Building Study: Brentford Lock West
Text: Owen Pritchard
Duggan Morris' housing scheme is changing the architectural language of Brentford, says Owen Pritchard.
It’s one of those forgotten places, Brentford. Looking for local news online, you reach page three of Google news before there is any report on something other than the local football team. The town sits between Kew Gardens and Heathrow, subsumed by the creep of Greater London. It is here you can find a junction of waterways where the river Brent flows into the Thames and the Grand Union Canal slices through town. These once-vital arteries, which linked the capital with the surrounding settlements, have been superseded by the M4, slashing over the horizon to the north, and the heavy air traffic bearing down on Heathrow to the west.
The town’s high street has seen better days; it is a mishmash of discount furniture shops and franchised minimarkets. The charming conservation area of The Butts, a sprinkling of Grade II-listed brick houses, exists as an anachronism and reminder of happier times. It is at Brentford Lock West – hemmed in between the canal, the high street, the Butts and an industrial estate – that waterfront regeneration specialist ISIS has appointed Duggan Morris, Riches Hawley Mikhail and Karakusevic Carson to deliver its new development. This is the first stage of a masterplan of the area by Swedish urban designers Tobatt Architects and Klas Tham working with Urbed. Planning consent for the development was granted in March 2012. It will provide 520 new homes, 25 per cent of which will be three or four bed, and 20 per cent will be affordable. Permission for phase one was granted in June of the same year and the first 150 homes have been built following an intense consultation period.
The existing housing developments that flank and face the site are of a very strange typology. The style could be described as 1980s yacht club chic – on visiting, Duggan Morris co-director Joe Morris remarked that he couldn’t tell if the apartments were designed or came out of some pattern book, but accepted there was some sense of quality. Each block is constructed of a sandy stock brick, accented with white weatherboard cladding on the penthouse flats. The balconies and terraces have gleaming white painted ironmongery. It’s windswept, but you can imagine chino-clad retirees sat out on a sunny day enjoying a bottle of M&S prosecco. In front of this, a transient community of barge dwellers occupy the canal itself, the colourful array of boats bob serenely and the smell of woodburners fills the air. It’s a strange mix, but each tribe seems to exist contentedly beside the other.
Duggan Morris' buildings make up one of three sites that occupy phase one. The practice has the grandest of the plots, with a frontage that runs along the Grand Union Canal and arguably provides the most important facade of the whole development. It is here that the change from the strange pastiche of the quayside development is marked with an architecture that appears more robust, more considered and more contextual than its predecessors.
The architect was keen to work with the masterplan rather than challenge it. This has not entailed a timid building. The housing has a muscular appearance which appears to draw in references from the surrounding context and reorder them into an assured and sculptural form. The neat gold ironmongery of the balconies is as hardwearing as the cast-iron infrastructure along the towpath; the Freshfield brick is rugged; and the pitch of the roof recalls the waterside industrial units that have been cleared. Where a simple extrusion of the maximum footprint and regimented order of windows and balconies might once have sufficed, these buildings wrestle with themselves to provide depth, cantilevers and character.
The refusal to employ a simple stack of housing units is down to the fact that the individual units are contorted around the central staircases. The form pushes and pulls to create generous balconies, and provides articulation to the principal facades. This tactic also ensures that the tricky corner units work. The brick walls are punctured with floor-to-ceiling windows that refuse to align, arranged along soldier course ‘rails’ which denote where each floor begins. Another soldier course provides a neat edge to the roofline, which is topped with a fine metal capping. The balconies are generous and thoughtfully attached to the building. They emerge on the brick dimensions, and the fins run on the verticals of the bricks, appearing as skeletal extrusions of the building fabric. The response to the surrounding housing developments is not, despite the gold of the balconies, to introduce bling. These two buildings set themselves apart, having been designed by an architect whose confidence is high. The decisions that have been made with massing and materials demanded acute understanding and rigour.
This is the nicest part of Brentford. The area has caught the eye of developers, with AHMM, Macreanor Lavington and Glenn Howells working nearby on a masterplan for Ballymore. All of the architects working in this area will be under a huge amount of pressure to deliver viable schemes, but looking at the work completed so far, this will not be at the expense of good quality housing.
