As a prominent adaptive reuse scheme on the Grand Union Canal in West London, The Gramophone Works sees Studio RHE employing modern timber technology to create a healthy work environment which also sustains the former record label HQ’s vibrant spirit. Jack Wooler reports
Playing a new riff on a canalside landmark in west London, The Gramophone Works project has transformed a historic industrial and music industry building into an innovative commercial space. The building was formerly home to an industrial fabrics factory, and later the head office and manufacturing for Saga Records (who owned famous reggae label Trojan, leading the building to be seen as the epicentre of reggae in London).
A mix of refurbished, extended and new-build office spaces, the project utilises CLT and glulam timber to expand upon the retained structures. Across the nearly 90,000 ft2 of space, The Gramophone Works offers a number of amenities for client Resolution Property to tempt SME businesses, including a canal-side cafe, communal reception facilities, secure bike parking, changing facilities, and generous external above-ground spaces.
Split between The Dock – the larger, 64,000 ft2 structure which has been extended upwards by three timber storeys – and the smaller counterpart The Studio – 19,000 ft2, with a slightly more industrial, concrete-heavy style – the composition now features distinctive new design which take cues from the historic heritage.
The client commissioned Studio RHE to realise this design, together with contractor Graham Construction. Together, the team have created a significant new commercial hub that demonstrates a striking approach to adaptive reuse, one which minimises embodied carbon by almost completely reusing one building, as well as the existing two level structure beside it, and adding four additional floor levels of lightweight timber structure on top of the latter.
In part because of this construction method, the characterful waterside project has been rated BREEAM Excellent as well as Wired Gold, and has already gained industry acclaim for its sustainability credentials.
Located on the edge of the Grand Union Canal in Kensal Green, the area is bordered by Queen’s Park, Notting Hill, Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove – and is, say the architects, West London’s “best-kept secret.”
“It’s a fringe area with a long creative history and a sense of individualism,” explains Tom Foster, design director at project architects Studio RHE. “It offered an exciting opportunity to retain this history, while bringing much-needed workspaces to the area.”
Among the new landscaped public realm between Kensal Road and the canal, the first phase of the project is already in use.
Completed in 2018, Phase One involved the comprehensive refurbishment and reinvention of the Saga Centre, formerly the HQ of the record label. A straightforward refurbishment of the original 20th century building, The Studio retains its industrial character, with original concrete columns and beams restored and displayed proudly.
The second phase is a more ‘transformative’ project, extending the existing Old Gramophone Works building outwards and upwards to six storeys. With the result labelled The Dock, this phase displays contrasting natures, deftly blending the retained concrete structure and the new timber extensions, so that each complements the other.
The new and refurbished parts have been designed in a way that their construction is clearly expressed inside and out, with structure and services left exposed, which also provides a “blank canvas” for the commercial spaces. “We left it as raw as we could,” says Foster. “Where we’ve used timber, we wanted it to be expressed as timber, and where there’s concrete, we wanted to display it as such.”
“That was our philosophy throughout the buildings,” he continues, “as well as adding character, it helped create a sense of volume and light, highlighting the buildings’ historic uses.”
As well as open spaces and meeting rooms internally, every floor of The Dock offers external spaces – which Foster notes the team were “ahead of the game on,” being specified before the pandemic and the rising desire for prioritising wellness that followed in its wake.
According to Foster, the realised designs seek to “finally fulfil” the ambitions of the buildings’ original architects, and to quickly maximise the site’s commercial potential, while bringing character and a sense of coherence to the properties. “There’s a narrative in the buildings, from the vertical beams on facade that loosely reference the grooves of a record, and the timber and concrete insides continuing this.”
Prior to the acquisition of the site, the buildings retained had a long and interesting history. In 1919, Sandersons & Sons, a wallpaper and paint manufacturer, took over the plot. Later, in 1960, Marcel Rod of Art & Sound Ltd acquired the site, followed by Saga, which in 1975 bought B&C and Trojan Records, bringing reggae to Kensal Road with a notable roster of artists including Bob Marley and the Wailers and Jimmy Cliff.
There are a number of buildings on the site, including a Victorian former warehouse, as well as buildings from the 30s and 60s – all of which were able to be kept and updated.
While still a working studio and vinyl manufacturer, using recycled vinyl from Phillips records factory, the buildings became increasingly focused on recording studio use, and were “getting tighter and tighter, with more bits added on.” Latterly, the tenants had struggled with the changing nature of the music business and left the site open for acquisition.
