The Atrium Building; The Art and Science of Delivery

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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The delivery phase of a project may seem unglamorous compared to the initial, concept design stages when the client’s vision begins to take three-dimensional shape. Yet almost always, it’s only at the delivery stage that those ideas are really tested, when ideas begin to become reality. Often that first vision is completely re-visioned, interrogated across the disciplines in such a way that goes far beyond the mundane.

East City Point is a new neighbourhood of 610 mixed-tenure homes in Canning Town, east London, masterplanned by MacCreanor Lavington. The Atrium Building, of 153 units, is the penultimate building on the site to be completed, and sits on the northern edge of the masterplan, immediately adjacent to a busy arterial route into the centre of London. This challenging context drove the initial design, which positioned the living space away from the road on the south side of the building, protected from noise and pollution by a huge, naturally ventilated, passively conditioned atrium.

Our task was to painstakingly unpick a series of complex technical challenges to make this space work, both in terms of its buildability and its long-term environmental performance. Our clients, Countryside Properties, tend to deliver their schemes with a standardised procurement approach, using tried-and-trusted subcontractors and a design delivery team. They often delegate elements of the design out to these subcontractors to make the process more efficient. But the unusual nature of the Atrium Building project meant that this was not always possible.

The success of a building of this type relies on a complex inter-relationship between the various disciplines involved – not just structural, environmental and architectural, but also specialists such as façade designers, fire experts and acoustic consultants – so dividing the design into packages was not appropriate. The Atrium Building is more akin to some of the large higher education projects we have worked on (where concrete construction is a common theme) than a typical residential design, so it was a natural choice to work with one of our long-time collaborators on those projects, engineer Ramboll. They provided additional design expertise but, critically, a holistic approach to the environmental engineering which included the kind of specialisms listed above.

At the same time, however, we recognised that our clients wanted to use their usual supply chain as much as possible, and this was an important consideration when making choices about materials and construction techniques. We found that working closely with these known subcontractors meant that new things could be delivered in a cost-efficient way.

One particular meeting that really seemed to sum up how we collaborated across the various disciplines was one held to agree how the scaffolding should be installed to build the concrete walkways (which access each individual apartment) and the glazed façade. Space was extremely tight on this side of the site: the A13 roared past just metres away, only separated from the building by a cycle superhighway. Everyone’s voice needed to be heard to make it happen, so we brought together concrete frame contractor, curtain wall contractor, scaffold specialist, structural engineer, construction site manager and client project manager to discuss just how the installation should be achieved – a scenario unheard of when a project is silo-ed into discrete design packages.

At our suggestion, a mock-up of one of the bays in the curtain wall was also constructed to check its quality and performance. Although full scale mock-ups are very common in commercial projects, they are unusual on large developments of this type (due to their additional cost), but we were able to demonstrate to the client the long-term benefit of getting the details of this very important element of the design right first time.

In other areas, however, we were more than happy to work with existing subcontractors to deliver the design. Brick was used as one of the main cladding elements, for example, and this was laid in the traditional way by the same bricklaying firm that had built all the other buildings in the masterplan, as this was the most economical way to do it.

This intricate balance between new and trusted techniques, and the choreography of a diverse group of specialists, were vital to the re-visioning of the building. A second planning application was necessary and this, and the redesign process, took around two years to complete, but we believe this is time well spent in the quality of the building we have achieved together.