Apparata has designed 12 studio apartments for artists and their families in Barking, east London. Frances Holliss applauds the ingenuity and courage of a project that recognises the need for flexible, affordable accommodation.

Buildings.

The five-storey concrete building employs strong geometric forms, powerful massing, and deep covered balconies on the upper floors.

Unexpectedly successful, Covid-19’s experiment in enforced home-based work raises major questions for the built environment. Of those able to work from home during the pandemic, an overwhelming majority want to continue for at least part of the week. Survey after survey signals the end of the five-day-a-week commute in favour of a hybrid future. This is a pivotal moment for the way we conceptualise and design our cities and buildings. And in the context of the spotlight shone by the pandemic on social and spatial inequalities, this is particularly important for rethinking low-cost housing and the field of working-class home-based work, which for more than a century, has faced disapproval and urban exclusion.

It is lucky, therefore, that architectural studio Apparata started to explore these issues some years ago. Its latest building, A House for Artists, has as a result landed with exceptional timing in Barking as a fully formed essay in how to design well for home-based work – for the low-income, not the wealthy – before most have even started to think about the architectural and urban implications of mainstream working from home. Twelve studio-apartments, designed to nationally described space standards, sit three-to-a-floor above free to use workspace. Formally distinct to its housing-estate neighbours, this is a highly visible and deliberately public – civic even – building.

Ampetheatre

Sure-footed in terms of scale and composition, the building has a strong civic presence in Barking’s streetscape.

With a Swiss-infused fascination for the plan, Astrid Smitham and Nick Lobo Brennan’s unconventional starting point for the entire project was to tackle apparently intractable fire constraints in collaboration with expert and fire regulations author Beryl Menzies. The resulting simple, but radical design move, to place all residential fire-escape routes on the outside of the building via shared balconies (wide, social and inhabited at the front; narrow and utilitarian at the back) has far-reaching impacts on the way the inhabitants, a dozen households of low-income artists, can use the building. Menzies comments, “Building Regulations are not intended to dictate design. Fire safety guidance is merely that: guidance. The guidance within Approved Document B and the various British Standard documents addresses what are currently typical layout designs. This has come to be interpreted as being the layout required by the regulations: it is not.”

Ampetheatre

Linton Road elevation. The shop front reveals a collective workspace. Artist-inhabitants will use this space to run the borough’s community arts programme in exchange for a reduction in chargeable rent.

The pandemic has made it clear that housing needs to be bigger for people to comfortably work from home. While the middle class can generally achieve this through under-occupation – having a spare room or a garden office – it is more problematic for those in small, overcrowded, poorly-designed, inflexible homes. In this scheme, each affordable studio-apartment is 7-8 square- metres larger than the equivalent standard UK housing product. This is achieved for no additional cost, because the building’s fire strategy removes the need for internal corridors. Clever. Additional non-domestic generosity is breathed into all the building’s spaces by floor-to-ceiling heights that are, at 2.8 metres, half a metre taller than the minimum standard for housing.

Ampetheatre

View looking north east from William Street.

Maybe the most important finding of 20 years research into design for home-based work is that one size does not fit all. The nature of the work, the amount of space needed, the household structure and the way people like to work can be radically different – and can also change over time. A perimeter-based structural design addresses this. Only a few slender columns and shear elements sit within the building’s envelope, all but one embedded in the party walls. By removing physical material, the building is simultaneously cheaper and more carbon efficient. It is also more flexible and adaptable. Win, win. Huge pairs of double doors in ‘soft spots’ in the party walls between three second-floor units, detailed to be completely sound-proof, allow these apartments to be opened up to create a single space at will. Collaborative theatre and performance practitioners will be the first three households to occupy these co-living units, but the spatial flexibility would work equally well for a large extended family or households wanting to share childcare or eat together.

Unlike many housing layouts, in which rooms are designed tight-fit to a single use, a bed can be placed in more than one position in any room, and all studio-apartments are adaptable over time. Any internal wall can be removed to create different layouts, or open-plan space. Conversely, more walls can be built, if a more cellular approach is preferred; an inhabitants’ manual will show what is possible and how it can be achieved. Non-structural party walls can also be manipulated to make the units bigger, something taken for granted in houses, where back, front, side, and attic extensions are run-of-the-mill, but generally impossible in flats.

