TDO Architecture delivers a retrofit in the heart of Dickens land

Reuse of the existing buildings combined with carefully composed new additions dramatically reduced the amount of waste that would have been generated, and takes advantage of the significant embodied energy found on the site. Working to a constrained commercial budget we were conscious from the outset to omit unnecessary aesthetic internal linings or coverings. 

Great Suffolk Yard pre-construction (credit: TDO Architecture)

Photograph: Ed Reeve

 

Architect’s view

The existing buildings on site were carefully considered with regards to embodied carbon alongside their social and build qualities; for what they offered the local community and the future occupiers.

 

Project data

Start on site:  March 2020
Completion:  June 2023
Gross internal floor area:  7,623m2
Construction cost:  £20 million
Construction cost per m2: £2,625
Architect:  TDO Architecture
Client:  Tailored Living Solutions (TLS)
Structural engineer:  Axiom
M&E consultant: Quinn Ross
Quantity surveyor: Cast
Project manager: Cast
Principal designer: Havio
Approved building inspector: Sweco
Sustainability consultant: Alphacello
Fire consultant: FDS
Main contractor: RI Works
CAD software used: AutoCAD
Annual CO2 emissions: 13.6 kgCO2/m2 (actual)

Sustainability data

Great Suffolk Yard is a significant project in scale and complexity, providing valuable lessons about determining when to retrofit or rebuild. Rather than seek to demolish the existing buildings on site, our strategy was to preserve the eclecticism of the plot through identifying key massing elements, reworking it holistically through combining retrofitted retained structures with a series of new buildings, rooftop extensions and introducing roof terraces. 

It’s on Great Suffolk Street that the development shows its retrofit mettle. Following the lead of the retained town house and heightened corner building, TDO has created a readable townscape that extrapolates familiar proportions, materials and detailing into a contemporary idiom of originality and consequence. The new-build frontage is broken into a trio of three-bay volumes – a recognisably London residential rhythm – with the gateway section privileged in red brickwork, deep reveals and the culmination of a round-headed central arch. Across the terrace, warehouse-like middle bays are an acknowledgment of the district’s making and import-export heritage, while a particularly local form of mashrabiya screen – a 21st century fusion – is crafted from timber battens pivoted in their frames, providing shade, privacy and airflow to south-facing windows.

The development’s semi-permeable courtyard is accessed from opposite entrances on Great Suffolk and Pickwick Streets, the shared spaces paved in durable blue Staffordshire quarry tiles in a wayfinding move that guides visitors towards a reception area in Pickwick Buildings and onwards to lift lobbies. In a courtyard animated by the alternative circulation option of steel walkways and escape stairs, the breaching of the upper two floors of the Engineering Building to create bridge-like terraces brings more daylight and helps mitigate the void’s narrow and tall proportions. The project broke ground during the Covid pandemic and was, says Hodgson, continuously reappraised on site to adapt to fast-shifting workplace priorities around outside space and natural cross-ventilation.

The gambrel roof form accommodates three additional storeys over the existing ground and first floors, while stepping away from the building line. This allows the roof to respond sympathetically to and foreground the street elevation and its prominent, historic stone entrance. Each level of the addition is given private outdoor terraces open to the sky, with views north to the City.
Ben Rowe, senior architect, TDO Architecture

The brief from the hitherto residential developer was for a ‘resilient’ contemporary commercial development with the flexibility to let either to a single occupant or to multiple tenants. Combined with retrofit, this presented something of a challenge to the architects – how best to reconcile occupier desire for horizontal connectivity and open plan floorspace with the inherent vertical segmentation of retained buildings? 

Primarily, The Works consists of a Victorian solid masonry façade wrapped around a 1980s reinforced concrete clay pot structure.  In-depth material testing and site investigations were undertaken on the existing structure to confirm design parameters. Further to this, a geotechnical settlement analysis was undertaken to validate the proposed load increase on the existing foundations. Following these studies, it was apparent the client’s requirements for a new five-storey building could be achieved by reusing the existing foundations, ground and first floor structure, if a lightweight steel frame extension were constructed to the upper floors. Strengthening of the existing structural elements was required to deal with the additional loads and these were carefully co-ordinated with the architectural requirements to ensure minimal impact on rentable space. The Sea Building require­ments were a lot simpler – a single-storey extension to an existing four-storey building. The new lightweight single storey could easily be accommodated by the existing steel frame structure.

