Best in show

Words:
Isabelle Priest

A long-term collaboration on the upgrade of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home means it can promise its animals much better care – and rehomed futures

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Credit: Hufton+Crow

Nine Elms is closing in on Battersea Dogs and Cats Home (BDCH) in south London. Standing in the middle of the four acre site, it is a low rise island trapped in a rising inferno of modern development. As a passenger passing by on the train, you wonder how it manages to stay on its split site between the railway tracks behind Battersea Power Station, where it has been for 147 years, and how it resists the temptation to accept a huge sum of money and move. 

‘I have been invited to countless lunches by developers trying to get us to move out,’ says CEO Claire Horton. ‘The organisation is very clear that this is very desirable real estate. We have had multiple offers to buy, but as our name tells us, we have to be located in the capital. And we own the land.’

Nevertheless, BDCH does have two small sites outside London and has costed – and rejected – the option two or three times.

‘An alternative was a trading estate, but no one would have known we were there and employees would have left. You cannot pick up an operation this big and move it easily somewhere else. Twenty-two animals arrive each day – that’s about 150 a week.’

These reasons – and the fact that other organisations depend on this place – have convinced it to stay, knowing that it is in a comfortable position where it could make a lot of money – but it would cost a lot too.

Claire Horton, CEO, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
Claire Horton, CEO, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

BDCH’s commitment to staying has been embedded in a series of estate redevelopment projects that will have touched every corner of the site by the end of this decade. It secures the organisation to the site for the next 30-40 years. In the last six years alone Battersea has built a new cattery, entrance gatehouse and rehoming reception, a new 170m single-­storey intake kennel block, clinic kennels and combined veterinary hospital and head office administration building – the latter three ­designed by Jonathan Clark Architects. 

Due to start on site in the next few months is the transformation of seven railway arches into a new café, indoor paddock and hydrotherapy centre. The 1907 cattery designed by Portmeirion architect Clough Williams-Ellis will be turned into a heritage space and the rehoming kennels will be overhauled too.

Walking around the site with the architect and client, a very respectful and supportive relationship between the two is apparent. The PR wanted them both to be here and it is clear why – the rebuilding project has nurtured both organisations. The relationship doesn’t feel transactional. It makes sense to learn that the projects have not been commissioned through the usual channels – JCA turned up to do a job at BDCH’s Windsor site, flipped onto a Battersea project and stayed for three projects more. The architect is putting a new 1000m² intake kennels building through planning again for Windsor, but can expect to be considered for the redevelopment of the rehoming building in the next couple of years. 

It’s a long-term type of client-architect relationship that many would argue leads to questionable results. There are hints of that here with the grey plinth to the blue building which lacks context and the unrefined concrete elevation to the intake kennels, but altogether it feels like the relationship/work has been about weathering the storm of disruption that its enviable location and the roaring forces of development have thrown at it. It’s eight-storey Veterinary Hospital and Centre of Excellence (above) is a case in point. To build the Northern Line extension next door, TfL issued a compulsory purchase order on the site, but after much discussion BDCH persuaded it to supply more than two-thirds of the £18m price of this new building in order to tunnel beneath the site. Not only did it fend off the CPO, it benefited from the agreement.

 
  • The intake kennel block with the blue Veterinary Hospital and Centre of Excellence building behind.
    The intake kennel block with the blue Veterinary Hospital and Centre of Excellence building behind. Credit: Hufton+Crow
  • One of the surgery recovery rooms in the new veterinary hospital.
    One of the surgery recovery rooms in the new veterinary hospital. Credit: Hufton+Crow
  • Credit: Hufton+Crow
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Could that extraordinary turnaround have happened without a trusted architect which already knew the site to call on in an emergency? It seems doubtful – if for only to supply the extra heads needed to problem solve and draw up alternatives very quickly. 

‘Jonathan’s team has done more than design buildings,’ says Horton. ‘It has been part of all these challenges. The latest building evolved into something more than expected.

The TfL situation made us think differently. Dealing with that grew into an effort to future-proof the organisation and site as a whole – to develop services as a way to teach others.’

In the case of recent and forthcoming developments, the primary aim is to improve facilities and animal welfare, to continue to be a world-leading, physical example of how to rescue and rehome animals well. A major change was to implement the seemingly contradictory idea that BDCH could rehome greater numbers of animals by reducing the intake and amount on site at any time.

‘In 2010 BDCH was a sleeping giant,’ says Horton. ‘It was a phenomenal organisation on a fantastic site but with facilities that needed upgrading. But it had reserves it could spend. The cattery had just been completed and was critical in proving that rehoming could be quicker and more sustainable if facilities were improved, welfare prioritised and capacity reduced. Rehoming rose by more than 40% almost overnight. It showed that rebuilding the rest of the site was the right thing to do.’

Credit: Hufton+Crow

So part of the work has been about consolidation to enable improved animal welfare. The whole site can hold up to 600 animals at full capacity but on a normal day it would have 400. Just 15 years ago there would have been 500 dogs at any one time and 20 years ago 40-50 dogs went through the door each day. Other parts have been more technical: the design of kennels for animals; infection control, outdoor space, single storey buildings, underfloor heating, floors that drain the right way, one-way glass not bars, music, and non-facing kennels. Then hot water taps for washing down and dog-safe offices, even low-level windows.

When Jonathan Clark Architects took on the Windsor job, it hadn’t designed for animal welfare before and had no idea about the sites and processes, but it was open to understanding the client’s need. It took the job as a JCT Construction Management contract, because the finer ‘detailing of technical elements was too important for design and build’.

It is fascinating how the animal journey interacts with customer and staff journeys

Beyond that, the brief was for a clean and efficient architecture: ‘We did want it to be a statement building too,’ explains Horton. ‘That’s why it has the Battersea blue ceramic tiles. But we had to be careful with money and create clear messaging. The pressures on the site demanded something important. It had to be completed cheaply and on time to meet TfL’s strict schedule too. As a national charity we negotiated many things for free.’

While JCA is ‘safe for some time’, that’s not to say BDCH doesn’t recognise the importance of moving on when necessary. Each new CEO and head of estate questions the existing architect. Horton insists: ‘We are never so wedded to an architect that we wouldn’t change. It has to be ethically managed.’

For architects, the partnership between Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Jonathan Clark Architects raises questions about both the potential lifespan of an architect/client relationship, and the value of a long-lasting one – especially where in-depth technical knowledge is slow to acquire and difficult to brief.

‘We don’t want to spend our time rebriefing architects,’ summarises Horton. And with this client it’s crucial to remember, but easy to forget, that ‘BDCH doesn’t want to be a builder’ either. It wants the site done in the next five years so it can continue doing its job and help other organisations do theirs, including as a show piece on how to design for the best possible animal welfare.

What the BDCH team has learned about procuring buildings is that it is important to get the right person, who shares values and works as a team. There’s no room for egos.

‘The architecture isn’t about styles and creating a legacy for an architect, but about the users. We have to work closely and honestly; self-promotion suspended,’ says Horton.


 

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