Taking full ownership

In a project that saw a return to the Master Builder approach, Tikari Works took the role of not only architect, but also developer and contractor on a CLT-framed residential scheme in Peckham – achieving a high quality result in the process. James Parker reports

A new development sitting adjacent to Peckham Rye park in south London may not at first glance appear to be dramatically different from other architect-designed schemes. Perhaps this belies its biggest claim to fame – that the architects, Tikari Works, not only designed the two-volume project, but also acted as developer, and contractor.

Ty Tikari, who founded the young practice in 2014 with his wife Nicola, explains to ADF how a big driver for the design – with the architects having full control over the brief – was to avoid it looking like ‘standard housing.’ “We talked about the generic nature of a lot of housing at the moment, and tried to avoid that.”

The practice was in an unusual position, with jurisdiction over many aspects of the project, but this also increased its exposure to risk dramatically – commercially as well as in terms of construction. However, what is now an innovative business model has been Tikari’s modus operandi since founding. It has resulted in a clutch of well-regarded schemes such as the Pocket House, a family home on a tiny site which won the RIBA London 2019 Award.

This all-encompassing responsibility, reminiscent of the Master Builder arguably last spotted in Victorian times, also meant that the stakes were raised to create a design that would break some new ground in the fairly conservative residential sector, says Tikari.

He tells ADF: “If we are going to take on the role of client, contractor and architect we should be trying to explore what’s possible with housing rather than produce what you would do with a separate client and contractor.” To not do this would be “a missed opportunity,” he adds. Setting the rules also meant synthesising all of the elements – commercial, legal, construction and marketing, “so they are all working in concert, rather than having separate voices all going off in different directions.”

The fully integrated role turned out to be invaluable on this high-profile scheme, allowing the firm to make sensible ‘buildability’ decisions early on, because it was thinking ahead about the construction ramifications of design choices. In fact, underlying many of the aesthetic design decisions was a strong sense of pragmatism, befitting a developer’s eye. This is perhaps most evidenced in the internal spaces by the exposed CLT frame, which while offering a distinct look also represents a streamlined approach to construction, benefitting the project as a whole.

The results are a pair of largely timber buildings finished with a high degree of attention to quality and detail, but yet without the lofty price tag that might be expected. The well-crafted and spacious apartment buildings came in at around £2400 per square metre; “pretty respectable for this level of quality and the scheme’s bespoke nature,” says Tikari.

Site context
Peckham, like so many formerly downbeat areas of London, is now firmly in the semi-gentrified category. EU regeneration funding since the 1990s led to investments such as Will Alsop’s Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library, completed a mile to the north of the Rye Apartments’ site, in 2000. 2019 it was London’s fastest-growing borough in terms of prices – on average houses are now fetching £619,000.

The Rye Apartments sit at a prominent corner at the top end of the park, on the busy junction where East Dulwich Road crosses Peckham Rye. Including a pair of split-level three bedroom apartments in each block, as well as a mix of more conventional one and two-beds (10 apartments in all), the scheme offers something different to London buyers.

Tikari admits that developers “typically try to avoid three-bed flats,” as less saleable, preferring smaller units in greater volumes. However he says that as well as presenting a “more interesting architectural expression to work with,” the larger apartments would also plug a gap in the local market for a more affordable offer, but providing similar floor area as three-bed houses in Peckham.

The practice purchased the site with no planning permission, containing a set of five garages and a dilapidated 1950s two-storey building which had seen various uses from an office to a nursery, before being converted into three flats. Says Tikari: “It made sense to do a new sustainable scheme on the site, rather than trying to retain and extend a poor quality building.”

The lack of having a separate developer client meant the architects were freed from responding to a typical residential brief. Instead it was a “negotiation between the financial considerations and architectural aspirations, and trying to see where those two things fit together.” By the same token, Tikari says that they “try not to do anything which is purely a decorative or superfluous gesture – to find an expression which is performance based, whether that is environmental, commercial, contextual, or just atmospheric.”

The idea for two separate, but linked low-rise buildings emerged from a close look at the local context and building scale, which constitutes a “mixed grain” of 1980s and earlier council housing, and retail, with grand red brick Victorian and Georgian terraces further south along the park. “So it made sense to have two buildings responding differently,” says the architect; The larger front building contains six apartments – two two-beds on the ground and first floors, and two split-level three beds on the second and third floors. The rear building has four apartments – two one beds on the ‘lower ground’ and two further three-bed split levels on the upper ground and first floors.

The site has three aspects, making it “quite exciting architecturally to deal with,” he adds. It terminates a “tapering” block, and the architects did several massing studies to see how to create a fitting “end stop.” In addition, windows had to be minimised on the long south-facing elevation, so an overall composition was needed that would offset this.

A “sculptural” approach was taken to the two blocks, which ended up as forms tapering at upper levels, one with a pitched gable roof echoing adjacent houses, the other a more ‘modified’ gable. Within a constrained site, the architects struck a balance between maximising floor space for owners, and ameliorating light issues for neighbours, while achieving as much as possible for residents (amply aided by the large windows at high level).

The result was a monolithic exterior with horizontal bands of clay shingles encasing both walls and roof. This was partly making a virtue of necessity as height restraints and the eave lines of the former Victorian bank next door meant that the front elevation could not be as high as originally planned. The roof appears more as a steep section of cladding, signalled by cranked windows that wrap around the otherwise invisible junction between wall and roof. The form is then truncated to create a flattened, mansard-like effect.

There are flush structural bonded windows to front and rear, which crank vertically over the junction between wall and roof. This gives a more personalised identity to the building, but also has a performance benefit, especially to the rear, as the crank allows light to penetrate deeper into the plan. It also gives users the opportunity of having two different obscuring blinds.

