Slab, corridorSlab, gallery-access
Murray Grove
Cartwright and Pickard (Peter Chartwright and James Pickard) | London, England | 1999-2000
Image of Murray ...
View looking south down Sheperdess Walk

ProjectMurray Grove
ArchitectCartwright and Pickard (Peter Chartwright and James Pickard)
AddressShepherdess Walk/Murray Grove Way
Building TypeSlab, gallery access
Number of Dwellings30
Date Built1999-2000
Dwelling Types1 & 2 BR flats
No. Floors5
Section Typeflats
Exterior Finish
terracotta, cedar, glass perforated aluminum, steel, stainless steel
Construction TypeManufactured prefab modular units
Ancillary Services

The Peabody Trust, founded by the American philanthropist George Peabody in 1862, is one of the largest and oldest housing associations in London. Nearly 50,000 people are housed in properties that the Peabody Trust either owns or manages and they are one of the most important forces behind social and economic urban renew (regeneration) and the construction of affordable, sustainable housing in London. In March 1998, Peabody got permission from the London Borough of Hackney to develop a difficult brownfield infill site using a new system of factory made, modular elements. The 5-story building on a corner site provides 30 one and two bedroom flats in what is the first use of this prefabricated system in the UK, the result of Peabody’s determination to develop new techniques for innovative, economical housing targeted for young service workers who cannot afford a mortgage but do not qualify for social housing. Several young architectural firms were interviewed and Cartwright Pickard was selected for the proposal to build using prefabricated technology.

The ell-shaped building completes the corner of a block of heterogeneous buildings, continuing the height of the adjacent buildings along the street to each side and defining a semi private garden area on the interior of the block. A round circulation tower at the corner connects to the 5-storey wing of dwellings to each side. The cylinder is enclosed with curved perforated aluminum screens that give it a machined translucent appearance. The roof of the cylinder is supported by the braced structure of the elevator and extends above the height of the adjacent wings adding to the image of a dominant vertical tower. The cylinder is fully glazed at the sidewalk where there is a cantilevered glass awning that defines a spacious entrance lobby from which there is a view of the interior garden. The gallery-access apartment blocks to either side continue the surface, height, and coloration of adjacent buildings along the street. The street facades, surfaced in terracotta tile, are expressed as a highly articulated zone of structure and horizontal galleries that are set forward 1.5m from the recessed wall of the building. The galleries are made of pre-cast concrete floor panels that bolt to the face of the building and are supported by round pipe columns secured between sections of perforated aluminum balustrades along the outside edge of the gallery. This structure is braced with a system of diagonal stainless steel cables that attach to the columns at each floor. The openings in the street walls are minimal with only the entrance doors to apartments and small bath and kitchen windows in the dominant terracotta surface. The galleries extend into the covered platform areas within the circulation cylinder.

The two slabs of apartments each contain 3 flats per floor and are organized with entrance, bath and kitchen in a zone along the galleries with bedrooms and living areas opening to sizeable triangular balconies that overlook the garden. The sliding glass doors and full-height windows dominate the surface of the garden facades, the wall of which is finished in red cedar. The garden balconies are triangular versions of the access-galleries now prefabricated in steel and concrete but with the same translucent perforated aluminum balustrades and small pipe columns. The precise modular organization of the street facades contrasts sharply with the expansive glass of the garden facades where the horizontal cedar siding covers the joints between modules. While the terracotta and cedar have a similar red color, the choice of materials seems to reflect the closed condition of the street versus the more open domestic nature of the garden.

The very repetitive, modular nature of the plan and elevations is a clue to the innovative technology of the design and construction. Murray Grove is made of identical prefabricated, monocoque light steel framed boxes that were factory assembled, trucked to the site and lifted by crane into position. These building units are stacked, and connected at the corners rather like marine container vessels. Each module has finished interiors, is wired and plumbed, and comes complete with carpets and kitchen and bath fixtures, doors and windows. Walls are made with light metal framing and the 78mm exterior panels are made with gypsum panels on the interior surface, injected insulation and galvanized steel exteriors to which a metal sub frame had been attached to support the terracotta panels. Manufactured by Yorkon, using a production line in York that had been used to manufacture standard hotel rooms, the same module is used for both living and bedrooms. These units, 8m long x 3.2m wide x 3m high, were the largest size that could be moved by truck. Bedrooms and living rooms are exactly the same size and each has either a kitchen or bath at one end. The one bedroom apartment consists of 2 modules while 3 are used in the 2-bedroom unit. The space between bath and kitchen was used as entrance and small dining area and the leftover space at the end of the middle module in the 2-bedroom unit is used as an enlarged kitchen area. The terracotta panels are hung from the light metal framing on the outside of the prefabricated modules. This is a dry system that was easily assembled on site using the galleries so it could be done without scaffolding and results in a very precise pattern of horizontal and vertical open joints. The window and doorframes are kept flush with the surface of the terracotta. The circulation cylinder and triangular balconies were also made of steel framed prefabricated sections that are hoisted into position. The pitched roof on the apartments blocks is a separate light metal structure that is expressed on both sides of the building as a zone of corrugated metal flush with the façade and deep overhang eaves.

