De Beauvoir Block
- Original design
- Henley Halebrown, 2017
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
The 19th Century neighbourhood of De Beauvoir Town in Hackney was largely open country until the 1820s when, following the cutting and opening of the Regent’s Canal, the developer and brick maker William Rhodes secured a land lease from Peter de Beauvoir. The proposed urban design envisaged four squares, and a distinct pattern of diagonal streets converging on a central octagon. However, this plan was not fully realised when the land reverted to the de Beauvoir family. The original scheme was downscaled and terraces of semi-detached villas with generous gardens built. Whilst the majority of the estate was residential, wharf buildings were constructed along the canal and around the Kingsland Basin. Just the now-listed Jacobean style De Beauvoir Square was constructed. This historic square, with its paired villas and steep gables, designed by the architect W. C. Lockner, is unusual in the otherwise Neo-Georgian setting. The terrace on De Beauvoir Road - now the “Block” – was developed in the back gardens of the De Beauvoir Square houses. De Beauvoir Town became a Conservation Area in 1969.
The terrace of industrial buildings - now the “Block” - was originally developed at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The scheme, designed for The Benyon Estate, reshapes these to form a central yard and establishes an intentional working community where congregation, chance encounter and meetings, and collaboration are the norm. A new building completes the courtyard, and a new roofscape of timber structures wrapped in EPDM rubber added. The design combines careful restoration with new construction. The approach to both new and refurbished workspace makes robust interiors linked to generous outdoor space. The architecture seeks to support this new working community, and to create sustainable interiors, that open up to the courtyard, decks and terraces, and views of the City. Our low-tech building techniques indicate how elementary the construction of an office might be.
The Block establishes a four-tier “habitat” of workspace enabling businesses to be seeded and grow within the development with tenure from a month to 10 years. The four are: membership of a co-working café, incubator co-workspace, 300sq.ft. rooftop studios and larger units up to 2,500sq.ft. This emerged as a result of a collaboration between client and architect. The potential to differentiate space led to this more innovative commercial model.
‘The finish and end product at De Beauvoir Block helped secure full occupancy of the office spaces within a month of opening. All 33 available office spaces have been taken with memberships and desk space becoming more and more popular. The attention to detail has proved a huge selling point and is one of the main reasons the Block is receiving such high praise.’ The Benyon Estate
De Beauvoir Block demonstrates that there is much to be learnt about durability, comfort and character from older buildings.
That much of the nation’s building stock is condemned to early obsolescence and demolition is hugely wasteful. And, when refurbishment is considered it is conventionally treated as the lesser option to new build, especially by government. Conservation and adaptation require much more than just the repair of fabric, and replacement of services to improve performance. Refurbishment offers the opportunity to reconsider and remake a building and to recognise what is of value.
The Benyon Estate has some 300 properties, all in the same ownership since the mid-Nineteenth Century. Employment on the estate is limited so demand for small-scale studios is high. In this context, the Benyon Estate commissioned the practice to investigate the possibility of providing additional workspace at 90-100 De Beauvoir Road.
The calm repetitive street facade on De Beauvoir Road concealed a morass of buildings and interiors, with no evident figure. From this a yard was carved to create a concentric plan that would make sense as something to be shared – a common point of arrival, of convergence and congregation. Around this the various brick structures are treated as a feature in the wider de Beauvoir landscape - a mesa-top - on which to plan and build a settlement of smaller structures.
The existing fabric remains largely intact. The pink hue of the fletton brick walls is repeated in a similarly coloured concrete mat and the brickwork borders to the floor of the yard. The north end of the space is framed by a deck on first and second floors, each bearing on a steel beam, the pair supported by a single central column. Around the perimeter of the yard, new brick piers have been added, lintels repaired and repainted, and new glazed screens introduced.
The new elements take various forms. To the rear of 92 De Beauvoir Road a two-storey three-bay structure completes the southeast corner of the yard. A single storey steel structure supports an upper storey of engineered timber, shaped to make three truncated pyramids sheathed in black EPDM rubber. The upper storey is served by a deck. The façade to the yard glazed. The new rear wall, in effect a new garden wall, is exposed and painted.
On the street, the pitched roof of 92 has been removed and a new attic storey added. This takes the form of a colonnade of precast white concrete, the rhythm matching that of the brick piers below. Behind this loggia a full height glazed screen runs the width of the new office space. In due course a similar addition will be constructed above 98.
The rooftop settlement is, like the upper storey of the new structure to rear of 92, made with timber. For cost reasons, we reverted to a studwork structure encased in plywood. The spaces created, offer a counterpoint to the original late-Victorian industrial interiors. Space is domestic in scale, daylit, and naturally ventilated, distinguished by its toplit attic volume, exposed rafters and plywood linings, each room with a picture window to the city. In some instances rooms connect, further character derived from the enfilade.
Seen from the street, the rooftop buildings conjoin to create a benign wall. From within the Block the peaked roofs juxtapose to create a picturesque skyline in between which decks and terraces thread, open to the sky. Close-up, the finely textured flat matt black surfaces of the EPDM, with their almost imperceptible welded joints, couldn’t be more different than the brickwork below. The only real evidence of any detail is in the steel sections used to stop the rubber surfaces around the doors and windows.