Hackney, improbable world centre of urban CLT

Dalston Works before the bricks went on – Photo WaughThistleton

For the engineered timber sector the north-east London borough has led the way internationally in large-scale CLT projects. It's also been the making of out and out timber architects, WaughThistleton. How did this urban wood hub come about though, and why?

Who would have thought it! At timber conferences early on in our current decade, in Europe and across the world, a specific part of London – the north-east inner city borough of Hackney - began to be referenced as a place where a unique concentration of timber buildings could be found in the form of inner city wood projects. In a country, where building orthodoxy had never anticipated seeing timber buildings on a mass scale again, this was remarkable. What's more, the cluster of projects was receiving praise as easily the most impressive example of large scale urban CLT and related engineered timber housing to be found across European cities and towns. Beginning with 'the original timber tower' - as its architects, WaughThistleton strap-lined it on their website; although a further half dozen examples had also brought the eyes of myriad if related worlds to focus their attention on one of the planet's major world cities' more deprived boroughs. And, although those involved in London's crossover sustainability, architectural, timber, housing and developer networks know much or all of the story, the vast majority of Hackney's 250, 000 population, let alone millions of Londoner's, have no idea of this quiet revolution in their midst.

And after… Photo WaughThistleton

Why Hackney? How has one of the capital of Britain’s poorest, most diverse and multicultural municipalities, become a, if not the, world leader in urban CLT buildings and construction? And was the timber world right to point to Hackney as an urban timber Shangri-La? Or did the vaulting hype actually require a more measured and sober consideration of the facts?

Old Street roundabout looking south – Photo Wikipedia
Cast your eyes south down City Road; where, from the Old Street roundabout and the yawning steel, glass and concrete heights of the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, and the Cheesegrater and other high rises that symbolise London’s position as a world centre of finance, business and stock market trading, rise up to dominate the view. Surrounding what has become known as Silicon Roundabout - due to the many tech and new media companies found close by, the high rises aren’t quite so high but still loft ten, fifteen, maybe twenty storeys above ground level. Look north, and the cityscape abruptly falls away, beyond the immediate office blocks leaning in over the roundabout. The skyline beside the Shoreditch Road leading towards Hackney’s southern borders, slides quickly towards the more human scale of four, five or six floors. Old Street roundabout too, is a boundary line: Islington to the west and south, to the south-east the City of London, and to the north the beginning of Hackney borough itself. The thick warren of these Shoreditch streets has become a hipster’s mecca, circulating out from the borough’s southerly aspect towards Spitalfields Market, Whitechapel Art Gallery and Whitechapel High Street. Here, before you pass over the border into Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane is one of the hipster epicentre’s, “those shock troops of gentrification,” as Adrian Jones memorably put it. Head north on a bus though, and the creative colonisation by the shock troops various tribes extends some way along the outward bound roads, before petering out and normalising into long acres of suburban housing wards like Clapton and Homerton; or the ultra orthodox Hassidic Jewish district of Stamford Hill. To the east is the river Lea, green fingers of marsh and parkland broken by outliers like Hackney Wick, with its hard estates - phenomena which the borough isn’t short of, and which have contributed to a sizeable mixed bad-lands reputation. Highways such as Cambridge Heath Road and the almost pencil straight Kingsland Road which turns into the A10 to Cambridge and the North, eventually lead you out of the city altogether. Once, and not so long ago, some of these were drovers roads. Hackney districts, streets, markets across Hackney - Stoke Newington Church Street, Hackney Central, Broadway Market, London Fields - have become synonymous with its present day cool image for incomers; along with a ‘North London’ left-leaning political orthodoxy for which the political borough is known across Britain at large. Noticeable while walking, riding or driving along these roads, are the clusters of large-scale buildings, often around and on top of transport hubs - Dalston Junction is the proto-typical example; big national Government and Council developments, which, physically numbing and bleak behind the poster placard and website advertising, leaves so much
England distorted – Hackney's city limits – and its place in the
London borough system – Images WIkipedia

Spitalfields, as was, a hundred years ago

to be desired. Much of Hackney borough - seen from above as a re-angled, cut short, distorted outline of England is or has been, predominantly low rise housing. The level of diversity would also make an impact:  markets with produce for every sort of world cuisine, a global stew of people’s congregated together across the borough and, in summer, the heat and dust mixed in with the grit and grime. Poverty and deprivation would be clear underlining that there is more to Hackney than the hipster universe teeming at its southern periphery. Even so, unless suffering a particularly large blind spot, you’d also note the leafier roads where the middle classes have arrived; settling into their neck of the borough’s woods, invariably though not always, west of the Kingsland Road, west of a boundary line Tony Blair called to much retrospective controversy, “the wrong side of Hackney.” As you made these criss-cross journeys, you’d doubtless encounter larger housing and other developments clustered around particular places and spaces, where the sense of change is strongest and most obvious. Estates, though also park sides, and water basin developments, long in the throws of what Benedict Seymour, channelling Schumpeter, was already in 2004 describing as ‘the creative destruction of the inner city.’ This refashioning of the deprived quarter of the capital’s north east, sitting between what, historically, was known as the poorest part of London - the East End - and affluent North London, has continued apace through the intervening years. And scattered across its square mileage, it is here you’d most likely find examples of this seemingly improbable phenomenon: Hackney - world centre of urban timber.