This is a deliberately public building that blurs the boundaries between work and home. At street level a fully glazed shop front, in places stepped behind the structure, reveals a collective workspace for those living upstairs that combines private studios and community arts space. In another piece of ingenious lateral thinking, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham has cross-subsidised the building through their Community Arts Budget. The artist-inhabitants pay only 65 per cent of the chargeable rent for their studio-apartments – and get to use the ‘live-adjacent’ workspace for free. In exchange, they commit collectively to conceiving and running the borough’s community arts programme free of charge – bartering, in effect, part of their week’s work for cheap homes and free workspace. Clever once again. Super-local, the artists curating and running the arts programmes will live upstairs, their work in the workspace and adjacent working yard visible to, and accessible by, neighbours and passers-by. As well as strengthening local social networks and the local economy, this will increase the ‘eyes on the street’. History tells us that artists have the potential to bring life and energy, creativity and a strong collective spirit to a neighbourhood if large, cheap, well-lit, open-span spaces are available to them. This is well-documented in neglected and disused buildings on both sides of the Atlantic, typically in post-industrial warehouses and factories. A House for Artists is ground-breaking in aiming to achieve this, spatially and economically, in a purpose-built building.

Rejecting the convention of home as private, inward-looking, purely domestic space, each studio-apartment is reached by a wide, shared, linear courtyard designed as a social, plant-filled space. Aware of the tendency for governance issues to prevent the inhabitation of such spaces, fire regulations and tenancy agreements have been specifically negotiated to facilitate this: plants, tables and chairs will be welcomed not banned. Instead of small, domestic-scale windows, vast areas of glass reminiscent of historic weavers’ windows look onto these collective spaces maximising the natural light in the apartments – crucial for artists working from home. Opening fully, they create ambiguous inside-outside, public-private, work-home spaces. Window cills concealing upstand beams are at bench-height, calling out to be sat on while chatting with a neighbour, watching kids play, or taking a break from work. The interiors are, as a result, unusually exposed to public view but, says Lobo Brennan, “privacy can be ‘dialled up’ later, while an increase in levels of natural light can’t.” As if prescient to the strictures of Covid-19, all circulation space is outside; stair and lift landings are interpreted as mini public squares, with great views across Barking and plenty of space for neighbourly conversations. Smitham says “It’s all about providing spaces that help form communities.”

Ampetheatre

Floor-to-ceiling glazing forms a strong visual connection between the street and the collective workspace located on the ground floor.

Creative thinking, and collaboration between public, private and third sectors, including the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, Apparata and arts charity Create London, has been essential in achieving what appeared hitherto impossible: beautifully designed space for working-class home-based work, affordable in perpetuity. One of the deeply committed individuals involved, Council Leader Cllr Darren Rodwell, speaks of Barking and Dagenham as a proudly working-class borough in which the arts have a central role in generating and maintaining community cohesion.

His wholehearted support and enthusiasm for the project, has been a crucial factor in, amongst other things, its successful navigation of a planning process that can find it difficult to accommodate ‘live/work’: A House for Artists sailed through planning under sui generis.

This is a brave and radical building that starts to right a century-old wrong: the deliberate design of our cities and buildings to exclude working-class home-based work. The 1930s Becontree Estate, just a stone’s throw away, provided 26,000 glorious, spacious, well-serviced Homes for Heroes. But a draconian tenancy agreement prohibited home-based work. This was aimed, in part, at making home environments more salubrious, in response to concern that working from home was unhealthy and dangerous. But it imposed a rigid separation between dwelling and workplace and, as a consequence, between a (generally) male breadwinner and female housewife. The East End families that moved onto the estate were used to operating in a family economy, to which all members of the household contributed – and work and life were often carried on in a largely undifferentiated way in, or close to, the home. On moving to the new estate this became impossible. The resultant gendered division of labour transformed many lives and something of great value was lost.

Ampetheatre

External fire escape routes double as generous shared balconies for the residents.

A House for Artists consciously overturns this, maybe for the first time. Unrelated to the pandemic, the visionary team behind the building spotted the need and worked through the spatial, economic and governance gymnastics necessary to overcome myriad obstacles to its realisation. While beautifully sure-footed in terms of scale and composition, form, materiality and proportion, this is a fundamentally innovative building. It breaks the mould of a broken profit-driven housing industry and offers an exciting model for future housing, spatially and economically.

In doing this, it raises the prospect of other budgets, local and national, that might be mined to enable sequels, such as A House for Joiners and Furniture-makers, A House for Tailors and Textile-workers or A House for Cooks, for example. Create London now faces the crucial and challenging task of developing governance frameworks that protect the long-term aims and affordability of the project. A House for Artists could be destroyed by its own success – so beautiful and desirable that it plants the seeds for the gentrification of Barking and Dagenham. The local council however – aware of precedents like Camden and Shoreditch – is ferociously and reassuringly opposed to such a process. This is a project to watch – it offers that rare contemporary commodity: hope.

Additional Images