Yardhouse is a new affordable workspace building based in Sugarhouse Yard, designed and built by Assemble. It was jointly funded by Assemble and the London Legacy Development Corporation.
The building is seen as a prototype for high quality new-build affordable workspace provision. It is based on utilising interim use sites as an affordable source of land alongside an economic, modular approach to construction. Given the short life-spans of these sites, the building system is designed such that it can be de-mounted and re-assembled elsewhere.
Yardhouse is arranged as a simple 2 storey, 3 aisled structure occupying a square footprint of 12m x 12m with a total internal floor area of 250m2. The side aisles serve as private studio spaces - broken down by the structural frame into sixteen equally sixed 12m2 studio plots. Spaces are provided without partitions, but tenants are free to adapt their space to suit their practice, combining adjacent units or enclosing their space for greater privacy. The central, double height space serves as circulation and communal work area. The main structure is formed with a robust barn-like timber frame enclosed with an off-the-shelf Kingspan insulated cladding system. The elevation facing onto Sugarhouse Yard is treated as its primary frontage and clad in decorative concrete tiles handmade on site.
Through its economic approach to construction, the project provides the generous scale, light quality and ceiling heights appropriate for creative uses at a fraction of the cost of a conventional new build. Constructed for less than £80,000, the project presents extraordinary value for money and guarantees the spaces provided can be affordably let to its end users. The building was fully let prior to completion, oversubscribed with 10 applicants for every space.
The layout and letting of the building reflect an aspiration to create a sociable and collaborative work environment, providing a valuable way for creative practitioners to expand their frame of reference, learn new skills and work with others. The building is provided for designers and artists who engage in hands-on, practical work. It is not seen as a quiet, desk-based work environment but home to a range of messy, noisy, tactile and experimental processes.
Background The site is located in Sugarhouse Yard, 107 High Street, E15 2QQ. It sits within the boundary of the Sugarhouse Lane Conservation Area and forms a part of Sugarhouse Island, a triangular portion of land bounded by Stratford High Street (A11) to the north, the River Lea to the west and the Three Mills Wall River to the east.
Despite its status as a conservation area, the site is undergoing rapid change. Long-standing industrial and business uses are being replaced by a large scale residential-led development. The sugarhouse yard site is in the final phases of this development and so for the next few years it provides an opportunity to undertake a live ‘case study’ demonstrating the particular value of the area’s informal yard spaces and affordable workspace provision such that they can continue to be a valuable and productive part of the site’s future. The project was developed as an annexe to Sugarhouse Studios, a studio and events space managed by Assemble.
Design Principles A sociable work environment - space to give and take The double height central aisle of the building serves both as circulation space and a flexible communal area. Its width allows for tenants to easily manoeuvre materials and large pieces of work in and out of their space, they can use it as an additional work area for larger pieces, and most importantly, it provides a social space for tenants. The design avoids the ‘hotel-like’ cellular and corridored arrangements common among most London studio providers and draws from many of the qualities of shared workspace present in Hackney Wick / Fish Island.
Height & light Floor to ceiling heights are between 3.5-4.5m. These generous proportions allow a good level of even, natural light in all spaces, provide additional headroom for working on larger pieces and offers an opportunity for tenants to maximize their floor area by building mezzanine storage.
Flexibility - Studio plots The building is constructed without internal walls. Each structural bay of the building, measuring 4m x 3m, was treated as a studio ‘plot’, where tenants would be able rent 1,2,3 or 4 adjacent plots to create the studio size of their preference and pay the corresponding square metre rate. This meant the layout and size of the studios could respond directly to demand, reducing the risk of unlet space and offering tenants the opportunity to only pay for as much space as they needed. Studio plots were provided in a basic state with no partition walls or furnishings, leaving it up to the tenant to ‘complete’ the space in an appropriate way for their practice. Allowing tenants to build their own walls had the significant benefit of creating a more affordable end product since tenants are able to build at a cheaper rate than would have been possible for a contractor. Giving tenants some hand in the construction of their space also has considerable benefits for the sense of community in the building, giving a much greater degree of ownership and control.
Adaptability – hierarchy of structure The timber post & beam frame construction allows the building layout to be easily adapted. There are no load-bearing internal walls and tenants can enclose their studio space by fixing lightweight studwork walls to the main structural frame using standard hand tools.
Making use of existing resources The building occupies part of the ground floor slab of a previously demolished warehouse. Based on the fact there is no glass or other brittle finishes in the building, a greater degree of flexibility in the structure was tolerated. This meant the building required no additional foundations, simply bolting to the existing ground floor slab. Additional cost savings were made by re-connecting to disused drainage connections.
Standard sizes The building dimensions are determined by the sizing of readily available building components to minimize onsite cutting and wastage. The 12 x 12m plan utilizes the 1m wide Kingspan cladding panels and the 600mm Tongue & groove flooring sheets with no wastage. The timber columns (8.4m & 7.2m), joists (4.2m) and beams (2.7m) are all uncut standard sizes.
Off the shelf Materials used are low cost and readily available from local retailers, reducing costs and offering a system that can be easily reproduced, repaired or extended. Columns and beams are made from screwing together 3 smaller timber sections side by side so they act as one, larger member. This allowed us to use cheap, readily available timber sizes and avoid the use of expensive Glulam or large solid section. All connections are screwed using off the shelf steel hangers and brackets. The building is clad in Kingspan KS1000RW, the cheapest and most readily available insulated cladding system on the UK market. It is most commonly used for much larger agricultural and industrial buildings, used with a steel portal frame. Standard details and junctions were adapted to suit the timber frame construction and the length of panels was designed around the plant available on site.