Ridley Market, Kingsland Road, 100 years later
Southern borders - Whitechapel Art Gallery at the beginning (or end)
of Whitechapel High Street
Homerton tower block – earlier generation
medium rise

Like the arrival of CLT, Hackney’s reputation as home to artists, makers, political radicals along with left field middle classes in this inner city area of London - an all-purpose creative coolsville universe, is recent. Students, artists, bohemians, as well as waves of migrants from all over the world, began moving into the borough in the early 70s; the first CLT projects following thirty years later in the early naughties, the two being closely connected. Both are part of the slow-motion gentrification process that Hackney - up to the year 2010, the sixth poorest borough in Britain across multiple indices of deprivation – has been experiencing. The borough has also been integral to the waves of development that have been reshaping much of the inner ring of Northern and Eastern London boroughs. In the east, Docklands the capital’s second financial centre, rising out of London’s old dock areas remains a vast, seemingly permanent building site thirty years on. Nearby Stratford, with a one-time railway goods yards to match its riverside neighbour, has been on the receiving end of a more recent building bonanza boosted by the Olympic Games in 2012. Development along the Bow Road up to Stratford was particularly intense and rapacious; and Hackney may well count itself lucky not to be on the receiving end of Stratford’s more abysmal developments - BDP’s abject Unite Stratford City for instance.

Travelling through, rather than living in, this east and north Eastern seemingly urban sprawl, might encourage the perception that significant tranches of land across this part of London are ongoing building sites. There are definite contrasts between boroughs as well. The difference between the West and East side of the North Circular road boundary line are particularly graphic. Though less obvious, what you won’t find if you stray over the border into neighbouring Tower Hamlets, are any timber towers.

Fourth floor - Murray Grove under construction
That ‘original timber tower’ is a stone’s throw from Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout. Waugh Thistleton, the practice riding the crest of media and industry attention that Murray Grove or, as it was marketed at the time of completion, Stadthaus - have occupied offices within the hip quarter-mile of Shoreditch since 2004. At the time, there was no inkling that their patch of London might be setting the pace in urban timber. However, by 2007, a small but growing London network of London architects, engineers, and professional sustainability types, including Eurban, Techniker, dRMM, Quay2C, and PRS Architecture, had started building the first CLT projects, including Quay2C’s Waterson House, dRMM’s phase 2 Kingsdale school sports hall, and a couple of houses for architects.

Eurban, one of the two first CLT companies, ran their offices as well as sourcing the CLT out of Waterson House. Nearby just opened KLH’s British office consisted of a desk space in the engineer’s Techniker’s studio - the practice which would run the numbers and do the calculations on Murray Grove. Through 2007 and 2008, Murray Grove onsite was already generating ripples of interest. Visiting architects, and sections of both London’s wider planning world and its sustainable industry, were watching; drew their own conclusions regarding the potential to draw down carbon footprints in high density urban environments. Four KLH carpenters (flying over from Germany at the beginning of each week and back for again the weekend) completed a floor a week of the nine storey, £3 million, 29 apartment flat block. Although officially opened in Spring 2009, the tower was ready by late autumn 2008. And if there were criticisms that you wouldn’t know that Murray Grove was structurally a timber building, and that by other criteria this housing block was a thoroughly unremarkable piece of work, these views remained muted compared to the praise for technical achievement. Soon morphing together, two stories flowed from this praise. First, a nine-storey timber tower was proven as technically possible - exciting for engineers, architects and the sustainability world. Here it was, after all! If one nine-storey tower was possible, there could be many. The second point was how radically a structural timber tower could reduce a building’s carbon footprint. WaughThistleton released figures estimating that the new building’s CLT soaked up 196 tonnes of carbon. Meaning that according to the calculations, it was carbon negative. This was embodied energy - the carbon footprint that covered its construction - rather than the operational energy of the building once handed over and in use. The CLT negative carbon footprint, when compared to concrete or steel embodied footprint, each would have added 67.5 carbon tonnes and 57.25 carbon tonnes to the atmosphere, respectively, saving nearly 200 tonnes of carbon, was remarkable. On examination and from a sustainability perspective, the radical reduction in embodied energy that CLT realised in these buildings*, seemed to match the claims. And scaled up, what might a thousand make possible? There were other benefits, the aforementioned speed with which the building went up; the fact that timber was lighter than concrete and steel, and that building with CLT didn’t require wet trades on site. Ushering in such carbon reductions as well, Murray Grove as a technical achievement became the main headline. Within a few months of handing over, WaughThistleton were deluged with enquiries, something they may not have been completely prepared for.

