Slab, point-accessUrban villa
Trinity Buoy Wharf
Lacey, Nicholas & Partners | London, Great Britain | 2001-2002
Image of Trinity ...
View of the entrance area and the east facade of Container City II

ProjectTrinity Buoy Wharf
ArchitectLacey, Nicholas & Partners
CountryGreat Britain
Address64 Orchard Place, E14
Building TypeSlab, point-access
Urban villa
Number of Dwellings34
Date Built2001-2002
Dwelling Typesstudio/flats
No. Floors4,5
Section Typeflats
Exterior Finish
metal, glass
Construction Typecontainer/steel frame
Ancillary Servicesparking

Trinity Buoy Wharf is a peninsula at the eastern part of the Docklands opposite the Millennium Dome where the Lea River flows into the Thames. This area was used in the 1800’s for manufacturing buoys and docking lightships and today has London’s only lighthouse, a structure that was designed in 1863 for Michael Faraday for the training of lighthouse keepers. Faraday carried out his experiments with navigational light and optics in the lighthouse. There was also a shipyard and dry-dock. Following the relocation of the city’s shipping industry and the subsequent decline of marine and manufacturing activities along the river, Trinity Buoy Wharf became available for redevelopment. Many of the remaining industrial buildings were Listed Grade II Industrial landmarks and a creative use had to be found for the adaptive re-use of the beautiful old brick warehouses and other industrial buildings and paraphernalia that were scattered over the peninsula. Following a competition for development proposals, the Docklands Development selected Urban Space Management in 1997, for a concept to develop the site as a cultural center for the arts, artists’ studios and workshops, and a program of exhibitions and other events. Plans included the conversion of the warehouses to studios and workshops, the construction of a public pier on the river, the creation of a training center, and a landscape plan. Fatboy’s, a USA style 1940’s dinner was already a landmark at the end of the wharf. The plan also included the construction of a bridge across the Lea River to Newham connecting the wharf to other sites along the Thames to the east, the Royal Victoria Docks area, the existing exhibition center, and London Airport.

Part of the USM proposal was to build new housing using re-cycled metal shipping containers that could be rapidly (construction took only 3 months) and economically built. ContainerSpace Ltd. was formed to build the housing using a system that was designed by Nicholas Lacey and Partners and engineered by Buro Happoid. The program called for 30 self-contained workspaces that were to be built in two stages, Container City 1 and Container City 2. In Container City I, fifteen 40-foot containers were stacked on 3 levels providing 12 studios. In Container City II another 30 containers were added. This resulted in two separate groups of stacked containers that were serviced by a common vertical circulation core and connecting bridges. The two buildings were placed in the open space between existing warehouses so that Container City II faces east toward the end of the peninsula and the water. In the first group the 40’ containers are arranged parallel fashion in 4 tiers facing east and west with entrance at the ends. The second group is 5 floors high and here some of the containers are rotated 90 degrees making a large, more complex, stacked arrangement with some overhanging boxes that are supported on secondary steel framing to make space for vehicles to pass beneath the building. The vertical core sets in the space between the two groups and is formed with two towers, one for the elevator and one for the stair, that are made by placing containers on end. The towers define a glazed entrance lobby and bridges with glass balustrades connect from this to each building on the upper floors. This circulation element is partially covered by a fabric tension structure. Containers in the first building are all painted the same russet color while those in the new block are painted in alternating different primary colors. The east elevation of this group is seen prominently at the entrance to the Trinity Buoy Wharf community.

