A competition, two architects, a leading client and an edgy site in east London — that was four years ago. Now Cany Ash of Ash Sakula and Niall McLaughlin are back for an update on their flats for Peabody Trust
After Ash Sakula, won the Silvertown competition, there were a lot of elements in the design we had to fight for. But we said, what’s the point of having a competition and someone winning it if you don’t follow their design? Coming back, I’m really pleased with the way shared ownership buyers Allison and Tim are using the space and exploiting all the corners.
Externally, we wanted to create a coating around a timber cassette system that showed depth and explained its rainscreen cladding qualities. It wouldn’t be a sealed, capped-off system. Over the cassettes, we have Apollo insulating foil and then the final layer is practical, translucent GRP. The panels have a 25-year guarantee and can be replaced very easily unlike most cladding. I think they look really nice with the galvanised window subframes and the pipes coming out.
It’s an open system so as the rain comes through, it deposits leaves and dirt, but the rain also washes things away. There is a build-up of dust and debris, particularly on the front where the corrugated GRP runs horizontally.
It looks OK to me; that’s how we envisaged it would weather. The GRP takes on a kind of greeny, gardeny look, it’s quite a stark contrast to the dichroic, clean blue look of Niall McLaughlin’s project across the road.
Inside, it’s a two-bedroom flat with a separate living room and a larger than normal kitchen, which is lovely. You could have a playpen or a bike or a sofa in here — it could change over time and you could shuffle things around. Kitchens are usually so unifunctional — you have a tiny breakfast bar and then a place to cook.
The builders who built this told me merrily: “Oh yes, we did 100 flats with exactly your kitchen design in Brixton!” So obviously they thought the design worked. Instead of over-worktop units, we stacked two vertically on the wall next to the door. We really like having height over a kitchen worktop, so you don’t feel that you’re cooking in a slot. You can put pictures of your holiday up there, or anything.
One problem I notice is that the handle has come off the door from the kitchen to the garden — the Swedish Window Company should know that’s happened.
I’d love to come back and plant some vines in the garden; you could probably make the garden walls disappear. Allison said they’d had a few barbecues here, which is great.
Some people were surprised you don’t go into the apartments and find disco-coloured interiors.
In the design competition we called the hallway the “sorting zone”. It’s the idea that you can do all your mental work, like bill-paying, and washing and sorting here, and you don’t feel that you’re in a nasty utility space. So in effect you “double use” the hallway. Also, there are no built-in cupboards in the bedrooms, they’re here in the hallway — so you take stuff from the washing and hang it right up.
This hallway cupboard is very deep, it was questioned by Peabody. But everyone in life has camping gear or suitcases or old books, so it’s nice to have a reasonably deep space. When you’re in bed, it’s nice to feel you’re actually in a bedroom and not a storage cupboard.
We also had to fight for these shelf units in the hall. We said it’s nice when people move in that they have somewhere to put things, and they didn’t have to get into buying furniture.
We chose the paint for the woodwork, it’s a kind of Shaker colour. If both the walls and woodwork were white, they’d discolour at different rates. But if you paint the door sets and skirtings this colour, you can leave it 20 years and you don’t notice if it changes. As long as you paint the walls from time to time, it looks fresh.
We conceived the flat as having the living room by your front door, at the opposite end from the kitchen. We called it the “dumbbell” social arrangement. Kids might want to watch something on TV and they don’t want the grown-ups talking, or vice versa. Or you might choose to knock through between the kitchen and the bedroom next to it.
The idea for the living room was to build in couchettes on either side, so it would have bunk beds or you could use it as a home office. We developed special furniture that didn’t get commissioned. There was going to be a polished concrete shelf in front of the window for the TV, then sofas either side. But what’s happening here, with the home office connecting to the living room, is still really great.
The flats look like they were put up yesterday, they’ve still got a newness about them. But there was meant to be a stand of silver birch trees in front of the building, which has completely disappeared! It might have been a maintenance problem. It’s a pity, the trees cast flickering indigo shadows on to the facade and light reflected back off the facade on to the trees. There was a zingy kind of thing going on.
The facade is made from double-glazed panels 100mm in depth. The back of the glass unit is polished aluminium, a reflective surface. The actual stuff is called radiant light film, it’s got dichroic properties. When white light hits the surface, a proportion of light is transmitted and casts a shadow in colour, and a proportion is reflected and makes the surface appear to be that colour. It’s the same principle you get on peacocks’ wings — iridescence.
A lot of buildings have been done with softer timber in London 10 years ago that look pretty crummy now.
We have one kind on the back of the panel, in the blue spectrum, and then the slats suspended in the depth of the panel are in the orange spectrum. Then we flip slats and back panels around — purple-orange-purple, then orange-purple-orange for a subtle colour shift.
The area is called Silvertown after a Victorian chap called John Silver who was importing rubber to make rainware. After the Great Exhibition in 1861, you had a flowering of industry around here: Tate & Lyle made sugar, Bryant & May made matches. So all those chemicals, sugar and light were made around here, and we wanted our building to reflect that. Often industrialised, prefabricated housing has a traditional appearance, but we wanted to give it a really industrial wrapping.