Once the site was acquired by the client, the project was procured as a two stage tender process, with Graham Construction Group producing a ‘value engineered contract’ and associated documentation. With the architect having worked with the client before on other adaptive reuse workspaces – including ‘Alphabeta’ in Finsbury Square, Resolution Property soon approached Studio RHE to begin designs for the project.
“All of our previous projects with the client had been successful and profitable,” says Foster, “so of course we welcomed this new opportunity.”
Originally, planning was acquired just before Brexit occurred, a consent would have seen a full rebuild with a mix of residential units, office spaces, and a bowling alley. Following the split from the EU however, Foster explains that the client “did some analysis, and decided that wasn’t the right route forwards.”
“They wanted instead to progress a solely office scheme, which could be constructed faster and at a lower cost – both of which could be achieved with the retention of the buildings.”Approaching a new application however, Foster says that this planning process saw a series of pre-application meetings and design review panel sessions to develop the design.
“We had a really positive relationship with the planners – they were really on board with us retaining the building, and could envision the community we were going to build around it.”
With the team in place, according to Foster, even when first visiting the site the practice was struck by its “eclectic feel.” He continues: “It’s got an interesting story, but this came with its own problems.” Despite its “clear potential,” the architect admits that when they first looked at the building, “it was a real dump; there was barbed wire everywhere.”
“There had been a community of people living and working there, and hosting parties,” he explains. “Some parts were in use, some left vacant. The rooms had been split up into offices and studios, but in a very haphazard, quite chaotic way.” Despite this however, the site’s potential continued to shine through.
With the existing ex-factory building having been designed to be extended upwards in future years, they had heavily engineered structures with concrete columns and two five-storey circulation towers. What would become The Dock was “very suitable to build extensions above,” explains the architect.
Exciting design process
The brief was to “reinvent a much-loved but tired collection of industrial buildings to create a healthy, sustainable work campus,” and Foster says this meant the design process was “exciting, but challenging.” He continues: “Because it’s a ‘fringe’ location, we wanted to attract creative tenants – creating moments which are fun and enjoyable.”
“We wanted to ensure the building could meet wide parameters, addressing the human factor of what people actually want from a space.” As part of this, a key tenet of the proposed design was the desire not just to renew the structure, but to “celebrate” its prominence in the community. Foster says this meant “not covering any of it up.”
Helping enable the retention of the existing “amazing” structure of the building, as well as adding the four stories above, the team was pleased to find that the original concrete frame “was still in good condition.”
“That’s one of the great things about retrofit – if the structure is strong, you immediately start with a sense of character that would be very hard to recreate.”
One notable retention was the circulation towers in The Dock, which the architect explains have become “something of a landmark” along the canal since they were constructed, bringing further character to the scheme.
Both towers are designed to seamlessly rise to the height of the extended building, each now topped by a glass ‘feature’ room for use as an office meeting space.
“The team were able to design the open office spaces inside this skeleton,” says Foster, “saving time and money, and reducing the environmental impact of the project.”
On the exterior of The Dock, facade design was informed through parametric analysis of thermal comfort, carbon emissions and daylight access.
The south facade was modelled with and without adjacent tall properties, and windows and external shading design were sized to allow removal of external shading when adjacent property overshadows the property in the future.
Additionally, the choice of timber material allowed the team to build more floors without extensive demolition or structural strengthening of existing structure, to have a faster and cost effective build.
Despite the opportunities the site offered, there were a number of restrictions that made the construction process “challenging.”
Not least of these was the age and condition of the buildings. A number of unforeseen problems soon arose, with the concrete discovered to be crumbling in some areas. Remedial structural engineering works were therefore necessary, and the size, age and quality of materials in the properties was varied.
According to Foster, available space in the existing buildings was a major issue: “The warehouse for instance doesn’t have huge ceiling heights by today’s standard, which made it a bit of a squeeze to install the necessary services on the ground and first floors.”
This was ameliorated with taller floor-to-ceiling heights in the new build timber floors however, and The Dock was also made wider to open the spaces up. The widening did require new foundations, but none were necessary for the parts above the original building.
Joining these old and new structures also introduced both technical and organisational challenges. One of the more innovative approaches in the structure of The Dock especially, the net gain above involved installing a timber frame atop the existing concrete, using a steel transfer structure to align the two.