The basic 8’ x 8’ x 40’ container with doors on one end was modified to make it suitable as habitable space. Two types of windows are used to admit daylight to the interiors. The first, a large round pivoting window is used in the solid ends of the container and at regular intervals along the exposed sides. The second type is a sliding glass door that replaces the double metal doors at the end of the container. Here the original container doors are secured in the open position—like blinders—and support a 4 x 8 balcony that has an open railing. In some of the studios in City II, the door/balcony element is also applied to the side of the container. In the original building, smaller fixed round windows were also cut from the container doors creating a secondary pattern of light and transparency. The open and closed ends alternate and result in a rich variegated composition of differently painted corrugated metal walls, punched round windows, and continuously glazed openings. The inside of the containers are covered with spray insulation over membrane waterproofing to stop condensation and the walls and ceiling are finished in plasterboard. A single 8 x 40 container may suffice for a small studio or office, but an important concept for using the containers involved a strategy for combining container interiors. This was accomplished by simply removing side walls and supporting the container edges with steel posts on the interior. Two or more containers can be used together this way resulting in studios that vary in size from 240-540 square feet, for a total of 34 units. Toilets are located at the bridge entrances, units have minimum services and electric heating is used.

The idea of recycling containers, as housing is an idea that has grown in its appeal as the world stockpile of old containers has mushroomed in recent years and there are many experiments, competitions, projects in schools of architecture, and prototype designs for all kinds of container conversions and buildings. Trinity Buoy Wharf, however, is probably the only sizeable application of the idea in a multi-unit arrangement that is actually being used as intended. The prototype design for the basic conversion of the typical container was developed for 12 classrooms that were built by Eric Reynolds and USM for Trinity College. But, Lacey’s interest in the stacked modules dates from his design for riverside housing at Crown Reach next to the Vauxhall Bridge finished in 1984. While Crown Head is much larger concrete structure with brick walls and terraces, the same stepped form, modular qualities, rotated and cantilevered elements and exposed secondary structural frame are all features resident in this project built before all the Docklands housing got underway after about 1980. Crown Reach combines two concepts popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the idea of modular housing that gets stacked in multi-family groups and the idea of a structural frame that forms an armature and circulation infrastructure to which pre-manufactured residential modules can be attached. Paul Rudolph’s 1960’s proposals for “highway bricks” that involved a system of factory made boxes the dimensions of which were determined by the size that could be shipped by truck, are an example of the stacked box idea. Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal is perhaps the best-known example of the frame-supported prefab box idea. Inevitably, these projects evolve into some kind of terraced scheme and a distinctive mound or terraced form like Habitat or Crown Head and their success often rests with how well space within the mound is used. City I is a straightforward stack. City II, however, is much more involved with variety, stacking issues and structure outside the box, service zones, day lighting and terraces, and even in this very modest group of dwellings, the mound form starts to be apparent. The potential of the box form to create roof terraces as units are slipped past one another is also partially realized in City II, but never really developed as a dominant feature of the scheme.

The standard shipping container presents unique problems for dwelling conversion. They are cheap (depending on the original condition), very strong, long lasting, and truckable. At the same time the dimensions and materials are very limiting: the relentless 8’ height, the detail problem of making windows in a corrugated surface, plumbing, and HVAC if it is anything but electric heaters. Reynolds and Lacey produced a later prototype of the container dwelling that was built as a group of live-work studios for artists in Cove Park, Scotland. Here one whole side of the container was removed, framed and glazed so that the interior of the container opens to a waterfront scene. The usual palette of round windows was used along the back wall, and the roofs were sod. These units, although still 8’ high, seem to be much more interesting spatially. But, the multi-floor application is much more difficult. Rapid deployment, low initial costs, and funkiness may be qualities that appeal to artists (but isn’t it almost a given that artists need higher spaces??) or are suitable for work spaces, but without a lot of extra investment in accessories and modifications, these dwellings probably don’t compete with a comparable London flat. But Trinity Buoy Wharf seems to be an ideal testing site for the idea of a container city. The brightly colored industrial boxes contrast with but compliment the extant industrial archeology and seem to be the manifestation of a searching for a more sustainable lifestyle committed to re-cycling the industrial flotsam with which our culture seems to be inundated.

Architects' Journali, 8 Feb., 2001, pp. 7.

Hardingham, Samantha, London: A Guide To Recent Architecture, B. T. Batsford, London, 2002, pp. 294-97.

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©2002 Roger Sherwood. All Rights Reserved