The Foundry, ­London

An appropriately modest budget produced an award-winning stripped down aesthetic at this workspace for social justice organisations

The new structure wraps around the re-clad existing one.
The new structure wraps around the re-clad existing one. · Credit: Rory Gardiner

Workplace interiors don’t come much more stripped down than The Foundry, the social justice hub designed by Architecture 00 in Vauxhall, London. With a materials palette of MDF, plywood, buffed concrete and recycled carpet tiles, it’s definitely one of the more spartan winners of the RIBA Awards, where it picked up London Building of the Year.  Frugal yes – the £5.2m remodelling and extension came in at £1050/m2 – but generous in terms of what it brings to its tenants. Here, the whole really is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Architecture 00 was commissioned to create a 2,900m2 workspace for organisations engaged in promoting social justice and human rights out of a century-old, former shoe polish factory. Its brick-fronted original was a utilitarian three-storey building with an accretion of subsidiary structures. The key strategy was to clear away the smaller structures and enlarge the main building by adding an 1800mm2-deep concrete-framed extension across the front. This contains the reception, café, and circulation spaces as well as a ground floor conference room, upper level office space and roof terraces. There are more offices at the back within the original building.

The flexible design facilitates the Foundry’s emphasis on tenant interaction and its community-oriented values. The idea is that while each tenant may occupy a relatively small area, the whole building is their office; they have access to communal areas such as the ground floor seating area, soon-to-open café, and the accompanying touchdown working spaces, to encourage communication between organisations.

Interaction is also facilitated by the prominence of circulation routes, such as the main staircase, and through views down into the ground floor reception/café and across the atrium. At the rear of the reception, where the extension joins the elevation of the existing building, glass was removed from the original windows to give clear views into the different workspaces. This approach also creates a background acoustic buzz. Visually, floor to ceiling glazing onto the individual front units and the ground floor reception provide views of activity to further animate the building.

The café will be open to anyone, not just tenants, which, hopes architect Lynton Pepper, will facilitate a ‘tacit’ understanding of the work that goes on in the building and how its various organisations might be able to help.  Separate external access to the terraces enables organised community use at the weekend.

The internal atrium space concentrates on emphasising relationships of new to old rather than high specification.
The internal atrium space concentrates on emphasising relationships of new to old rather than high specification. · Credit: Rory Gardiner

Flexibility was a priority. ‘We don’t know what the building will be in 50 years’ time – it was a polish factory for only 20 years – so you have to build something strong and adaptable,’ says Pepper. Internal office spaces can be reconfigured and lighting is designed on a grid that can easily be changed to suit changing office areas.  A downstairs unit to the left of reception is designed with its own street access so that it can be used – if required – as a retail unit. To the right, there is separate access to another unit with potential for use as a crèche.

Reception furniture from pigeon-holes to desk is on castors so it can easily be moved or configured into a large table for communal events.

The interior aesthetic is driven both by the emphasis on flexibility and the tight budget.

‘It’s white, spartan and robust – we didn’t want our building to interfere with the tenants’ personalities,’ says Pepper, adding that the interior is very much a background to the things it is enabling, with a feeling of permanence and utility much like a factory building.

At ground level, the concrete floor and exposed soffits combine with the white-painted brick of the original building on the rear reception wall. Visual warmth is added by an MDF and plywood staircase. Upstairs, budget constraints precluded the proposed wooden flooring. Instead, Architecture 00 sourced ­ultra-cheap recycled carpet tiles. Reception tables made from CNC-cut plywood were ­designed by the architect as a budget alternative to catalogue furniture. The only interior embellishments are inspirational quotes stencilled onto concrete surfaces.

The overall effect meets the desire of both architect and client to avoid a corporate workplace atmosphere. As Pepper says: ‘It’s not flash… it’s a bit of a gem.’