Early CLT office block - Quay2C's Waterson House, one
of Eurban's earliest projects
KLK-UK's head honcho Karl Heinz Weiss and, right, Andrew Waugh – quite
some time ago
Street level - Murray Grove
Photo Will Pryce

Timber lift core inside Murray Grove – Photo Will Pryce
 “The interest in this project has been phenomenal and has swept us along with it,” Andrew Waugh wrote in a short piece for Fourth Door’s Annular website a couple of years later. I had visited Murray Grove when excitement about CLT got going in Spring 2008 and got to know him a little. In the years since, every time I’ve met Waugh, he’s come across as animated at the potential of what had been achieved by Murray Grove. In those first two or three years however, one also got the impression that he, and his practice partner Anthony Thistleton, had failed to anticipate just how much interest the project would generate. It also seemed clear, that these two young London architects hadn’t emerged out of the London sustainable building network; neither had they quite realised the full extent of the consequences of what they were doing with a CLT housing tower block. Waugh seems to enjoy describing himself as someone “who had eaten meat and driven fast cars”; and at the time took on much of the public speaking and PR dissemination, as invitations to talk from all over Europe and the world began to arrive – and have never really stopped. It sounds somewhat akin to a Shoreditch version of Tory and Labour DEFRA ministers, John Gummer and Michael Meacher, going native once they began to get the enormity of the environmental challenges ahead. Quite quickly, Hackney, via WaughThistleton, began to become plugged into the much larger continental timber scene; connecting for instance, with Europe’s principle timber architect, Vorarlberg’s Hermann Kaufmann, or Graz University’s CLT research department led by Gerhard Schickhofer see this edition’s interview with Schickhofer. Talks were given in cities such as Seattle, Sydney and St Petersburg and, arguably more consequential there were approaches from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP); contact and connections made with North American architects and sustainable urbanists like Vancouver’s tall timber proselytiser, Michael Green, or Richard Register, founder of the Ecocity Builders Network. Delegations started arriving, one week an Oregon mayor, the next the leader of a Swedish town council. But Waugh and Co were learning on the hoof. In a sense they were ‘working backwards,’ as Waugh readily acknowledged. He wrote, “Primarily we have learnt a heck of a lot. We have learnt just what an interesting thing it was that we did. We have learnt about the environment and the impact of the construction industry.” It isn’t too much to say, that because of Murray Grove, Waugh and the studio has been the veritable goldfish in the water of a goldfish bowl. Murray Grove gave them a glimpse of something larger than the architectural world they’d come from and, like true converts, they became zealous about their mission. “We have learnt how deeply steeped the language of architecture is in concrete, we are without doubt at that ‘fish with legs’ floundering on the shore’ stage. Talking timber with other obsessives around the world has given us an insight to what is possible and a reflection on what is accepted.”

It was a good time for WaughThistleton to be looking ahead towards twenty-first century timber architecture. Just as Hackney might seem an improbable focus point WaughThistleton were not an obvious practice to head architectural cheer-leading for English speaking urban timber. The first years necessarily involved a serious and massive catch up by the practice; but timing - even if chance rather than design was operating - helped. CLT’s UK arrival was timely in other ways. The tranche of new building regulation was kicking in from Part L - the updated energy performance standards - to the Code for Sustainable Homes. Though focused on operational rather than embodied carbon, the ability to contrast timber’s impact with other materials so vividly provided a convincing eco-story.

Whitmore House – Photo Will Pryce
That story was also welcome news for Hackney Council. A Labour councillor, Vincent Stops, visited Murray Grove in 2010 and, having been given the tour, could see the potential. “I was determined to support CLT,” he recalled, during a recent informal phone interview (he’d stopped on his after work bike ride home when I called his mobile), “once it was built … I was hoping something might come out of it.” Stops, chair of the Planning Committee, had worked towards integrating and embedding timber in policy and, though wheels moved slowly, this was to go further than might have been envisaged immediately. Stops makes clear that he and other councillors wanted to try sustainable experiments where they felt there was potential, citing PV and Solar as another strand, initiatives that were tried around the same time as Murray Grove. These days Hackney is a bicycling hot spot in London, also a Stops’ enthusiasm, and Hackney began to became involved in the CLT debate. However, in political terms, larger forces at play together with Government initiatives were what really started Hackney’s timber building culture ball rolling. Again, this can be construed as much down to serendipity and timing, as reasoned planning.

Hackney Council had a mixed reputation, its critics coming in many colours; and through the eighties and nineties became a byword for educational dysfunctionality; one of the right wing media’s favourite loony left borough caricatures. That has changed through the last decade however, and its most fervent critics now come from within the borough; accusing the council of being complicit in a gentrification process remaking this patch of North London in ways which either ignore, or fail to sufficiently consider communities that should be at the heart of decision making. Charges continue in familiar fashion against other councils. For example, pursuing polarising regeneration policies that include ‘developments’ for new wealthier incomers who cannot pretend to be from this still seriously deprived part of the country. From this viewpoint, then, CLT has been riding in on the coattails of gentrification, projects where the material has been used have been very much about housing for wealthier new incomers. For their part, Hackney Council have been partners in a swathe of regeneration projects since 2011, including the Estates Regeneration Programme , which aims to build over 2700 new homes across 18 estate sites, with around 500 completed with another 300 due to be completed this year across five estate schemes on site. The programme is attracting what are viewed professionally, as top-notch London architects, and the Council has gained a nationwide reputation for its housing. The borough has also moved from being the sixth most deprived in Britain to the 49th.

Hackney Builds – An overview of timber buildings prepared by WaughThistleton for
Vincent Stops
Certainly much has changed across Hackney since the Thatcher years, although arguably, it was the 1980’s when the seeds of gentrification were first sown. What began in 1960’s as a trickle of bohemians, artists and politico’s moving in, gradually turned parts of Hackney into a network of urban alternative culture, hardening in time to oppositional sub-cultures and politics. Cheap, indeed free places to live and work, meant more and more young and creative people gravitating to what had been working class neighbourhoods, making a lively, creative culture amidst its rough streets. Gradually Hackney’s original working classes were displaced, and as prices rose, unable to continue to afford to live in parts of the borough, moved out and away. If the borough was poor which it clearly was, it was politically right-on, helping to start turning the borough into a place where more monied professionals wanted to move to. As the eighties became the nineties, a new cross sections could be identified; designers, art school makers and, a close relation, architects, were also increasingly among those moving in. There is an argument that it was work by these architects – many of whom now head influential London practices – that started the borough’s initial building conversations; not to mention their well received architectural projects which, over the last quarter of a century have fed through into current architectural culture. 

