Building On A Brownfield, An Almost Impossible Location

Real Estate

Some locations defined as brownfields seem almost impossible to build on. They are properties that have been abandoned or underused industrial sites that may have the presence or potential of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. In order to reuse or develop this land it must be cleaned up, removing any hazardous materials. By doing so, the environment is protected; blighted areas are upgraded and made useable and productive. 

One courageous architect in London did the almost-impossible. Architect Didier Ryan had a vision to revitalize a brownfield in Southwark, London, to create a live/work space. He chose a lot that by most standards would be considered too narrow to build on and too close to a train line to be viable. As a prototype for future construction in London and other inner cities, this type of structure could help revitalize underutilized spaces and connect them to other residential areas. 

Live/work structures such as this one, relieve pressure on transit systems and save travel time and resources, making them a very sustainable land use. Archway Studios, with the dual uses of work and living have brought twenty-four-hour occupants and economic activity to a commuting neighborhood. Conversely, to the adjacent industrial area, the residential aspect has brought supervision and activity around the clock, during non-business hours, improving safety. 

Ryan points out that there is a large network of Victorian viaducts in London that divide neighbor-hoods, create corridors of conflict, and leave the inner city with a vast number of vacant brownfields. Ryan says this project “reuses redundant ‘brownfield’ land, turning wasteland into productive, aspirational use. We found opportunities in the constraints and developed a design that positively embraced the tough environmental surroundings.”

The building shell is designed to complement the industrial heritage of the locality, with rust-oxide colored steel skin that matches the warm brown tones of the Palmwood cladding. This forms a striking relationship that helps the building stand out even when dwarfed by towering City neighbors, echoing the materials of the adjacent railway. Industrial assembly methods were consistent with this approach, using lots of metal and creating the components in a factory in China. 

With very limited space (the site is about 10-feet wide), Ryan needed the thinnest exterior shell possible to maximize the internal width of the house. A prefabricated steel shell allowed the wall thickness to be reduced to the minimum. To make use of every inch of space, Ryan says, “We studied ways to construct a thin but robust shell, applying stressed skin construction from ship and aircraft manufacturing and the prefab steel layers to dampen noise. Construction next to a live railway placed extreme limits on access, sequencing, methodology, and safety. Prefabricated methods minimized site unknowns.” 

The metal shell is about 28 feet tall and 36 feet long, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and a central atrium that provides office space for Ryan and a photography studio for his partner. Sky views and tall trees can be seen through the glass ceiling. Sleeping alcoves are tucked into this area, making efficient use of space. 

To protect the structure from the vibrations and noise of passing trains, the foundation has a rubber base under it, a stacked rubber and waffle pad above the foundation, and extensive insulation in the steel walls. A vibration-dampening membrane is adhered to the inner steel surface to prevent structural resonance and to provide additional sound absorption. 

The house was fabricated in three months, erected in four days, but then took a year of site work to complete because the budget necessitated having a small team in order to control wages and cash flow.

The house not only serves as living space but also includes both an office for Ryan and a photography studio for his partner in the central atrium. As a live/work space, Ryan says this prototype shows the feasibility of limiting the use of crowded mass transit in London by spending at least some of the time working from a home office. 

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