A bold renovation by Henley Halebrown provides efficient but uplifting workspace and a model for sensitive development, finds Crispin Kelly
I hadn’t ever heard of the Benyon Estate, but I have now. Comprising more than 300 buildings, it is looked after by Edward Benyon, who I meet in a bar at the ‘Block’, a nineteenth-century former industrial building newly refurbished by architect Henley Halebrown, accompanied by his three dogs and his dress-down style.
The estate has been in the family for more than 200 years, and forms the privately-owned and controlled rump, if one can call it that, of De Beauvoir Town, nestling between Hackney and Haggerston in north London. We have all heard of the Portman, Cadogan and Bedford Estates, but here is another one, small(er) and being cared for by a very committed Edward.
Already owning the freehold of a 30,000-square-foot chunk of tired B1, making up 90-100 De Beauvoir Road, Benyon proceeded to buy in short leases to enable a comprehensive redevelopment. But it was, says architect Simon Henley, a very particular brief. Where most developers would have tried to get residential (at the very least for new space on the roof), Benyon was concerned to provide the estate with flexible workspace, and he had also done some research down the Regent’s Canal as to what sort of space millennials apparently want: a habitat of various modest sizes, with flexible leases and a shared bar.
Having already provided a shop unit for a deli, space for a nursery, and sites for a primary and secondary school elsewhere on the estate, Benyon wanted to continue the improvements with a contemporary workplace. This was to be ‘patient capital’ in action. It was to be for the good of the community, and for the ultimate benefit of the estate as well. Not only didn’t he want any new residential, but he also wanted a design that wouldn’t upset the locals, including himself.
Henley Halebrown’s first move was to clear a courtyard between the two main buildings, now surfaced in an engaging light pink concrete. Next, fill in a corner gap with a small new building, and finally extend the top floor with a rather interesting collection of rubber-clad rooms.
From the street, to Benyon’s satisfaction, there is not much to get upset about. Once you are on the decking at third-floor level on the courtyard side, an intriguing street meanders around the rooftop, with the EPDM-clad units dotted along it like beach huts on a boardwalk.
I found the lack of greediness on the part of the developer very refreshing. A more aggressive approach would have built over more of the roof, but here there are places to pause, even say hello. On my visit with Simon Henley he was clearly delighted to see that one tenant had left their door ajar, potentially inviting some overhearing and random communication with neighbours.
At the top of the new corner building in the courtyard one tenant occupies a series of three spaces, each a truncated pyramid formed with engineered timber. A lot of thought has gone into what could have been a simple single volume, but now has a sort of ordinary poetry which verges on the domestic. These are spaces for work, but catching a mood identified by Edward Benyon, engage with the richness of attics and skylights.
Benyon’s desire for a resource for the community which also makes money is well matched with Henley’s manifest interest in the expressive capacity of materials, and how this can be harnessed for social programmes. The restored warehouse language we are familiar with (metal windows, painted brickwork, exposed services) now engages with rubber, elegant wayfinding and sheets of limed plywood to suggest a world of work mixed with messages about home. There is a manifest alertness to what sort of neighbourliness the Block can encourage, of the ways occupiers might collaborate, and of what can be shared here.
I would say the signs are encouraging. Visiting various spaces I felt an optimistic and open vibe which architect and client can relish. Most importantly, one of the tenants had brought in their daschund, who was very comfortably installed on a sofa in their unit, and wasn’t shy about being photographed.
Amidst the oceans of gimmicks and apparent freebies offered by co-working spaces – or the similar spaces developed for the biggest tech companies desperate to appear cool – the Block has a neighbourly reticence and seems to deliver more than it promises. Without climbing walls and pool tables, this proposes something more profoundly sustainable.
While celebrating all this good manners, there are perhaps a couple of moves about which one might have reservations: the EPDM seems to be bubbling on some vertical surfaces when one gets up close, and the colonnade of paired precast concrete columns supporting the loggia facing onto De Beauvoir Road seems somewhat artful, but maybe a justifiable flourish.
Overall the Block has been the production of a dream team. What started out as a Google search for ‘architects in Hoxton’ has produced a collaboration between a caring investor and a conscientious architect which is a model to us all and is set to continue for the next phase along De Beauvoir Road. There is also a nice irony that having used a target rental figure per square foot in his development appraisal, Edward Benyon is now getting top rents of almost fifty per cent more, which is probably greater than residential would have been worth. This is what London’s great estates should be all about.