Community facilities and housing scheme in Somers Town is a regenerative, transformative intervention that brings much needed homes and active space to an overcrowded corner of inner London
‘Somers Town is an outdoor museum of social housing,’ explains architect Adam Khan architect of the Stirling Prize shortlisted Central Somers Town Community Facilities and Housing. ‘The area hasn’t gentrified. It’s mixed, with lots of children. It suffers from overcrowding; not enough balconies and outdoor space for the many flats. People don’t want to let their kids play on the street. In the 1920s, the area was a focus for Jeffrey Jellicoe – a missionary priest, reformer and a pub landlord – who set up here to pioneer social housing. He coined the phrase: “Housing is not enough. You need social infrastructure”.’
Jellicoe’s work expanded into all fields – including rooftop playgrounds for nursery schools and artwork for housing projects. This approach or motto has also been a driving force behind Khan’s project Central Somers Town Community Facility and Housing. It is the practice’s second scheme in the area, which comprises the often-forgotten block of streets between St Pancras and Euston stations to the east and west, Euston Road to the south and Camden to the north. It’s densely populated, yet can be eerily quiet at times for such an inner London location.
Khan’s first project in Somers Town was the New Horizon Youth Centre, a dramatic copper roofed gem-like building that completed in 2012 and is attached to one of the original London County Council housing schemes, the Ossulston Estate along Chalton Street. Central Somers Town Community Facilities and Housing, however, is a bold and comprehensive set of standalone buildings.
It includes a redesigned children’s adventure play centre called Plot 10 that has been running in since the 1970s, a social enterprise facility and 10 apartments for social rent. It is part of the London Borough of Camden’s regeneration programme to revitalise and refocus the centre of the district to improve wellbeing, quality of life, inequalities, safety and housing provision.
A guiding principle for the masterplan was to lose no open space. The community facility and housing sit on the side of the Plot 10 adventure playground, along the northern edge of a green public square, which it shares with Hayhurst and Co’s Edith Neville Primary School (also a RIBA National Award winner) on the eastern side.
This elevation on the park displays the site’s various programmes. To its west is a small footprint six storey housing tower that helped fund the whole redevelopment. It has two apartments per floor, each triple aspect with one view to the front park, side and back, meeting the council’s higher required levels of daylight. Balconies on the first three floors of apartments are recessed for privacy, whereas those on the upper two floors project generously into the tree canopy and are square, shaped like a room so that a table and chairs can be put out there.
At the ground floor, spilling into the void beside the tower, is the social enterprise space. This was originally designed for a nursery, but is occupied by Scene & Heard, a professional theatre company and dramatic arts charity for local children. Next to this is Plot 10’s building – a formidable upgrade from the log cabin it previously inhabited on the site.
Inside is a huge flexible concrete shell. The interior is palatial; tall ceilings giving a civic quality, even though the building is for little people, between the ages of four and 11 (up to 70 of them). A handful of separate rooms are made of robust Douglas fir partitions, which can easily be adapted over time.
On the roof of this is the football pitch, an essential part of the Plot 10 brief. The children wanted it, but it is also a vital source of income as it is let out to the community for parties and sports. Back at ground level, the playroom opens into Plot 10’s new adventure playground with sandpits, bark-style flooring, and a huge climbing structure with slides that are accessible from the lift in the main building so that they are available to all. The idea is for children to explore independent and social play.
All along the frontage the building interacts with the area and street. Its red glazing frames recall the nearby British Library. Arched doorways and windows at ground level act like shop windows for display – showing outfits used by the theatre charity, or art and work made by the children that attend Plot 10. These frontages are deep, with internal blinds for privacy, preventing solar gain and allowing wall depth for insulation. At the upper levels, the frontage is animated by its swooping parapet. Is it a sandcastle, is it an architectural bunting? It is open to interpretation, but whichever way it presents an upbeat and celebratory building, transformative and well-loved by Somers Town.
It is part of a programme to improve wellbeing, quality of life, inequalities, safety and housing provision
It’s Nuts – in a good way
A view from Sally Warren, manager, Plot 10
‘The building looks like a factory. It is built to withstand hard play. It helps empower children. Each day is nuts. Children come here to run around, do arts and crafts, play outside on the adventure playground, do sports, but there are also quiet corners. They get to play with things that they might not have at home – and they get space and time, with staff who are all qualified playworkers. I’ve been working here for 30 years. I first came as a parent of a six-year-old. I saw what the place could do for kids, and I started to help as a volunteer every day for three years. Many of the children who come here wouldn’t mix or know each other outside of Plot 10. The place allows them to develop on an emotional and social level. The children – and adults – take the friends and relationships they make here with them through life. I’ve seen three generations now. It’s a community within a community.’
Predicted on-site renewable energy generation (kWh/yr) 112
Predicted potable water use (Litre per person per day) 6
Actual annual gas usage (kWh/m²/yr) 0
Actual annual electricity usage (kWh/m²/yr) 33
Upfront carbon (KgCO₂eq/m²) 421
RIBA Stage 7 assessment for housing only, RICS modules A1-A5
Contract value Confidential
Architect Adam Khan Architects
Contractor Neilcott Construction
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Environmental / M&E engineer Max Fordham
Landscape architects Jonathan Cook Landscape Architects, LUC Landscape Architects
Sustainability and acoustic engineer Max Fordham
Adventure playground engineer Apes at Play
Graphic design Objectif
Hear the stories behind the buildings from the architects live at Stirling Shortlist talk on 5 October and the winners talk on 9 November.
And coming soon, see inside the buildings in the Stirling Stories online CPD package on RIBA Academy