The building structure balances a number of approaches to the retention of the existing fabric across the development.

‘Our starting point was forensic,’ says Hodgson. ‘We recorded everything that existed, counting every brick like a student’s measured drawing. That’s all we presented at our first meeting with the planners, and they visibly relaxed.’

A previous pre-application by another architect for developer Tailored Living Solutions had posited a mixed commercial/residential development involving demolition of all but a single façade and the feature, on the advice of agents, of a glazed atrium. It was not supported by Southwark Council, so the pressure was on TDO to win over the planning department, including the late design and conservation leader, Martin McKay.

Before TDO’s £20 million retrofit to provide 7,623m2 of ‘creative office space’, the peninsular site was a low-rise block of unlisted buildings grouped around a workaday yard – a typical city-fringe, goods-and-services arrangement originating in medieval London. The oldest building is the single remaining house of a terrace built in Dickens’ lifetime, while others include a robust post-war commercial building that neatly chamfers the corner of Great Suffolk Street (the Sea Building) as well as a late-1920s workshop displaying a proud frontage to Toulmin Street (The Works). Along with the school, neighbours in the Liberty of the Mint conservation area include post-war and recent residential blocks hovering around the eight-storey mark, the next-door commercial building Signalworks and a Victorian pub, The Libertine.

The workplace market has changed to address a post-Covid demand for considered, appealing spaces focused on amenity and wellbeing. I became more determined in my commitment to the design of the project during this period of change as I felt strongly that the emerging demands of the office as a place to work were being met by the scheme. The result is a robust and flexible building that can adapt to future changes in use, but which also retains the historic grain of the site and area. We feel this is an important scheme in that sense.
Josh Chadd, managing director, Tailored Living Solutions

 

Engineer’s view

The initial survey informed a strategy of what to keep and in essence TDO has worked with the existing grain while adding not insignificant height. A low-quality, two-storey warehouse structure, for example, that ran almost the depth of the site with frontage to Great Suffolk Street, has been replaced by the new four-storey BREAAM Excellent Engineering Building. Similarly, a thin-skinned brick shed from the 1950s at the north end of the site has been usurped by the three-storey Pickwick Buildings. Structures of better quality or more architectural merit have been retained (Pickwick Corner, Town House) and extended upwards, notably The Works and the Sea Building. On the retained courtyard elevations in particular, the architects’ condition survey informed a ‘datum line’ of solid fabric from which to rebuild in a continuation of the existing language of brick infills to exposed concrete frames, which is echoed in the new Engineering Building. 

New high-performing windows improve air tightness and we have specified internally durable self-finished materials, lime and clay render and non-VOC paints throughout. The development achieved net zero on carbon reduction during the construction stage. 

Photograph: Taran Wilkhu

 

Client’s view

The original buildings have been stripped back to their cores, celebrating the retained brick walls and increasing daylight levels. Emulating a raw, industrial aesthetic and maximising internal volumes and future adaption potential, we’ve deployed a minimal palette of silver galvanised exposed services and black fittings. 

The lightweight construction of the roof allowed for the retention and reuse of the existing solid masonry and concrete frame structure below.

The data-driven metrics of retrofit are clearly crucial, and this project ticks a lot of those boxes. But it’s as a piece of urbanism that Great Suffolk Yard makes its greatest contribution to the retrofit cause. The emotional heritage of buildings and places is hard to pin down. But, by adding to, rather than erasing, the built legibility of a place, Great Suffolk Yard celebrates identity and shores up shared histories in an inner-city neighbourhood now and into the future.
Ellie Duffy is a writer on architecture and design

Photograph: Taran Wilkhu

 

Photograph: Ed Reeve

The smallest of the retained buildings is the last of a 19th century terrace that historically formed the boundary of the site. They are partnered by four new buildings to enclose a central yard at the heart of a thriving new multi-aspect workspace with multiple outdoor break-out spaces which reinstates the warehouse and yard typology that characterises the area, connecting the streets to the north and south of the site. 