Only a few miles south, London’s old docklands were in the midst of wholesale change throughout these same two decades; decimating old communities and, together with and amplified by the 1986 City’s Big Bang deregulation, helping to turn London into Europe’s preeminent financial centre. If this financial world hadn’t existed, Hackney, like other East London inner city boroughs facing other challenges to wrestle with over the next twenty years - might have been rather different. So close, yet worlds apart from the City’s corridors of financial power, within half a dozen years, parts of Hackney would begin to display the tell-tale signs of big money flowing up the arteries and into the borough. At the other end of the scale, the deprivation across the borough was as bad as it had ever been; and the need for some form of renewal as, if not more critical than before.

Mossbourne Community Academy – Photo RSH-P
With the arrival of a Labour Government in 1997, the architectural profession, long at the edge of influence during the philistine Thatcher years, scented a turning point in its role. New Labour’s favourite architect, Richard Rogers was appointed to head an Urban Task Force soon after the election; and delivered its Toward an Urban Renaissance report two years later, in 1999. The conditions for a new wave of public building programmes were in place. Once started, if there were no formal reason for the first of these showcase education buildings to be built out of timber, currents of architectural fashion meant the material was beginning its journey from outsider to accepted insider. As it happened, one key early showcase building, Mossbourne Community Academy was to be designed by Rogers studio, and the architects decided it make it a high profile timber project. It also happened to be in Hackney.

For the Blair administration with its ‘education, education, education’ mantra, Hackney was exactly the type of borough that needed new school infrastructure, not only to repair the dilapidated school building stock, but to help neutralise Hackney’s educational ‘loony left’ reputation. Mossbourne Community Academy - which replaced Hackney Downs school – looking rather like a reward for Roger’s left-leaning studio, was to design one of the first new Blair indentured showcase Academies. It was led by Michael Wilshaw, a head-teacher with political ambitions matched to an educational establishment with a national profile. RSH-P - as the Rogers practice had been renamed, rolled out a timber showcase when Mossbourne opened in 2004; an early signal regarding the arrival of timber as building material at the turn of the century. Timber bods shook their heads, though. Mossbourne Academy looked rather too much like a steel building, even though one which used timber. Not that this bothered many. Education was the headline, and neither the broadsheets nor the educational press noted that the brand new building was the borough’s first timber project. However, in the aftermath of Mossbourne many further secondary schools won funding for new buildings, or turned into academies, which again meant new school buildings. Some of these were also timber experiments, even if none of the early 2000’s schools used CLT. Within a few years there were a significant number of Hackney schools using timber in one way or another.

and up close glulams –
Mossbourne – in the classroom Photos RSH-P
By then, North London’s role in the wider national conversation had changed. Labour’s attempt at renewing education and continuing the Conservative introduction of Academies was still controversial, but a council like Hackney was no longer quite the bogeyman of a few years earlier. Mossbourne was a headliner about improved school results, and its woody backdrop often featured in photos accompanying education articles. With the ambitious schools estate renewal programme Building Schools for the Future beginning to get off the ground, timber was becoming an increasingly specified material. Across North London, as in other parts of the country, school projects were where the architectural work was. In Hackney, a wave of schools and Academies came on line, with a substantial number deploying timber in their materials make-up. These included Studio E’s KPMG Academy and assembly hall in Homerton, Ickburgh School, by Avanti Architects, Berger Primary School, and another primary school Lauriston school by MacreanorLavington, were all completed in the following years. If these educational buildings didn’t necessarily not attracting specific attention because of their timber component, they provided a set of examples which helped cultivate the perception of Hackney already containing a ground-swelling of timber projects.

Avanti Architects Ickburg School
Photos Avanti
Homerton, timber hidden in the bricks –

As the New Labour period matured, what became clear at a demographic level, was the continuing influx of the new professional and so called creative classes into Hackney over the millennium years. Various tribes from the art world had been finding cheap working space, studios and other empty places across the inner city end of the borough since the 80’s. Brit Art’s de facto HQ, White Cube, moved into Hoxton Square close to Old Street, in spring 2000. New incomers included yet more designers and architects, though also website designers and new media types. WaughThistleton founded in 1997, were part of this wave. Anyone interested in a literary journey through this changing landscape, should read Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Red Rose Empire. Sinclair captures beautifully if mordantly the familiar tale of part of a city in the midst of change. Some of Sinclair’s most visceral spleen is reserved for the developments appearing all over his beloved borough, refashioning Hackney into a ‘brand’, encouraged by the council. Aiding and abetting Hackney Council and implicated in the rebranding, were the architects, designers, and planning consultants, all eviscerated in the poet’s book. Sinclair’s vantage point reflects the feelings of particularly the older generation one-time radical middle class, lamenting the subterranean shifts below the tarmac and paving stones; the drum beat of gentrification on the march. But for every artist, writer or politico who decried the building momentum towards brand ‘Hackney’, there were others who saw economic regeneration, jobs for local people, and the sort of revitalisation of what was, after all, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. That is until 2008’s financial crash.