A concrete plinth
With the frame being of CLT, and the site sloping around 1.5 metres from front to back, a continuous concrete retaining wall was created, linking the two buildings as part of a ‘plinth.’ This also created a new datum line which enabled four level gardens sitting between the two blocks in a courtyard created by the retaining wall.

This approach avoided “having the two sculptural forms meeting the ground in a slightly awkward way,” says Tikari. It would also create a buffer zone which would be more resistant to any damage at street level than the shingle cladding, for which replacing any individual units would be a major headache due to the way it’s laid. The architects decided to go for fair-faced shuttering to the wall, rather than bring in another trade to clad it.

While reinforcing the idea of “unity and community” between the two buildings, using the wall to create a protective ring around the scheme, the architects also wanted to bring light through into the gardens. So in some areas there are punched rectangular holes, creating a lighter visual feel as well as interest internally. The goal was that this feature would also

prevent graffiti, however local artists have focused on the solid section around the bin and bike store to the front, leading the architects to replant the green roof with hanging plants, in an attempt to screen it as much as possible.

The shingles (in part chosen as they would work on both walls and roof, and provide a ventilated rainscreen) represent a very common sense cladding approach, while providing a “natural warmth” that ties in with neighbouring properties. “From a construction point of view it’s very low tech, no specialist trades required,” says Tikari. The C-shaped clay forms are hung in traditional fashion off cross battens, and fixed by two screws. As contractor, the architects brought specialist tradespeople on to the job for certain roles, however carpenters and brickies worked throughout the project: “there’s more incentive for them to do a good job,” says Tikari, as they are not handing over to someone else.

This is thought to be the largest volume of Petersen shingles yet featured on a UK project: Tikari says that the effect of the reddish brown expanse helps the building “sit quite softly within the context.” However the extensive use of the material, wrapping the forms, also “creates a bit of tension.” He adds, “it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, which is something we really liked about it.”

CLT & interiors
Explaining the overall thought process behind the construction, which fed into the use of factory-assembled CLT, Tikari says: “Right from the beginning we were working quite volumetrically. A lot of the key decisions and the spaces that resulted came from working in that kind of sectional approach, rather than just an extruded floor plan approach typical in housing.”

The architects wanted to “avoid generic spaces” and see “what other opportunities we could offer” – and CLT was part of the solution. Achieving it became a negotiation between commercial pressure to maximise the amount of floor space, and environmental and contextual pressures eg getting light in, and avoiding the creation of shadows over neighbours.

The duplex-style three bed flats are designed as “terraced houses on the top of each building” They have vindicated the architects’ approach, being the quickest to sell, despite the project having the misfortune of completing just as Covid took off in March 2020. They have terraces facing into the courtyard, one side offering “sweeping views of London.” They are cut into the roof, which as a result ‘hugs’ the terraces, increasing the sense of privacy, and making them highly usable spaces.

The concrete cavity walls have PIR insulation cast into them, and in both ground floor flats of the larger block they have been left exposed internally, enabling residents to “read how the building is constructed,” says Tikari. He said this was an important goal throughout, exemplified by the CLT frame being exposed internally. The only coating is white-tinted Envirograf fire protection, bringing the structure to Class 0/spread of flame. The walls are insulated with mineral wool, on sustainability grounds.

The internal layout in each block is simple: a “very efficient” plan based around a CLT stair and lift core, with apartment entrances off it. All the timber panels arrived on site in eight deliveries – (including floors, roofs, staircases, and lift cores, as well as “75 per cent of internal finishes,” says Tikari. This highly controlled, low-waste approach also produced a structure that sequesters around 237 tonnes of carbon.

A further benefit of CLT was that due to its predictable dimensional accuracy, Tikari Works were able to order windows and kitchens before the frame arrived, “because we knew that the tolerances for openings would be very small.” He adds: “We knew that what we drew would be what got built.

In addition, Tikari says that with the architect taking the lead role, there’s a “huge benefit” to having all of the components provided by one package and one subcontractor (Eurban). Lastly, all of the plugs and sockets openings are prerouted in the factory, so that the electrician turns up onsite and “just needs to connect A to B.”

The only caveat is that “you need to draw more, and deeper into the programme; you are coordinating the light sockets at the same time as coordinating the groundworks, due to the lead time. Once you build that into the thinking, it’s manageable.”

The architects from the office were onsite almost every day, part of the reason this project achieved a level of quality that has seen it pick up awards, such as the Gold Award at the Wood Awards 2020. The level of oversight, and management of the project meant “much closer day to day co-ordination” between design and build than normal, says Ty Tikari.

He says it stands in contrast to a major current problem, “especially for the younger generation, of never actually visiting a building site, a real disconnect between what you draw and what actually happens.” This didn’t mean there was architectural indulgence on this project, it was run as efficiently as possible, “with the minimum number of parts and people required,” with an attendant sustainability as well as cost benefit.

With design, development and construction continually overlapping on this project, the architects were never ‘pushing problems down the line to be dealt with eventually’. Rather, the impact of design decisions had to be considered in real time with the commercial and construction sides of the project. This is the nature of a role that is akin to having complete control. The irony is that it would take something way outside of their control, like Covid, to present a major setback to this highly successful scheme.

Project FactFile

  • Client, architect and main contractor: Tikari Works
  • Project team: Ty Tikari, Nicola Tikari, Nick O’Reilly, Ewelina Krol
  • Structural engineer: Webb Yates
  • M&E and acoustics: Syntegra
  • Specialist craftsman: VT Construct
  • CLT subcontractor: Eurban
  • CLT manufacturer: Stora Enso
  • Shingles: Petersen Tegl
  • Gross internal floor area: 880 m²