The flats are expressed as four cubes on a podium, so you have this dark grey brick plinth that comes round and forms the stair cores. We decided on quite a flat grey brick that would point up the changeability of the facade.
There’s a little bit of salting where the brick is being used to retain earth in the planters. But on the facade itself, the brick’s looking quite smart. I’m assuming it’s because you have a higher moisture content in the earth, so you get water leaching out. I’d like to have a look at that. But salting tends to go away, it’s transient.
It’s a three-storey building; the line of the floor goes through the middle panel. In a second floor flat you get an upstand of 900mm, and your window is high up. In a first floor flat you get a downstand from the ceiling. We call the corner windows the sugar cubes.
You can’t open the corner windows. Ventilation is via the opening side windows, which most flats have, or via the balcony door to get cross ventilation. An opening window next to the balcony door seemed much too much.
Some people were surprised that you don’t go into the apartments and find disco-coloured interiors, but that was never the idea. The facade was a screen that presents to the exterior, it doesn’t transmit light to the interior.
The council insisted that if we put an unusual facade on the front, we should make the rest of the building out of timber. So we stained the timber down to a very plain grey, because we wanted it to be more abstract.
The stain has held up pretty well. We wouldn’t leave that particular timber unstained on a dense urban site. A lot of buildings have been done with softer timber in central London in the last 10 years that look pretty crummy now. If you’re going to leave timber unstained, you want to look at the air quality on site. When it isn’t guaranteed and you can’t afford the appropriate type of timber, it can look a bit scraggy.
The bedroom windows are on the quieter north side of the building, which is more subdued. It’s quite plain — but if you think about 18th century Georgian terraces, they put their best dress on the street and are low-key round the back. When it comes to harnessing your resources in the project, that seems a reasonable way of doing it.
The interiors are quite straightforward — a large simple living room and kitchen at the front with a large corner window, two bedrooms at the back, and a central bathroom and entrance. One innovation is that we used higher ceiling heights than normal just to give it a more open and flexible feel. We weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel.
When we bought the flat, the fact it was Peabody and shared ownership was a big selling point. It is a totally different design, but it appealed to our personalities. It was lovely to see the faces of our friends and family when they first saw it. The kitchen is big. I’d probably use it as a living space, but my other half wanted the living and the cooking space to be separate. Initially, we thought we wouldn’t have enough storage space because we were used to seeing units over the counter, but you soon get used to it. I wouldn’t put units there now because I like the space.
The other three rooms are the same sort of size, so you could use any room as a bedroom or living room. The small rooms are very easy to heat. You just close the door and it’s really toasty. We often spill out from our living room into the hallway. We have a home office there and when my boyfriend is on the computer, we can still talk because the spaces are so close.
Things like the built-in shelves have been a godsend. We couldn’t really afford to buy extra furniture on top of everything else.
The garden is a good place for a party and we’ve had quite a few, but we don’t really use the communal space. We pay Peabody for the maintenance of the exterior, but they don’t do any- thing! We clean our windows but we don’t clean the out- side. It needs someone to come along with a water jet and hose out the dirt. I think Peabody should do it, or at least tell us who to use.
The kitchen could double as living space.
Three years ago, I was teaching architecture at the University of East London, and found out that I was a keyworker and eligible for shared ownership. We thought the development was cool from the outside. We liked the two decent sized bedrooms, the living space and fantastic floor-to-ceiling heights, and the terrace. It felt quite generous.
It’s got flush skirting – whoever heard of social housing with flush skirting! The doors and door sets are all bespoke. We are architects, so we’re happy in this environment. We like the lino flooring, for example, but other people have put down laminate.
We would have liked a top floor flat, but the windows have quite a high sill and it felt slightly different. In this [first floor] flat, the layout seemed to work better. On the top floor they had a skylight which was nice, but there was basically no window until you got to the far corner, so we decided to go for this.
We like the light — even on a dull day, it’s still quite bright. And we hardly ever put the heating on — perhaps just for a couple of hours in the evening if it’s really cold. I think because it’s timber-framed there isn’t much thermal mass, so it heats up quickly.
There are some slight issues. The paint’s coming off the window frame because it gets cold — it should have been a magnetic paint on the aluminium. And there are no opening windows in this room, so we open the balcony door. It’s quite a large space just to ventilate this way. There is an extractor fan in the kitchen, but it’s not very powerful.
There used to be silver birches here, but we came home one day and they’d all gone! Peabody said they’d died, but they looked fine to us. I’ve been badgering them to put them back because they’re part of the overall design.
Did you see what happened to our neighbour’s glass? They put a film on the lower half of the corner window, then the whole thing shattered. Because they put it right across the middle, you got a stress fracture as the two sides were heating up at different rates. We have the blinds closed a lot, otherwise you’d feel very exposed. It would have been different on the top floor.
An essential part of the ventilation strategy.
For more information on Silvertown, see Product Gallery.
Cany Ash and Niall McLaughlin were talking to Elaine Knutt and Anna Winston.
Photos by Morley von Sternberg.
Original print headline ’Hi ho, Silvertown’
16 February 2012