Whitmore Road under construction - Photo WaughThistleton
While Murray Grove had put WaughThistleton on the map, completing a building over the winter of 2008/2009 was problematic. With the sound of the economy crashing through the floor all around that winter, construction projects were grinding to a halt and the studio struggled to find a second project for their new-found conversion to timber. The lack of a project at this stage helped in other ways, however. Murray Grove had precipitated the need to address the skills or the lack of them, when it came to working in wood. A smaller timber project, Whitmore House - at six floors, in part a personal project, as it included a new home for Waugh - provided the learning context. The approach was different, without the honeycomb design of Murray Grove in Whitmore Road. Working on the project helped the office start the process of upgrading their level of wood design, knowledge and skills. It also brought the critical question of the moment to a head: whether they were going to continue as they’d started out, a conventional steel and concrete practice, or if this diversion of the path they’d found themselves on: a quasi-timber focused studio – was actually what they wanted to focus on. Having rehearsed the question more than once with Waugh, it sounds as if they knew the answer quite early on, even if they remained uncertain about taking the final leap into relatively unknown architectural terrain. It may have been his quick visit to Hermann Kaufmann’s Dornbirn Life Cycle Tower in April 2012, which finally convinced Waugh, and, it seems, by extension, Thistleton, to take the leap of faith; promote themselves and become a timber focused practice. Certainly, when I spoke with him about the visit a few months later, Waugh was stating that his visit and the conversation with Kaufmann, had convinced him to stop prevaricating and grasp the nettle to become a fully fledged timber practice.

Whitmore Road view – Photo WaughThistleton
Photo Oliver Lowenstein
At one end of the Labour Government’s Hackney timber building tenure, lay Rogers and Mossbourne Academy. At the other, is a related although different building project, this time social housing. In between are Murray Grove and Whitmore House, co-incidental but not explicitly connected. The second practice to get a CLT housing block off the ground also represented a return – with Hackney at its forefront to an architectural focus on social housing in Britain.

Karakusevic-Carson Architects (KCA), were freshly out of the stocks, having formed in 2004. Though not their first project, Bridport House - the second CLT housing block and considerably larger compared to Murray Grove, was completed in 2011. Bridport House was different in other ways too. All forty one of the homes were social housing. This was new in itself, the building having been the first housing Hackney Council had commissioned, having successfully joined a new framework, the Housing Investment Partnership. This allowed both surplus money from the council’s rental income to be channelled into new housing, and for the council to bid for Social Housing Grant funds. Introduced just prior to the end of Labour’s 13 year spell in Government, Bridport House was part of a first round of a new housing funding formula, focused on the larger regeneration effort around the Colville Estate, and helpfully in the wider context of house prices, facing Shoreditch Park between Haggerston and Hoxton. Speaking to the Guardian in January 2012, Karen Alcock , the then deputy mayor, cited the use of CLT in Bridport House, focusing on its lighter frame and reduced weight; comments that helped tip the balance towards approving planning for the project.

Bridport House –
Photos Karakusevic-Carson Architects
Highlighting the innovation, 41 affordable housing units standing on a structural timber system, it went on to win all sorts of architectural awards. In the housing world, Bridport House was considered a significant achievement. Variants on the new legal framework have meant Hackney Council have continued along this path, pioneering the new approach of developer and building partner. KCA’s first social housing project acted as a pilot for the much larger Estates Regeneration Programme which began the year Bridport House was handed over to Hackney Council and has since spread across 18 estates, with which the architects have been closely involved.

Continuing their work in Hackney, KCA have completed a number of further projects, as well as master-planning, although only one of these, Great Eastern, returned to employing structural timber. The studio has been lauded as being at the forefront of the return of social housing in Britain; likewise, Hackney Council are considered one of the most forward-looking councils in the field. As housing has risen up the broader national agenda, Hackney’s design standards have attracted well known and regarded architects to work on public sector housing projects, making the borough a respected player across the country. As Ken Rorrison, Design Manager at the Borough – and, until 2016 a director at the respected HHBR Architects (these days HenleyHaleBrown Architects) said in a recent phone conversation, the design briefs ensure they are able to, “lock in design quality into projects down to a high degree.” With the bi-annual Hackney Design Awards instituted since 2004, Rorrison emphasises the quality of architects drawn to working in the borough. The most recent include ex-David Chipperfield up and coming Al-Jaward-Pike, who are designing new housing in Mandeville Street. The current big showcase is Kings Crescent Estate, a two phase Estates Regeneration Programme project with 490 homes being built; 79 social housing and 115 shared occupancy, plus improvement on 275 further homes including ‘winter garden’ balconies. With a design team which includes KCA, Rorison’s old studio, HHB, and MUF, Kings Crescent – which again overlooks a park, this time Clissold Park – the recently completed phase 1 is receiving warm write ups across the architectural media and will almost certainly receive all sorts of awards. Asked, Rorrison, however, does confirm that there are no timber projects currently planned, further underlining the sense conveyed that despite their architectural reputations many of these London-centric architects are consumed by more conventional concerns, rather than interest in the next chapter in London’s urban timber story.