The advantages of the Yorkon modules are better quality control and reduced construction times. The site work was done with conventional piles and foundations and the modules were assembled on these platforms and the construction time was only 7 months. Yorkon had used their modular assembly previously for classrooms and fast food outlets, but this seems to be the first time housing was built using this technology. The resistance to the use modular/prefab construction probably results from construction practices in the 1960’s when systems of prefabricated concrete panels were widely used in many countries. Problems with these bolted panel systems resulting from condensation, leaking roofs, insect infestation, panel deterioration, and other defects contributed to typical social problems, a lack of security, vandalism, and graffiti. Following the success of Murray, Peabody is using prefab modular systems on another larger project, Raines Dairy, on another brownfield site.

The use of terracotta panels is also a relatively new innovation in exterior finishes. Combining the color and longevity of brick, but without the attendant problems of weight and construction time associated with normal bearing walls or prefabricated, glued brick wall panels, thin terracotta panels that can be applied to light weight panelized wall systems have many advantages. Renzo Piano in the Meaux housing in Paris in 1991 perhaps first used this system. Here the terracotta was applied dry to pre-cast concrete wall panels. More recently, terracotta panels were used at two housing sites in London by Proctor and Matthews, at Millennium Village Phase 2 (2001) and in their Chronos Buildings on Mile End Road, built about the same time. At Murray Grove, the modular quality of the panel application is obvious, but the impression of a continuous wall surface is still maintained that effectively masks the basic structure of stacked boxes.

Two side effects of the Yorkon modular system are the lack of room and apartment variety. Bedrooms and living rooms are exactly the same size. This either results in very large bedrooms or very small living rooms. The organization of baths and kitchens at the street end of the module also results in a sizeable empty space that is essentially for circulation. This space is considerably enlarged in the larger dwelling type. The use of a shorter module for the 2nd bedroom in the apartments next to the elevator tower produces a slightly more efficient unit, but one that is unique requiring a different assembly procedure. The organization of apartments along the open access gallery, the zoning of the rooms with kitchens and baths along the gallery and living and bedrooms spaces opening to balconies on the opposite side is very similar to Dutch examples of social housing from the 1930’s in Rotterdam: Bergpolder by Van Tijen, Brinkman & Van der Vulgt, 1932-34, and its sister slab, Kralingse Plaslaan Apts. by Van Tijen & Maaskant, built in 1936-37. These two are completely different models, high-rise, modernist slabs on open sites as compared with Murray Grove’s infill corner on a perimeter block, but the plan organization and modular repetition is similar. While the open access-gallery is a popular model in both London and Rotterdam, in spite of the resulting compromise in weather protection, privacy, and security, Murray Grove has more severe privacy/security problems with the ground floor dwellings that open almost directly to the space of the sidewalk. It is also interesting to compare the Peabody program for service workers with the French housing program in Paris for postal worker trainees (see Oberkampf for details about this program). Both programs focus on the housing needs of young service workers and the need for small, flexible dwellings to be built on small inner city sites as part of a general urban redevelopment strategy While the programs and funding requirements for each case are very different and prefabrication techniques are not an issue in Paris, the French model, using traditional construction practices achieves a greater mix of dwelling types, sizes, and spatial complexity. An obvious challenge for the future use of factory assembled apartment modules will be to create the amenities, variety, and spatial quality typical to the general housing marketplace.

The Housing Design Awards 1997-2003, RIBA

Powell, Kenneth, New London Architecture, Merrell Publishers, London, 2001, pp. 178-9

Hardingham, Samantha, London, A Guide To Recent Architecture, J.T. Batsford, London, 2002, pp. 206

Architects Journal Nov. 25, 1999, pp. 25-34

Architectural Design, n. 4, 2000, pp. 72-4

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