Considering the challenges of retrofit in general, though the gains were “more than worth it,” Foster tells me the adaptive retrofit project exemplified how the process is far from easy: “It can be tough. Sometimes a ceiling is not where you’d want it, or there’s a column in the middle of a space you wish wasn’t there.”
“It’s definitely a harder road. There’s more risks, more issues that are hard to foresee, but the results speak for themselves.”
Overcoming the timber stigma
Beyond the restrictive areas of the site, a number of other challenges had to be addressed by the team. In the early stages of the project, the pandemic caused significant disruption: “It was tough through Covid, restricting work across the board. The CLT structure was a great help here though. Brought in from offsite, and able to be assembled onsite by a small team, it worked really well in the situation.”
Despite its benefits here however, the use of timber itself provided some issues. Though arguably unfounded – with evidence showing mass timber can be safer in a fire than steel in some cases (wood burning slowly and predictably, and charred timber even helping to protect and insulate the unburnt wood beneath) – fears around building taller structures from timber have arguably intensified in the UK post-Grenfell.
Studio RHE believes strongly in the use of timber however, and as such was more than prepared to fight for it, “trying to use as much as possible” in all their projects, despite the targeting of timber in the wake of Grenfell.
“Before we started onsite, the regulations were changing very quickly, especially around insulation and fire. We of course had a real rigour with all the fire legislation decisions, however, how we interfaced between the materials, how each would perform, which soon allayed any concerns.”
“The main problem at the moment seems to be the insurance,” says Foster, “which I believe has set the industry back, when really timber structures are a remarkable solution.”
In the face of these challenges, the architect explains that, as a design team, the key to overcoming all these issues was “professionalism within the shifting economic, logistical and legislative environment resulting from Brexit, Covid, Grenfell, and trusting in the use of structural timber during a time of evolving compliance legislation.”
More than overcoming these hurdles, Foster says the buildings deliver “above and beyond expectations,” increasing the net area of The Dock by over 500 f2 since the design stage, and both buildings offer venerable sustainability.
According to the architect, the team employed a “multi-faceted” approach to sustainability, beginning with the decision to retain the existing building – “the most sustainable building being the one that’s already there.”
The retention of the existing concrete alone has been calculated as saving 1,108 m3 of carbon, (avoiding emissions of 655 TCO2e A), not accounting for the materials that would have to replace this structure.
Then, the timber extensions perform extremely well on carbon. Across the 1,044 m2 of CLT and glulam beams, 1,222 TCO2e of biogenic carbon has been sequestered, which is close to the upfront carbon arising from all structural works (1,259 TCO2e), with the timber having upfront carbon that’s 30% lower than the notional LETI 2030 target.
All the timber used was FSC accredited, sourced sustainably from Europe, and the lack of finishing materials further reduced emissions. Alongside the timber, a number of other measures included high levels of insulation to avoid heat loss, solar reflective glazing and solar shading fins and louvres, energy efficient lighting and external lights with daylight and occupancy sensors, and rooftop photovoltaic solar panels with monitoring and targeting.
100% of site demolition spoil was sent for recycling, the aluminium used in the curtain walling is from 100% recycled sources, and 95% of the curtain walling components used are recyclable.
“There are also a lot of ecological enhancements throughout the project,” says Foster, listing bat boxes, four kinds of bird boxes and 287 m2 of wildflower green roofing help to support the ecology of local species.
The project has been awarded BREEAM ‘Excellent,’ with all energy metering and submetering in accordance with the CIBSE TM39 recommendations.
“We were extremely happy,” concludes Foster on the sustainability credentials achieved. “With the retention of the carbon in the structure and the low-carbon building methods employed, the project is essentially net zero.”
Ahead of the curve
The project has already been hailed among users and peers alike, with the project having won the Environmental Prize of the New London Awards 2021 as well as being shortlisted for the Commercial Retrofit Prize in the same awards.
Demonstrating the potential of adaptive reuse, and of sustainable, cost-effective timber structures rigorously designed for safety performance, Foster hopes that the project will help “break the barrier” to wider use of timber in construction.
Looking back on the project’s success, and how “ahead of the curve” the project is, Foster says that while “adaptive reuse projects aren’t always simple, and there are development costs involved,” that “it’s more than worth it.”
“People want more than a building – they want a story, they want sustainability, safety, wellness – we knew we could deliver this here, and that it would attract the desired users.”
He concludes: “We’ve been through all the problems that adaptive reuse entails, but through this, we’ve proved that you can truly reinvent a structure, while retaining its character.”