Bridport House, just visible to left of central tower block, and in front, Shoreditch Park
Social housing is clearly a different focus for CLT and engineered timber expertise in a highly populated inner city area. These days, KCA are seen as leading social housing exponents in Britain – there is currently an exhibition in New York, which highlights theirs and other architects’ work. In fact, compared to WaughThistieton they never made particular media capital out of Bridport House’s CLT dimension. At the time KCA’s offices were in Farringdon, outside Hackney’s borough limits: they have moved south of the river to Bermondsey since – and although Bridport House is central to Hackney’s timber narrative, it is WaughThistleton alone who have positioned themselves as an urban timber studio, almost as if the town wasn’t big enough for two timber housing practices. (It hasn’t stopped Paul Karakusevic being described in the same breath as Waugh, as ‘Hackney starchitects’; though it has to be said, such remarks were levelled with a fair dollop of mirth.)

Latest Hackney housing - Al-Jaward Pike's Mandeville St
KCA’s more recent Great Eastern Street housing, the most
recent hackney Council project using engineered timber
Photo KCA
Parallel to the emergence of the social housing agenda, smaller timber projects were popping up across the borough. Often funded by an individual client, like David Adjaye’s Ed Shed, or the Gingerbread House by Laura Dewe Miles, these projects demonstrated by how much more prosperous residents were settling in Hackney, though also an increasing cultural acceptance of wood as a contemporary modern material.

But scale is where carbon footprints get drawn down, and where timber can be most sustainabiy effective. How much sustainability and drawing down carbon footprints, or the extent to which selling more timber in Britain pure and simple was David Hopkin's motivation when he introduced himself to Hackney Council in 2012, remains opaque. But with WaughThistleton committed to becoming a wood focused studio, and Bridport House a ground-breaking CLT social housing success, beating a path to the borough’s door was a logical early move for a timber lobbyist like Hopkins. As the then newly appointed head of the re-launched Wood for Good timber promotional organisation, Hopkins led an energetic lobbying campaign to try and persuade the borough to take the next step in turning grey buildings brown. While only partially successful, it has had some positive knock-on effects for the wood lobby, particularly in the wood construction area. Hackney Council are understandably cautious about being too closely identified with timber in construction, but individuals within the council such as Councillor’s Stops and Alcock, as well as others elsewhere, have ensured that, among significant sectors of the sustainability and building world, the borough is known for its place at the leading edge of urban timber.

The May 2012 conference – Photo via A-J
In the aftermath of Wood for Good’s re-launch campaign, I talked to Hopkins about his thinking on this early chapter for an Austrian timber magazine. Hopkins explained that he had begun toying with a Wood First Rule – (already implemented in British Columbia); one of eight ‘asks’ necessary in a timber manifesto, and the central plank in Wood For Good’s new campaign. Hopkins knew that the sustainability and low carbon argument for wood use had begun to interest some local authorities; and it was evident that if this were to be legally underpinned at a planning level – with timber as a first low carbon choice for public buildings ‘where applicable or feasible’, this would help Local Authority’s (LA) policy decisions significantly. There were similarities to the well known British 'Merton Rule', legislation requiring “new commercial buildings over 1,000 square meters to generate at least 10% of their energy needs using on site renewable energy equipment”; and he began to develop this ‘renewables’ precedent into the timber context. He wanted the requirement to be established in case law, with judicial review and powers integrated in; and through the spring of 2012, began meeting with planning authority departments, primarily in London, but also in Bristol, Brighton and Manchester. It was in Hackney though, where his ideas were met with the greatest interest.
Certainly, individuals within Hackney council were keen that Hackney should become the pre-eminent ‘Wood First’ council authority in the country; the promotional potential of an equivalent Hackney Rule to Merton’s not escaping their attention. In May 2012, Hopkins organised a conference highlighting Wood First in the borough, and Hackney released a press release announcing its intention to be first council in England ‘to promote timber construction in planning policy’. But what he, the council and his timber trade backers hadn’t anticipated – if the conference and public consultation went well – was the huge backlash from those whose interest was in other materials and products in the building industry; potentially their markets under threat if a Wood First policy did become law. Concrete, brick, and steel groups all lined up against Hackney Council, threatening to bring anti-competitive court action. The story spread to the architectural press, with the merits or otherwise of different materials argued out through various articles and heated online rejoinders. Hackney, still one of the poorest boroughs in the country, lacked the financial resources to fight a legal battle, and the timber industry’s explicit support evaporated. Wood First quickly succumbed, disappearing as a prospective policy proposal.

KCA's Great Eastern's Road under construction and
complete – Photo KCA
Mossbourne – going up and up
Photos RSH-P

Instead, Hopkins noted at the time, in the years since Wood First failed to get off the ground, there has been “a commitment to the sustainability and low carbon communities. The department’s approach has been clear; while the Council cannot be seen to favour particular industries, whether concrete or timber … they like and encourage the use of sustainable renewable materials” where appropriate. Waugh agreed; “a prescriptive approach is not the right way when the wider story is about effective carbon reduction.”

However, the Wood First project helped Hopkins, raising the profile of wood among developers, local authorities, and others he was targeting. It also helped Hackney and its timber denizens.  “Hackney, rather than Murray Grove, shaped the market. It raised a lot of awareness among large contractors showing what could be done, helped talking to them, and opened their eyes to the practical aspects of CLT,” observed Hopkins. Even if none of the other London boroughs have been identified with CLT in the same way as Hackney, its brief existence raised the urban timbers profile and advanced the idea along the path towards mainstream acceptance.

