Architects Pitman Tozer have built a 7-story housing block in Mint Street, east London, for Peabody housing that combines market-rate and subsidized apartments in a modern, stylish, efficient building located only 12 meters (40 ft) from a busy railway viaduct. In a departure from the harsh functional towers usually associated with such tight urban sites, the Mint Street building is a pleasant, colorful, curved form that offers living spaces with plenty of light and humane proportions.

Embracing the challenge

This difficult site in east London is a former car park, sandwiched in a constricted urban spot between the viaduct, existing housing and a large light industrial building that was being retro-fitted for creative office "hub" use at the same time. Peabody (formerly the Peabody Trust), a social housing organization that has been active in the UK since the late 19th century, acquired the land and the light industrial building behind it and decided to develop both in parallel.

Pitman Tozer’s winning scheme creates 67 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and embraces the site outward, rather than trying to exist in isolation from its surroundings. The building curves with the shape of the rail line, and windows at the frontage face boldly onto the trains, rather than being turned away, with entrances opening toward the viaduct.

This was a deliberate decision by the architects, who could have chosen to have all of the windows twist in a different direction or face inward in some kind of courtyard arrangement, which would have been darker and much less engaged with the neighborhood. The plan works to maximize the natural light and expansive views, which are unobstructed, except when trains are passing.

Noise-reducing solutions

While having such a wide view is a bonus, there is the inevitable issue of noise. Nowadays, window glass can be made super-efficient, reducing external noise to almost nothing. Acoustic glazing on the living room windows gives a sound reduction of 41 dB, which, as I was able to witness, translates to an experience of almost complete silence.

But this is only part of the solution at Mint Street. Apartments facing onto the viaduct have a "winter garden" space, which is basically an enclosed balcony, with the living/dining room sitting behind it, and the kitchen in the deepest reach of the plan. With the windows closed, this additional room acts as a double-layer buffer to the rail noise, as well as providing a visual separation.

Sound sleep

Noise and distraction are of most concern for sleeping areas. At Mint Street the ground-level apartments have bedrooms facing the quiet courtyard at the back. They also have bedrooms facing the railway, but these are fitted with acoustic glazing and an inner tertiary pane, a combination that achieves a total noise reduction of 47 dB.

The bedrooms on the upper floors that face the viaduct are located behind the winter gardens, which have double-glazing on the outer surface and an extra layer of glazing and solid wall inside.

Healthy Air Flow

Sealing off the interiors, of course, has implications for air flow. The Mint Street development uses a mechanical ventilation system that draws fresh air from the back of the building inside, delivering it through vents in every apartment. The same system also takes stale air out and can be boosted when necessary.

Sections of windows at the rear of the buildings are fitted with ventilation screens, which are similar to window screens you find in North America (though made of good-quality timber rather than metal mesh), but which are strangely uncommon in Europe and the UK.

Designed for better living

Though the Mint Street development has a range of solutions to compensate for its busy urban location, it is the look and feel of the exterior and internal spaces that is perhaps most striking and speaks of a higher quality of design overall.

The lower levels of the gently curving building are faced in glazed tiles of a pleasant green hue, while the upper portion is slick grey brick. Following new guidelines implemented by the Mayor of London in 2010, ceiling heights are set at 2.5 m (8.2 ft). Pitman Tozer has enhanced the spatial flow of the flats by using open-plan layouts and calculating the arrangement of the rooms to minimize the intrusion of the trains, but also allowing for movement through the space.

Entry halls are narrow, being in the darkest part of the building, and include storage and the bathroom. Kitchens are also pulled up into the back of the plan, allowing more floor area to be allocated to the living area facing the windows, which is augmented by the winter garden, and for more bedroom area.

The winter gardens, otherwise known as balconies, are often the throw-away part of an apartment plan. Being too small for better use, they are often relegated for outdoor storage or for hanging out laundry.

In the Mint Street apartments these spaces, even those on the first floor (which are most level with the viaduct and therefore most at risk of neglect), have been turned into extra sitting rooms, with bookshelves, floor coverings and comfortable furniture. The reason for this is partly to do with being fully enclosed, but also to my mind largely a consequence of being set at a depth of 1.5 m (5 ft), which turns them from appendages into rooms.

Most run a length of 4.5 m (14.8 ft), but to compensate for the closer proximity to the trains, the winter gardens on the first-floor have the same depth but are longer, at 7.6 m (25 ft).

Creating community

In line with the Peabody philosophy, the building also contributes to the wider neighborhood. The development of the frontage – with the paved walkway, planters, benches and entrances – provides a new pedestrian area that makes for a more direct route through to the nearby underground station.

This path is not only much more salubrious than what was here before, but with the windows facing onto it, makes it a more secure, pedestrian-friendly public route than in the past. The area was previously bordered by the brickwork beneath the viaduct, but this has been covered by colorful hoardings introduced to soften the atmosphere and give the feeling of an inhabited space rather than an industrial wasteland.

Energy efficiency

With a highly insulated building envelope, heat exchange ventilation, high-efficiency gas boilers and 300 sq m (3,200 sq ft) of PV panels on the roof, the development achieves a Level 4 rating (of a possible 6, with Level 3 being a standard target) in the UK government’s Code for Sustainable Homes.

With a population expected to reach 10 million in the next 15 years, London planners are looking increasingly to re-develop brownfield sites such as these. As some developers argue for the need for taller buildings, this building shows what can be achieved in a less-than-ideal context using better design.

Source: Pitman Tozer

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