The owners of this three-floor industrial building added another storey to make the most of the fantastic views
Now why would Sarah and Robin Greenwood want to build up? With three floors of open-plan space in an old industrial building in London’s Bermondsey, it seems perverse. ’We were really into the idea of building,’ says Robin, with that kind of knowing laugh you only have once you’ve tried something. ‘I’m not sure I could do it again.’
It’s not surprising, really. With a school conversion and the transformation of two South London houses under their belt, Sarah and Robin were seasoned renovators. But, having done everything else, they fancied a bash at building something new, something contemporary: ‘We were just getting into architecture,’ says Robin. ‘We really didn’t know much about it.’ Having searched for years for something a ‘bit different’, 10 years ago they stumbled upon this old warehouse, just before prices in the area went through the roof. ‘We couldn’t afford anything this close to the river now,’ says Robin.
The plan was for Robin, then a metalworker, to use the ground floor as a studio, to keep the tenants who were already renting the first floor, and to make the top floor their home. It sounded like the perfect solution. However, they anticipated that they would soon start yearning after the 270° view from the top of the building which, says Sarah, spans ‘from Crystal Palace to Big Ben’.
When they applied to change the building’s use from purely commercial to part-residential, they had the foresight to add a floor. ‘We got permission for it,’ laughs Robin. ‘It was a design we did ourselves for a kind of pavilion/green house on the roof. It was a horrible, ridiculous design!’
By the time they considered actually building it, they realised that, as Robin puts it, their design was ‘rubbish’. ‘It was an embarrassment,’ he laughs. ‘We really did come at it very naively.’ And so they turned to an architect for help.
Having never used an architect before, it was, they admit, daunting , but then a friend recommended they visit architect Bernhard Blauel’s house when it opened to the public as part of the annual Open House weekend. ‘You must see it,’ enthuses Robin. ‘He was the first interesting architect that we met. He seemed enlightened to us.’
Blauel’s office worked with Robin and Sarah on the design. They went through all sorts of ideas – ‘from grungy to postmodern,’ says Robin. Robin and Sarah were both influenced by the work of artist Donald Judd and an Australian architect, Glenn Murcutt, who Blauel introduced to them. Added to this was their wish for a simple, shed-like building. ‘We didn’t want the building to look like a posh penthouse put in an industrial yard,’ says Robin. ‘Stood on the roof, you could see lots of flat roofs with plant rooms, and the shed idea fitted with that,’ says Sarah.
In the end it was an architect in Blauel’s office that came up with the goods – he had the idea of something like a railway carriage. The deal was that Robin would build the thing, and so the design was always going to be for a big metalwork job. ‘We wanted to do it fairly cheaply – it’s what we’ve always done. DIY on a big scale,’ smiles Robin. But they were both heavily involved – Sarah became a dab hand at insulating and wiring. ‘It’s about learning new things, too,’ says Robin. ‘It was a brand new experience for us. We wanted to have a go.’
The project dominated their lives for a two to three years. ‘For a year of that, it became my work,’ says Robin, ‘right from doing the CAD drawings to manufacturing the louvered panels.’
He did nearly everything himself, constructing ‘a sort of kit’ that came together like a giant Meccano set. The roof and windows came from Germany (‘they were the only people that could do what we wanted,’ says Robin) and were craned into place.
The space works well with the rest of the building. Sarah and Robin have managed to achieve a building that complements the industrial feel of the original. They’ve created a forward-looking addition that draws on the area's industrial heritage, yet is a statement in its own right. It's also deliberately flexible.' says Robin. Acivities, therefore, constantly hop between all four floors of the building, meaning that so far the rooftop extension has been a kitchen, a bedroom and, at separate times, a studio for them both.
But it seems that everyone is building up now - new buildings and extensions are going up around them as we speak and their 270 degree view has long gone. 'But it's still a bit of a refuge up here.' says Sarah, 'just being able to walk out into the garden.' In London, view or no view, that's priceless.
Architect: Bernhard Blauel www.blauel.com
Words: Claire Barrett Images: Elizabeth Zeschin