By now another significant example was in the works. By then WaughThistleton’s big follow up to Murray Grove had begun to take shape. Dalston Lane - as it was first called - was the result, Waugh maintained a few years later, of the process of research and study during that interim of four or five years. It was also the first major project since the apparently transformational meeting between Waugh and Vorarlberg’s Hermann Kaufmann, which had precipitated the repositioning the studio as a far more timber-centric practice.

View from inside Wenlock Cube under construction –
Photos – Hawkins\Brown

This time around, WaughThistleton’s website emphasized how Dalston Lane was to be the largest CLT project in the world. The building was planned to use 33, 500 cubic metres of CLT, though once again you wouldn’t know it; the entire development would be covered in brick. Its scale meant it could accommodate mixed use; housing, office and retail set up, comprising 121 housing units and 3500 sq metres of office space. But though ready to run in the office, Dalston Lane continued to sit waiting until 2014, when site work began. In the meantime, one of the last decade’s most successful and established London practices, Hawkins\Brown, had made its move into CLT, in company with a wave of larger studios. From ShephardRobson to FCB Studios who, picking up on its increasing popularity in the late naughties, began to explore CLT on a variety of CLT projects to gain familiarity, experience and expertise in the material. Hawkins\Brown was one of them. Their first CLT project was a private school building in Kent. Soon, it was followed by the latest and tallest housing block to go up in Hackney yet. Ten storeys high!

Concrete in the Cube

The Wenlock Road block demonstrated that CLT's appeal was spreading into the mainstream. Their website PR rivalled WaughThistleton’s Dalston Lane in big is beautiful hyperbole. "The tallest CLT project in Europe", Wenlock Canal Cube followed what was becoming the conventional timber-concrete hybrid route, even if, according to the architects, four fifths of the building was CLT. With large amounts of concrete around the tower’s core, Hawkins-Brown developed a cruciform design for Wenlock Cube's 50 flats plus ground floor workspace. Each floor, sitting at alternate angles and comprised of inset CLT panel walls fixed within steel frame bracing, the hybrid steel-CLT supporting each floor’s load. Brick was used for novel façade ends, opening up its courtyard centre.           

The building was handed over in the summer of 2015. Praised in the architectural media for its technical innovation and the way the architects had squeezed extra space and light into the flats, what was absent from discussion was also instructive. None of the company's websites involved, provided specific information about the amount of CLT used, the amount of carbon stored in the buildings, nor for that matter, any kind of life cycle analysis of the building. Like KaraskusevicCarson, but in contrast to WaughThistleton, Hawkins\Brown didn’t (and don’t) appear interested in pushing the more thorough-going (if hardly radical) green message that comes with an increasingly thorough-going commitment to urban timber. The dividing line between the small number of practices promoting their timber push for out-and-out environmental reasons – dRMM, WaughThistleton – and the much more cautious mainstream studios where such timbercentric profile’s appear to be perceived as too risk laden; indeed those carrying out the forward planning, do not see change to their concrete-based building as being at the core of their business model.

Another park

WaughThistleton long running Dalston Lane project, which was finally completed in 2017, and promptly given a new title, Dalston Works, also proved instructive though for different reasons. By 2017, London’s housing crisis had reached fever pitch. Whereas nine years earlier Murray Grove had gone up as the economy tumbled out of the sky, Dalston Works was built during the seemingly never-ending age of austerity and completed just as the Grenfell Tower fire trauma was unfolding. In the previous intervening years, housing had climbed the political agenda, not least in exposing what is currently a nakedly visible divide across many parts of London. In 2009 however, the likes of ‘Occupy’ or Barack Obama were either brand new or did not yet exist; and it was a decade later before the appearance of the Russian Oligarchs, Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of populism. As housing waiting lists grew longer, across parts of north and east London, it began to be recognised that the monied – whether from Britain or abroad - were buying up property for investment rather that to live in. The majority of the CLT housing projects came within the expensive category, including both Wenlock Cube – with no affordable units and starting prices at £750 000 for a two bed room flat, and Dalston Works where 121 rented apartments, of which a total of 15 are affordable plus five shared units, form the residential element of the development. At the end of the phone call with Councillor Stops, he noted how he hoped that the Woodbury Down development, one of the council, and indeed London’s, largest, though one which graphically illustrates the tightrope act between social and private housing, would include a timber showcase.

Before and after: Dalston Works - Photos WaughThistleton

Praised by the architectural media, Dalston Works is decked out in Petersen brickwork, exuding restraint while yet again keeping its timberwork to itself, part of the normalisation of CLT if you believe the developers Regal-London – the same outfit behind Wenlock Canal. At ten storeys, the series of three main blocks is large, but set back from the Dalston Lane, comes across as relatively restrained; particularly when compared with the neighbouring cluster of the big Dalston Square development of eight residential blocks concentrated around and on top of Dalston Junction station; or the hipsterville Overground line, snaking up through the East London’s cityscape from Whitechapel past Hoxton, Haggerston and the back of Dalston Works.

