Under-utilised garages along the busy A12 in East London have been transformed into custom-designed workshops, studios and a manufacturing unit for local fashion businesses, training and community makers.
Designed by architects Adams & Sutherland and delivered by Poplar HARCA alongside London College of Fashion and social enterprise, The Trampery, Poplar Works sees 100 under-utilised and disused garages across two sites in the Aberfeldy and Teviot neighbourhoods, repurposed into 45 custom-designed, low-cost workshops and studios, a public café and events space, and manufacturing facilities offering enterprise support and training programmes.
The project has been supported by the Mayor’s Good Growth Fund - a landmark regeneration initiative that supports growth and community development in the capital, and part of the London Economic Action Partnership.
Poplar Works was conceived to ‘bring back’ fashion to East London, which once made up a substantial part of its economy and culture, and represents how an area undergoing significant change can be supported, through industry-focused partnerships that create access to skilled jobs, training and enterprise opportunities for local communities. It is also a significant part of the Lower Lea Valley’s regeneration story, with thousands of new homes being built in the area over the next decade.
The result is distinctive and characterful and is a testament to the skills of the architects and a forward thinking, collaborative client team.
The refurbished garages accommodate ground-floor units with a new upper storey constructed in cross-laminated timber (CLT), its weight equivalent to the accumulated soil, trees and shrubbery removed from the roofs of the original garages.
The building is 170m long and 5.5m wide, its cranked plan arranged in a dynamic zigzag, running alongside the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. Black rubber cladding provides the finish to both the highly insulated elevation facing the A12 and to the roof surface. On other façades, timber cladding, stained in shades of red and orange is intended to give the scheme a warm, legible identity. Saw-tooth rooflights are designed to provide a distinctive and industrial character to the whole development.
The north end of the building rises in height to form an entrance element, which accommodates a café and first-floor gallery overlooking a 9m-high interior space. Horizontal circulation is external, by way of the street at ground floor and an external steel walkway at first-floor level. Timber over-cladding is used to provide a degree of privacy between local residents and studio users.
On the ground floor, accommodation is characterised by an industrial language of painted steel structure and existing blockwork walls, with surface-mounted services throughout. On the first floor, CLT panels are left exposed, designed to provide a warm and low-maintenance interior aesthetic. Units are lit by translucent polycarbonate panels to preserve privacy.
These were challenging sites; 100 under-used garages located on two narrow strips of land adjacent to the busy A12, with vigorous wild planting having established itself on the rooftop embankment. Parallel to the A12, the relatively quiet Abbott Road, which formed the main site, was run down and vulnerable to antisocial activity. A Thames Water sewer below the entire length of this site ruled out new groundworks, but this fitted with the sustainability ambitions.
The project was an opportunity to create something positive, functional and sustainable, bringing new area character and considerable regeneration value.
The new workspaces range from low-cost workshops, to small studios, and larger business units, supported by a public café and events space, a manufacturing facility and an education space. The manufacturing unit is located in the middle of the long building, appropriate to its place at the heart of fashion design and production. By following the linear footprint of the garages, the building makes use of existing foundations, cross-walls and retaining walls to minimise new concrete substructure and landfill waste.
The roofline is emphasised at night by a single running stitch of light along the length of the eaves. The elevation to Abbott Road, on the other hand, will become an active street frontage of business and creative industry, with coloured timber boarding and graphics for animation, warmth and legibility.
The project required an approach that was economic, efficient to build and straightforward in its procurement and delivery and so the strategy was to create a limited palette of materials which were robust, economic yet good quality, and with limited numbers of secondary products or applied finishes.
The elevation to Abbott Road provides access to all parts of the building, business and studio units, the larger spaces of garment manufacturing, and teaching space, and importantly the main building entrance at the café/reception. The continuous first-floor walkway sits outside the thermal envelope but is sheltered, with few large openings. The warm envelope is a panelled construction combining stained timber cladding, polycarbonate cladding, clear aluminium-framed windows, black-stained timber boarding, painted timber doors, black rubber to roof and areas of elevation.