Exposed construction The construction methods of the building are left exposed and materials are self-finishing wherever possible, reducing the need for any decorating or finishing work internally. The internal wall finish of the building is formed by the white steel inner leaf of the Kingspan insulated panels. There was no plastering, decorating or painting to any surfaces except where necessary for fire protection (the timber structure), rust protection (handrails) and durability (floor paint). The 225mm deep timber cladding rails are left exposed to provide useful inbuilt shelving in the depth of the frame. They are located at 1.2m centres so as to fit standard sheet material dimensions incase tenants want to box out their wall to provide a different wall finish. All electrical cabling using red fire alarm cable, this allowed all the cable runs to be exposed safely since the cable is protected in an aluminium sleave. This was a cost saving compared to using conduit, allows the electrics to be easily extended or adapted in the future and adds a distinctive detail to the interior spatial character.
Non-specialist trades The affordability and replicability of the project relied on utilizing non-specialist methods of construction. This meant a small, dedicated team could be used throughout the project to deliver the majority of building work. This presented a significant saving in conventional labour costs since no bricklayers, carpenters or plasterers were employed and it reduced management requirements and abortive work since all operatives had a high degree of familiarity with the project.
Dry fixed and demountable No wet trades were used in the building with the exception of the cast concrete ramp. This reduced construction time and wastage on site. Both the frame and cladding are fixed using screws and bolts, so as to be easily demounted and re-assembled elsewhere at the end of the lease period.
Simplicity The simplicity and symmetry of the design contributed significant cost savings. The square footprint provides best value for money, providing the greatest floor area for the least perimeter wall construction of any shape. The regular shape and symmetry meant a limited number of material sizes were used, simplifying construction on site and provide cost savings in supply. The same cladding material is used on the walls and the roof, streamlining construction details.
Handmade details The design combines an economic, utilitarian approach to the main building elements with a limited number of bespoke items. Whilst making up a very small proportion of the overall build cost, these bespoke elements significantly alter the feeling and character of the building. For example, the concrete tile cladding only accounts for 5% of the build cost but makes a huge difference to the perception of both the building and yard onto which it faces. The arrangement of the stair and handrails internally draw attention to and celebrate the value of the communal space.
Starting a community Following completion of the building, all tenants were invited to a dinner with Assemble, LLDC and other tenants in Sugarhouse Studios. This was intended as an opportunity for new tenants to meet each other and the people who built the studios, providing the basis for the sociable and collaborative spirit we hope the building will support.
Early Conclusions Construction Yardhouse demonstrates that it is possible to cost-effectively build new creative workspace, providing an attractive and flexible work environment at a very modest budget. Whilst many decisions regarding the footprint, orientation, layout and decorative cladding were site specific, the underlying principles behind these decisions are all transferable to other sites and contexts.
The construction method of Yardhouse is seen as an editable system which would change according to different building conditions. The approach of using a generously proportioned timber frame structure alongside an insulated cladding system and a few key bespoke elements could be carried through in a range of different applications.
The principle of providing spaces within a structural frame and letting tenants build their own walls proved extremely successful. It provided very good value for money in development terms and offered a high degree of flexibility to prospective tenants.
Demand The extremely high demand for spaces demonstrates there is a significant market for studio spaces of this type and price point. The building could have been let many times over. It suggests that in a more commercially driven context, rents could have higher and it still would have been easily let.
Feedback has indicated that many tenants were very excited by opportunity to be part of the creation of a new creative community and that the flexibility and adaptability of spaces was a major selling point. In this respect many tenants saw us as an alternative to London’s larger studio providers who do not grant their tenants as much flexibility and control over their studio space. Many applicants were also attracted by the collaborative nature of the project and the additional facilities available on site. This is an element of the project that we believe would be particularly valuable to expand on future sites. For many emerging creative practitioners, access to tools and facilities can be a major financial barrier to pursuing individual work. Partnering the provision of affordable workspace with more established lead tenants who have the financial capital to invest in facilities, or with independently provided workshop facilities can be a major boost for smaller tenants and can give greater financial viability for larger tenants to invest in tooling.
Typology Currently, the majority of affordable workspace provision in London is based in re-used Victorian or post-war light industrial buildings. Whilst these buildings offer the robustness, good quality of natural light and high ceiling heights appropriate for creative uses, they normally have poor thermal performance which can make year-round occupation uncomfortable or expensive. Equally, due to the fact they are not purpose-built means internal arrangements often create uncomfortable circulation spaces with long artificially lit corridors. These buildings are an increasingly scarce resource in London, sought after for conversion to residential uses or for demolition to make way for higher density residential developments.
Yardhouse provides a demonstration that in the right situation, providing purpose-built studios can address many of these problems and be economically viable. In a market for affordable studio provision where 94% of studios are in existing buildings, it is an addition that can help expand and diversify the typology as a whole. Indeed, purpose-built affordable workspace is a nascent field, one which must be pushed to expand in response to the threat a large number of studio providers are under and the increasing land values in London for residential development.
The value of land This project has identified that meanwhile use leases on empty development sites can provide a useful platform for the creation of affordable workspace. This is because by operating on a short time frame, it separates the underlying value of the land from the short term financial viability of the project. Whilst operating in this manner means the lifespan of projects in each location is limited, it is one of the few windows of opportunity curently available in London for smaller scale operaters and without significant grant subsidy. Moving forward, it would be useful to explore longer term landownership models such as those used by Community Land Trusts which similarly enact a split between the value of the building and the value of the land on which it sits.