The Atrium Building; How do you make a place for people in a place that’s made for cars?

Nick Hufton

Nick is an architect and Managing Director at Shepheard Epstein Hunter and his experience includes delivery of several phases of Area 3 of the Canning Town and Custom House Regeneration project Nick is currently working on a co-design led estate regeneration project and is keenly interested in meaningful consultation and collaborative working.

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East City Point is a new neighbourhood of 610 mixed-tenure homes by Countryside Properties in Canning Town, east London, masterplanned by MacCreanor Lavington to stitch something of the Victorian layout of squares and streets back into an area devastated during the Second World War. The Atrium Building, with its 153 units, is the penultimate building on the site to be completed, but has perhaps the most challenging site, sitting immediately adjacent to Newham Way, a heavily used arterial route into London from the east. On this busy road with its noise and pollution, how could we make a place where people are the priority?

The site is just a kilometre or so east from another large-scale linear residential block on a busy road, Robin Hood Gardens. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson during the late 1960s, and currently – controversially – under demolition, Robin Hood Gardens was arranged with the living spaces overlooking the A12 to create a solid façade. Deck access to each apartment, via the Smithsons’ famous ‘streets in the sky’, was plugged into the quieter, more permeable elevation away from the street.

At the Atrium Building, this configuration is flipped: the living spaces overlook the new neighbourhood to the south rather than the busy traffic, while deck access is from the road side. Instead of open ‘streets’ to each front door, the access walkways are enclosed in a vast atrium – an arrangement we believe hasn’t been built on this scale before in an urban environment. The atrium protects the living spaces from noise and pollution, and in turn the linear block protects the smaller-scale housing to the south of the site. The role of the atrium, however, is not just defensive: it is an attractive, airy public-private space for the residents to meet and interact, and contains a triple-height winter garden which has become a focus for the block – and an important selling point for the apartments.

We took an initial design for the glass-roofed atrium and reconfigured it so that effective, passive ventilation could be achieved without compromising the quality of the space. A fundamental move was to raise the entire building by 1.5 metres so that we could draw fresh air into the atrium from the south side of the building, away from the road. A natural stack effect pulls this fresh air through a labyrinth and up through the atrium space to ventilate and cool it, assisted by the thermal mass of the concrete slab and brick surfaces within.

The setting of the controls for the ventilation was a particularly interesting part of the process. We worked with long-time collaborators and engineers Ramboll, who modelled the internal spaces in some detail, but we couldn’t be completely certain how the temperature would fluctuate over the year, and how the residents would react to this unusual environment. Most of the year, the ventilation system would be passive, effectively working itself, but on very hot days it is supplemented by fans. There was much discussion about whether or not residents would be disturbed by the noise of fans switching on and off during the night, so the acoustics of the space – and timings of these controls - were an important consideration.

The building was also originally designed with a glass roof, which potentially could have caused the atrium space to overheat. We explored a number of options (including removing it altogether), but eventually switched to a solid roof. We retained the light, sunny quality of the space, however, by introducing a series of openings in the roof, including a linear rooflight which stretches the length of the entire building and large circular apertures over the winter garden. The south-facing wall of the winter garden is shaded from the sun by perforated louvres supported on a steel peristyle. To bring as much daylight into the building as possible, we also carefully detailed elements such as the glazed walkway balustrade to minimise the number of uprights and maximise transparency.

The building has now been in operation for a year with no complaints (and has won and been shortlisted in several awards for high volume housing), so the early indications are that the environmental design is performing as intended, but watch this space for future visits back to Canning Town.