In a mixed palette including lime render, timber, London stock and red brick, the scheme chimes with existing materiality as well as taking design cues from surrounding buildings. The two new levels of the red brick Sea Building, for instance, are expressed in the sheen of glazed brickwork of a similar hue – both a clue to the new and an (inverted) nod to the materiality of  The Libertine pub opposite. The 2.5-storey mansard extension to The Works is clad in a sky-reflecting shade of familiar light industrial corrugated roofing, its mass broken down by the shade of inverted dormers. Considering the added volume, at street level the impact is surprisingly slight and the mansard contributes to a rich and complex new roofscape that juxtaposes old gable ends with new ones, green roofs with terraced amenity space.

Great Suffolk Yard is Tailored Living Solutions’ first completed fully commercial project, having primarily worked in the residential sector to date. We have worked successfully with TDO across different projects previously and felt the particular opportunities and challenges of this site would suit the collaboration. 

Photograph: Ed Reeve



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The buildings achieved BREEAM Excellent, WELL Gold and WiredScore Platinum certifications, which attest to Great Suffolk Yard’s credentials for both environmental sustainability and user wellbeing. 

Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2%: 60%
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5%: 80% (estimated)
On-site energy generation: 0%
Heating load: 5.74 kWh/m2/yr
Hot water load: 3.25 kWh/m2/yr
Carbon emissions (all): 13.7 kgCO2/m2
Annual mains water consumption: 4.18 m3/occupant (estimated)
Airtightness at 50Pa: 6 m3/hr/m2 (estimated)
Overall thermal bridging heat transfer coefficient (Y-value): 0.15 W/m2K (estimated)
Overall area-weighted U-value: 0.566 W/m2K
Embodied / whole-life carbon: 354 kgCO2eq/m2 (estimated)
Predicted design life: 100 years (estimated)

The Engineering Building was more complex and the need for a basement partially across the building and column-free areas meant the optimum solution was to demolish the existing building and replace it with a new purpose-built reinforced concrete frame.
Alan Bowling, co-founder, Axiom Structures

Our brief called for a part retrofit, part new-build scheme that would be robust and adapt to future changes in use. The design process involved detailed research into the site history and context and a dialogue between TDO, ourselves, the main contractor (RI Works), structural engineer (Axiom) and the London Borough of Southwark to inform the decision-making around which buildings to retain, which to extend and which to replace. 

At the time of our  visit, Great Suffolk Yard is already alive with new occupants and fit-outs for imminent tenants. Office units span across buildings on single levels, and it seems that the formula of honest juxtapositions of self-evidently retrofitted interior surfaces and the prioritising of outside amenity space has struck a chord with SMEs – conscious perhaps of their ESG Certification credentials plus the need to lure people back into the office while competing for talent. Tenants include a sports food brand, a healthcare engagement company, an engineering and sustainability consultancy and Passivhaus architecture practice Architype.

Standing in an upper office floor of newly completed Great Suffolk Yard with architects Doug Hodgson and Tom Lewith of  TDO Architecture, the glassy grey outcrop of the City of London cluster could be a mirage in the middle distance. We’re in Dickens land, a different  world just south of the river. Fictional and biographical connections jostle in today’s street names. The adjacent school (extended by Maccreanor Lavington in 2018) is the Charles Dickens Primary. At 12 years old Dickens was lodging in nearby Lant Street while employed at the infamous blacking factory. He probably passed here on his way to work, or maybe en route to visit his debtor dad in the Marshalsea Prison.

 

Working detail

Looking ahead, we are retained to assess each tenant fit-out alongside our client TLS, which has appointed TSP, a certified B Corporation, to manage the building, ensuring that high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability are maintained during operation.
Doug Hodgson, founding director, TDO Architecture

This section is through The Works building, which forms most of the northern edge of the site along Toulmin Street. Early workshops with Southwark Council officers led us to agree that this building would benefit from a complementary but contrasting roof form. The building is identified in the Conservation Area Appraisal as a particularly fine early 20th century workshop. The profiled metal finish echoes this historic industrial use, while contrasting with its 1920s London stock brickwork.