Gort Scott on retrofitting historic buildings at 3 Mills Studio


3 Mills is such an important part of London’s history – the site was mentioned in the Domesday Book and fuelled London’s 18th-century gin craze – and it’s therefore been a privilege to be part of a project that will do so much to support jobs in the creative industries, as well as ensuring a long-term future for such a special and historic place.

Were specific environmental or sustainable measures employed?
At the Gin Still, we employed a passive-first approach, utilising the historic building’s volume and thermal mass. We restored windows and rooflights to maximise daylight, and the spaces within are naturally ventilated, as they were in the past. New services are entirely electrical and designed for future connection to photovoltaic systems, as a part of the studios’ long-term plans to decarbonise the estate. The roof has been thermally upgraded and a high proportion of the demolition waste was recycled in the scheme itself.

Source:Lorenzo Zandri

It called for a lot of collaboration. How did designing with multiple stakeholders work?
Gort Scott led on the Custom House and Gin Still, while our design partners Freehaus led on the refurbishment of the Rush House – an unlisted building of the same period as the Gin Still, now named after the preview film ‘rushes’ shot at the studios and viewed in the Rush House Screening Room. 

The new element is a simple, elegant yet robust kit of parts, consisting of bolted steel components and joisted floors, with adaptable levels of enclosure and separation between spaces. We decorated it in bold colours to establish a clear dialogue between new and historic fabric and retained a 10m-high copper gin still in the foyer.

The scheme was envisaged as a catalyst for the immediate area. How do you see the project working to support 3 Mills’ long-term ambition to open more of the site to the public?The project has created over 10,000 sqft of new workspaces for production teams and represents a significant investment in east London’s TV and film industry. Enhancing public accessibility and enjoyment of the site is key to LLDC’s vision, and our project was part of a wider programme at 3 Mills that includes improvements to the river wall and flood defences. 

3 Mills Studios were also hugely supportive: they have operated successfully at this location for over 30 years, so had a very clear understanding of what they wanted to achieve. We’re also grateful to Gilbert Ash, the main contractor, who worked hard to deliver the needs of everyone involved.

How did you tie the whole project together architecturally?
The buildings at 3 Mills are quite diverse in terms of their architecture, but share an authentic and robust character that reflects the site’s industrial past. While there was a unique response in each project area that was appropriate to each building’s context and proposed use, there was also a clear theme of ensuring that new interventions were clearly legible against existing historic building fabric.

The flood resilience requirements called for a pragmatic approach to its interiors, with specification of waterproof surfaces that can be easily cleaned. The new layout is flexible and adaptable and creatively restores a sense of identity and dignity to the historic spaces.    

Rush House Screening Room

What did the work entail?
The project encompassed the adaptive and creative reuse of three key buildings: the locally listed Gin Still, the Grade II-listed Custom House and Rush House. It has brought these disused or under-used buildings back into use as new lettable spaces for creative businesses and greatly improved their environmental sustainability, climate resilience and economic viability.  

LLDC itself was a fantastic client, giving us and the wider project team their unwavering backing and the freedom to test ideas – and brokering the funding and wider support necessary to make the project happen.

What approach did you take to adaptive reuse of the key buildings? Did the approach differ depending on the type of building and its grade of listing?
The 3 Mills site is a unique remnant of London’s past – it’s the city’s oldest surviving industrial centre. Its cluster of historic buildings includes a listed cobbled street and the Grade I-listed House Mill, the largest surviving tidal mill in Britain. As well as addressing the heritage and character of each of the three buildings we worked on, we therefore had to address this wider context.

We enjoyed a very close collaborative working relationship with Freehaus from the start. We worked together on our competition-winning bid and tender process and developed the design responses through a series of design team meetings and workshops, where we shared and tested ideas with the client. Some members of the Freehaus team were based in our office for a while during Stage 4, and we both shared work placements for design graduates from under-represented backgrounds, who worked on the project with us as part of LLDC’s wider strategy to use the project to create new opportunities for people.  

The Gin Still

The level of intervention that was possible in each was informed by the degree of its heritage protection, as well as its condition and purpose. The most challenging was Custom House, which dates from 1820 and is Grade II-listed. The building flooded at every high tide, rendering it uninhabitable and at serious risk of severe deterioration. We introduced flood defence systems and restored original features, as well as integrating new servicing and heating within the historic fabric. 

How did the project come about?
3 Mills Studios is one of London and the UK’s foremost film and television production studios and occupies a series of historic buildings on the banks of the River Lea in Bromley-by-Bow, east London. The site is owned by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which commissioned the project to expand capacity at 3 Mills through the renovation and modernisation of three of the buildings on the site. 

The ground floor now supports the film studios by providing spaces for costume-making, puppet making, make-up and rigging, while the upper floors provide flexible workspace for production teams. The new workspaces are designed to support a range of layouts, maximising flexibility, and enabling spaces to be adapted for different uses and capacities.

The project aims to promote creativity as well as support new businesses and employment, and was made possible through funding from the Government’s Getting Building Fund via a £3 million grant allocated by the Mayor of London, and a further £1.9 million provided through the LLDC’s Community Infrastructure Fund. 

Gin Still circulation

At the Rush House, a dedicated separate entrance has been created to enable its use as a multi-use cinema and presentation space, with facilities for screenings, learning events and conferences by businesses and the public. 

How did you go about adding new structures or making other interventions within the existing buildings?
The Gin Still dates from 1850 and was the main gin distillery on the site. To preserve its industrial character, our design concept comprises a new structure inserted into the historic envelope to create ‘a building within a building’.