving upward around its edge, and a large circular rooflight overhead. Flats on the first three floors are accessed via lobbies off the landings, and are mostly dual aspect. From the second floor, a smaller staircase rises to an outdoor courtyard located above the hall. This secluded, metal-lined terrace makes a shared entrance for eight two-storey maisonettes.
Splitting the circulation between the hall and terrace allows each space to be smaller than one might expect given the building’s size, and contributes to the sense that each home is unique. That is reinforced by subtle changes in the facade design across the elevations and from floor to floor: as the building rises and the need for privacy is reduced, for example, the depth of the flat steel balustrades decreases.
In the detailing of facades, the architect has consciously attempted to recover a constructional legibility that Henley suggests has been lost over the last half-century, as the handmade and substantial walls of vernacular architecture gave way to multi-layered building envelopes, which divorced appearance from performance. At Taylor, Chatto and Wilmott Courts, the technical and perceptible parts of the wall are divided between two separate structures. The ‘warm’ inner layers are supported by the building’s hidden in-situ cast concrete frame, while the brickwork bears on the ‘cold’ external precast frames.
The precast frames are nicely expressive and varied too. At Wilmott Court, columns are triangular to avoid a shadowed inner facade. At Chatto Court they become more slender as the building rises. Open frames contrast with walls enclosing cellular interior spaces, whose monolithic character is enhanced by punched windows with minimal sills, and by laying small Belgian bricks in a ‘wild’ bond, with non-aligned perpends, and tinting the mortar to match the masonry. ‘The facades and liminal space immediately adjacent to them establish a dialectic between two types of space and two forms of construction’, says Henley.
Many themes developed in the facades are carried over into the design of common parts inside the buildings. At Taylor Court, the concrete walls are clearly handmade, and one can see how the bits came together, with precast stairs keying into in-situ concrete landings. Slight variations on a theme are provided by concrete columns and bespoke concrete floor tiles. The stairwell is warmed by toplight, and by accents of oak that include handrails and chunky door and window frames.
As with the careful expression of the loadbearing brick in the facades, it might be fanciful to imagine that many visitors will ‘read’ the assembly of stair components in a literal sense, but constructional principles have imbued the buildings with a feeling of solidity and a richness of detail that are clearly evident. In a sector where the intersection of standards and regulation with budget and market expectations drives an ever greater uniformity of fabric and space, Henley Halebrown’s Hackney projects show how to make housing that is crafted, particular and ennobling.
Client London Borough of Hackney
Architect Henley Halebrown
Structural and services engineers Stantec, WBD Group, Peter Deer & Associates
Cost consultant Pellings
Landscape architects Townshend Landscape Architects, FarrerHuxley