Vincent Stops (right) cuts the ribbon at Dalston Works with
Andrew Waugh (second left) and Regal executives.
Gentrification marches on

The developments around Dalston station, illustrate how and why CLT has found a friendly foothold in Hackney: the mix of social and developer led housing, the regeneration set piece, the attempt to meet affordable housing targets – all are factors which, along with sociological and demographic changes, have played their part. And if these slow fuse cultural shifts bringing new social groups to the borough had not occurred across this neck of north London, allied to a locally inflected version of the universal gentrification process, it is likely that the growth of Hackney as an architectural phenomenon might be absent. Without the socio-cultural dynamic, would Hackney have been one of the first sites for New Labour’s education showcase statement, Mossbourne Academy? Likewise, missing local political support in the shape of councillors and the council, how far would this quiet revolution have got? It seems that at the heart of this unlikely story – and perhaps without even fully appreciating the consequences, WaughThistleton’s decision to build a city housing block out of CLT has proved far reaching.

By the time CLT was in train for Dalston Works, Waugh himself was delivering a considerably more nuanced timber pitch. Gone was the early excitement over timber towers. Instead, both a wider palette of timber materials, and an increasing degree of restraint was emphasized. “Twenty storeys, that’s enough,” he remarked in one conversation. Though the practice have gained immeasurable exposure as a result of having fallen almost accidentally into construction of the first timber tower, they have, as some have observed, only completed a small number – four CLT housing or mixed use projects so far. This figure will jump to more than double in the next eighteen months, when various on-site projects – Pitfield Street, Orsman Road, Cambridge Heath and others in the borough, are completed. Different arguments about the politics of materials can be rehearsed and whether CLT can be politically neutral or not, may seem odd to some; but different arguments proliferate, as WaughThistleton’s portfolio combine private, public and third sector clients. The influence of Dalston Works as a part of the gentrification of the borough is undeniable; and working increasingly in Europe the studio is growing, with projects in Paris and Stockholm. The improbable architects of Hackney’s unlikely CLT story continue on, forging their future.

Smaller scale Hackney timber housing statement architecture, Amin Taha's
Barretts Grove – Photo Amin Taha Architects
Unlikely? Yes. But it is striking what has been made of Hackney’s three dozen or so timber buildings - Mossbourne Academy, other schools and, the half dozen CLT more recent housing projects, along with smaller individual timber residential projects. They could be viewed as smart marketing on the part of the wood industry, making the most of what is actually a pretty thin number of projects; or interpret the phenomenon as rather too overplayed, symbolic at most of half a dozen CLT projects. A drop in the ocean, if one considers the thousands of buildings across the borough.

Hackney’s timber buildings - of one kind and another - can be seen just as a few examples providing practical, technical and theoretical information about mid-scale timber housing; or, as a piece of marketing, effective or otherwise, overplaying its hand. But it is also possible to frame the story around a third alternative. That its symbolic value is that Hackney’s timber experiment provides a kind of test department for the imagination. Its physical existence helps imagine what a future with really significant proportions of timber built fabric might be. What do we imagine a hundred thousand homes grown from forests could look like? How might that be realised? What if this is merely the beginning of a radically different way of thinking about housing? What effect, atmospherically, psychologically, socio-culturally could it have? What would the practical implications be? A plurality of questions, all askable, and all, surely, answerable.

In the early 2000’s, Robert Webb, an engineer who invented the Quiet Revolution small vertical axis wind turbines, calculated that a six mile wide wooded area immediately shadowing the M25’s outer side could provide 20% of London’s energy needs. It is hardly rocket science to extend such imagining towards the capital’s building needs. All over the Western world, similar data exists, illustrating how building cultures could source the majority of the materials it needs from forests and their annual wood growth. Although currently, it may well feel inconceivable that such a transition to timber and Bio based materials can be thought of as a possibility, this sort of level of re-ordering isn’t so extraordinary when viewed through a lens applied to the massive changes the planet is already undergoing. If, as seems likely, climate change issues continues to intensify, then more radical steps will be required, and this includes increased focus in construction on embodied, rather than operational energy. Just as the coal industry is seen as increasingly difficult to justify in the face of its major negative carbon impacts, so the production of concrete and steel at today’s levels, may well become increasingly untenable. At the same time, the building sector has been the most ineffective in drawing down its carbon footprint, as the UK’s Parliamentary Committee for Climate Change has repeatedly reported for several years now. Meaningful change continues to be postponed into the future. However, if further pressure is applied to the sector to genuinely attain zero carbon building environments, and, as embodied energy is increasingly recognised as a critical focus of reduction, timber and allied timber building technologies are becoming seen as the best option.

Turn your head again towards London’s southern skyline, and the outline of Roger’s steel and glass tower, the Leadenhall Building (or Cheesegrater) marks the sky. 60% of the building’s embodied energy is reported to be from its steel and cement, together 55,300 carbon tonnes. Inexact, unscientific and off the back of an envelope though this is, reflect for a moment on how much - in a borough like Hackney – does that 55, 000 tonnes of carbon represent converted into the footprint of current housing construction? Though there are only six CLT housing blocks in Hackney, and even if the council doesn’t appear to have examined its built fabric carbon footprint in detail, the direction of travel is easy to see. It is this, as much as the buildings on the ground, that encapsulates the most exciting and provocative aspect of this North London’s borough’s unlikely emergence as the world’s leading urban timber district.

*See WaughThistleton’s Murray Grove carbon report here

Photo WaughThistleton