Morris is optimistic about the future of Brentford. ‘By designing new housing , and changing the housing opportunity, this will encourage community growth,’ he says. It is hard to disagree – this is prime commuter territory, about 30 minutes into central London, and the land that is being built on is a hangover from our industrial past. His comments reveal that this is housing for an upwardly mobile, affluent buyer and the generation that occupy the adjacent buildings. These units will be sold on frequently, and, no doubt, at a profit that will fuel the relentless property bubble in the capital. Not that this is the fault of the architect.
Across phase one, the language of each block is cohesive without being monotonous. If this development was commissioned and completed before the crash, it might well have been a riot of barcode facades, meagre balconies and tiny windows sold as a ‘luxury waterside development’. The marketing language may not have changed, but the architectural language certainly has.
Where the exterior presence of this building might illustrate the next stage in the way we consider the urban presence of housing, the interiors here are less dynamic. The floor-to-ceiling windows allow an abundance of light to enter the dwelling, but a familiar language of domesticity prevails. The ceilings on the upper floor units follow the roof line to present some interesting spaces, but the next logical step for future projects is to investigate the way that the dwellings might challenge the footprint, and our expectations, more.
There are some problems that architecture can solve and Brentford Lock is an example of the good-quality and thoughtful housing we desperately need. Then there are some problems that architecture and architects can’t solve, such as the mechanisms that exist that prevent this being the status quo rather than a coveted exemplar. Prices for a one-bed apartment reached £345,000 while the three-bed units top £500,000. Excellent ordinary comes at a price.
_More homes, better homes
‘The first completed building sets a benchmark and this precedent bodes well’. The strength of this project lies in the thoughtful spatial planning of the apartments with provision for practical external space. The two buildings have a strong identity that will perpetuate across the rest of this masterplan as later phases are completed. In Brentford, despite the pressure to make the scheme commercially viable for the developer, there may not have been as much pressure to densify the site as there might have been were it closer to central London. The first completed building of any development sets a benchmark and this precedent bodes well for the next phases.
Situated along the banks of the Grand Union Canal, Brentford Lock West forms part of a five-year project, which we hope will breathe new life into Brentford. In addition to providing much-needed new housing, our scheme will also deliver new community spaces and commercial buildings, helping to create new jobs for the area.
The success we have experienced at Brentford Lock West to date has been fantastic. The homes offer buyers a great location and, in addition to their high specification, have all been carefully designed to ensure they maximise light and outdoor space – a real selling point for us. With access on to the canal, beautiful green spaces on the doorstep and good connections into London and the surrounding boroughs, Brentford has a lot to offer.
The homes offer buyers a unique opportunity to secure a new, highly specified home, while benefiting from a host of community features and green initiatives – from rooftop allotments to the delivery of a new watersports hub. We remain committed to improving the local waterways, and work has already begun to widen the existing canal towpath. A floating pontoon has also been installed, for use by the local canoe clubs, helping to encourage use and enjoyment of the canal here.
The scheme has already had a positive impact on this little corner of west London, with increased use of the local waterways and initiatives such as Cultivate London (an innovative urban farm, which has been on site since works first commenced) really adding to the sense of community that is building here. With the first of our residents now moved in to their new homes, we are seeing the emergence of an exciting new community. We hope to see this continue to grow and thrive as the development continues.
John Robinson, development director at MUSE Developments
The existing site was brownfield and required remediation. More than 90 per cent of the waste generated was diverted from landfill and instead recycled. The methods used to avoid impact on the local environment, such as noise and dust, during construction led to high Considerate Constructors scores, with the scheme achieving a certificate for ‘beyond compliance’.
The site also won a biodiversity award for the planting around the site compound. To increase the ecological value of the site, it was important that we ensured increased planting to attract further wildlife species, as well as reinstallation of the canal towpaths. Bat surveys were carried out on existing structures.
Minimising the apartments' water use was achieved through low-capacity baths and reduced flow rates to wash basins, kitchen taps, and showers. Rainwater harvesting was developed to use an underground tank that irrigates the soft landscaped areas.
The masterplan for Brentford Lock includes installing an energy centre on a future phase. The main heating system is provided by community district heating from communal gas boilers, which have a seasonal efficiency of 90 per cent. The district heating to Block G will swap from gas-fired boilers to a gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) system once the energy centre is complete.
Through the use photovoltaic panels totalling 23.94kWp, both blocks will generate nearly 20,000kWh each year and abate approximately 10,405kg of C02 emissions. Low-energy lighting is used throughout both buildings and Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) to all units. The blocks also benefit from fully filled cavity to external walls and high performance windows.
Matthew Turner, preconstruction manager, Willmott Dixon