Transmission of daylight is an important factor across all parts of the building and translucent polycarbonate panels have been used to provide each business unit with as much daylight as possible without compromising security or privacy. The glow of this material at night, when the spaces are in use after dark during winter and at busy times of the year, will be a positive addition to the street environment.
Black EPDM rubber membrane was applied to the roof and roadside elevation. This economic and sustainable material creates a more simplified building appearance, reducing the number of complex material junctions and eliminating secondary rainwater goods.
Colour is deployed across this elevation, based on red for its industrial associations and strong spatial quality with tonal variations towards orange. As well as being highly visible and legible, red brings a sense of warmth. It is a colour familiar to light industrial buildings and is perhaps most resonant for association with material colours, brickwork, terracotta, primed steel, timber etc. Colour is applied in a translucent stain, allowing timber grain to remain visible.
Across the A12 along Teviot Street, a further 40 garages and former boiler-house have undergone a simpler makeover to provide a series of low-cost makery spaces.
Elizabeth Adams, director at Adams & Sutherland Architects, said:
“This project was an opportunity to engage with a broad sustainability agenda which includes limited demolition of existing buildings, reduced use of concrete by re-using existing building foundations, and the use of innovative and sustainable materials, including cross laminated timber panels, rubber and timber cladding. We are proud to have played a key role in the creation of an industry resource that also provides amenity and services to the local community, introduces sustainable activity and neighbourhood cohesion through provision of facilities, and activates previously unused space.”
Blossom Young, Head of Operations at Poplar HARCA, said:
“Adams & Sutherland were appointed as architects and to lead the full design team to deliver this unique and exciting scheme for Poplar HARCA and its partners, London College of Fashion, UAL and The Trampery, supported by the Mayor of London.
Poplar Works was a challenging scheme from the outset – a broad stakeholder partnership, keen resident interest, the complex nature of the site.
Adams & Sutherland navigated this complexity incredibly well from the outset. They actively engaged both the client and wider stakeholder partnership in the design process, understanding the needs of end users and incorporating specific requirements into the design. They maintained excellent relationships with stakeholders to secure wider buy in to the overall project.
Understanding Poplar HARCA’s need for genuine participation of local residents in the process they led design workshops with the community, producing models and visual descriptions helpful to lay eyes to enable their contribution to design development.
Their leadership showed us what was possible. Our early thoughts about the scheme at initial concept stage are far from where we have ended up, and the scheme is immeasurably richer as a result of their involvement.
Adams & Sutherland’s striking design and innovative materials use, such as the focus on a lightweight cross laminate timber structure and use of the rubber façade, demonstrated a strong understanding of the site complexity, the significant budget constraints and the importance of a building that could influence the tone for the wider regeneration of the area, which is about to undergo seismic change.
There was a real focus on sustainability in the design, both in materials selection, energy efficiencies and planned re-use of existing site materials – for example site demolition products and timber offcuts are being used in neighbouring community environmental sustainability projects and gardens neighbouring the site.
Once the construction contractor, Niblock Building Contractors, was appointed, Adams & Sutherland provided excellent design coordination and worked well with the construction team around buildability to ensure the strong architectural vision for the scheme was fully realised, with a finished product that has exceeded all our expectations.
As well as the larger scale thinking, it’s the small details that as a client we sometimes don’t notice but which round out the excellent design. As an example, it was only until staircases had been constructed that I realised the level of design detail that had gone into this. Our Clerk of Works called the stairs a work of art.
Poplar Works is a striking, bold, warm building which now provides a home for local fashion businesses, LCF students, training for local women in fashion and textiles production and community makers. For Poplar HARCA, the project has been a major success, bringing to life a rundown area, providing enterprise, skills and employment opportunities for the local and wider community, and making a bold statement for the future regeneration of the area. The design is a vital part of setting the tone for the building as it enters its living phase.”