‘High-Rise and Small Spaces’: an Architecture Today event focussed on issues in designing tall, small-unit residential buildings

In association with


Neil Deely: co-founder, Metropolitan Workshop

Jeremy Estop: managing director, MJP Architects

Nelson Godhino: fire engineer, SE Controls                

Phil Henry: market development director, Polypipe

Gary Ledger: lead technical consultant, Kawneer UK

James Spencer: associate, Glenn Howells Architects

Tall buildings emerged as an urban type initially in the service of corporate expression and needs, often with open-plan office floor plates. But as the type evolved to embrace residential accommodation, other factors came into play, requiring new approaches in terms of design and construction. Where the accommodation units are intended for small numbers of occupants, as is the case with student residences, particular opportunities arise, especially in terms of prefabrication, and there has been a tendency for such buildings to become more slender. Three case studies that reflect this trend provided the focus for Architecture Today’s recent conference ‘High Rise and Small Spaces’.

MJP’s Aspire Stratford (phs: Simon Kennedy)

Jeremy Estop of MJP Architects opened with a consideration of the drivers for building tall, recalling that Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ maxim has been updated to ‘form follows finance’. Estop elaborated in particular on the emergence of single-occupancy high-rise – primarily for students – during the 1960s. As a student at Manchester University, Estop lived at Owens Park, where a 19-storey, BDP-designed tower occupies a suburban site, alongside low-rise courtyard residences which, he calculated, achieved an equivalent density. This argument had long underpinned the work of Richard MacCormac, the late founder of MJP, who progressed the ideas of Lionel March and Leslie Martin to promote dense, low- and medium-rise development. The context has evolved, however, and Estop neatly showed how earlier MJP work had informed the design of three recent tall buildings by the practice around London – Friendship House in Southwark, Torquay House in Westbourne Green, and Aspire Point at Stratford –especially in terms of people-centred planning.

The Stratford tower, near the Olympics site, comprises student rooms arranged in clusters of seven, with common rooms and laundry rooms distributed to encourage social interaction. The triangular plan gives the tower similar proportions from all directions, and limits overshadowing of an adjacent hotel. Notwithstanding the plan shape, the rooms are necessarily orthogonal, so the angles between are composed to add visual interest.

Glenn Howells Architects’ Urbanest Vauxhall (phs: Alan Williams)

Glenn Howells Architects sees small-unit high-rise as a significant growth sector, with demand for single occupancy flats from both workers and students, said associate James Spencer. Illustrating this with a series of unbuilt, built and forthcoming projects, he elaborated on GHA’s focus on social spaces, choice and flexibility. In particular, GHA is keen to design buildings that can be adapted over time, for example by incorporating ‘soft spots’ in internal walls that can facilitate future layout changes.

While setting a new marker with a slenderness ratio of 1:11, the Hulme Street student tower, soon to be built in Manchester, resonates with the city’s traditions of brick housing and chimneys. The brick context also informed GHA’s new Urbanest Vauxhall, built adjacent to a main rail line. The extruded plan form, with a prow that pays homage to New York’s Flatiron building, incorporates communal spaces at the bottom and top, where a ‘sky garden’ provides a privileged place for socialising and study.

Metropolitan Workshop’s Mapleton Crescent (phs: Edmund Sumner)

Neil Deely of Metropolitan Workshop presented Mapleton Crescent, Wandsworth, a 27-storey tower for Pocket Living, a developer that initially focussed on one-person flats but has recently diversified to include one- to three-bedroom flats. Designed to exacting site constraints, it comprises 60 per cent flats for local residents or workers, discounted by 20 per cent of market rates, with the rest sold on the open market. Most significantly, it is built using a prefabricated modular system (currently Europe’s tallest) with the slip-form core and prefabricated units being completed in just 14 weeks (the fit-out and cladding took about 12 months).


Phil Henry of Polypipe elaborated on the challenges building tall can pose for drainage systems in terms of SUDS, pollution and flooding, outlining the drivers, from the London plan to the 2025 document. Traditional solutions don’t necessarily provide the answers, so exploring innovative ideas, such as holding solutions for irrigation, are key, he suggested. Highlighting the paucity of design guidance, he stressed the role of research and collaboration, not least because of the implications for structural loads. In terms of Polypipe’s blue/green roofs, he showed projects in Holland where asphalt roofs have been repurposed as biodiverse and often accessible landscapes.

Kawneer’s Gary Ledger focussed on building movement, in particular how cladding systems accommodate dead and live loads, creep, sway and wind without compromising performance or safety. Responding to a trend in high-rise towards more complex envelopes and trapezoidal cladding installations, Kawneer’s new ‘glass racking’ systems accommodate design flexibility and diverse movement.

Nelson Godinho of SE Controls drew attention to smoke ventilation in high-rise. Most casualties in fire situations result from from gas or smoke, so the role of ventilation in cooling smoke can be highly significant. In the light of the Grenfell disaster, Godinho stressed that high-rise design should prioritise safety over mere compliance. He contrasted sectional diagrams illustrating low-rise (where smoke vents can offer the optimum solution) and high-rise solutions, where keeping lobbies clear is a priority.